A shiny, fresh-from-the-factory SUV was parked in his driveway. I stood staring, as countless dark musings flowed through my head. How can a fellow missionary “living by faith” afford that? The A/C of our family’s minivan was broken with the engine making threatening noises. Someone had recently sideswiped it, leaving an ugly dent in the fender, and it needed new tires. And on top of it all, we were barely paying our monthly bills! Before I could stop it, a seductively gratifying image pushed into my head: wouldn’t it be funny if someone backed into his new car? Hee, hee, hee.
I feel shame admitting these thoughts. Even worse, the above scenario is not an isolated event in my life. I am guilty of the sin of envy.
What is it exactly?
I understand envy to be the spiteful comparison of myself and my situation with those around me. This results in my losing “self-esteem” and feeling unhappy when someone else gets a good break. And it can morph into wishing bad things onto others simply because I would feel better about myself to see them “cut-down to size.” In Matthew 27:18 we are told that it was envy that motivated the Pharisees and Sadducees to arrest Jesus and push for His crucifixion. Jesus had the people’s attention in a way they knew they never could. So they decided to level the playing field by killing Him.
Rare? I’m not so sure.
Traditionally, envy has been included as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.* It’s viewed as a foul “greenhouse” that produces and nurtures other sins and unattractive attributes like dark moods, self-pity, hatred, prejudice, slander, lying, theft, murder, etc. Effectively dealing with envy, along with the other six Sins, can stop many destructive behaviors and patterns before they get a chance to take root. But envy is a subtle and slippery one that can show up in unexpected places, even in good people.
Where does it come from?
It’s different than greed (which we’ll talk about in another post). The “deadliness” of my envious thoughts does not necessarily come from desiring what others possess, although that’s what starts the process. Rather, envy ultimately wishes to see things evened out so I don’t feel so bad about myself. I am unable to truly rejoice when friends succeed at things for which I’ve been unsuccessfully striving. Their good fortune highlights my failure. As I brood on their successes and favor, the feelings grow within that I cannot be friends with them if they are going to be “above” me. And I can even come to believe that our relationship would feel better if something brought them down. Of course I resist ever admitting this to myself or others. Thus the sin of envy is one that corrodes and destroys human relationships. It is therefore, like every other sin, an enemy of love.
Besides watching a neighbor’s material possessions grow, it can show up when comparing our situation to another’s job, finances, education, spouse or relational status, intelligence, social standing, popularity, family relationships, opportunities, spirituality, honor, etc. Envy ultimately highlights how I view myself, focusing my attention on what I don’t have. But the unpleasant feelings of lack get projected onto others. Their blessing makes me feel bad. I end up speaking negatively about people, interpreting their words and deeds as bad or threatening. I want their defects to be exposed so I can feel more secure about myself. Not that my self-esteem goes up when this happens—sin consistently lies to me to justify its presence in my life.
What to do?
Like all sin, followers of Jesus are called to repent of envy along with the anti-relationship fruit that grows out of it. We must recognize it in ourselves and courageously call it what it is. Confess it as something that breaks fellowship between us and God as well as us and others. But once we humbly ask for forgiveness and declare our desire to do things God’s way, is there anything that can be done to resist the envious thoughts that inevitably try to push in?
Honest awareness is the first line of defense. In what area of your life do you experience the most insecurity? This is the weak spot where envy is likely to strike. Do you feel poor, ignorant and uneducated around certain people? Unless you humbly acknowledge this before God, ill feelings can spring up in your relationships. Do you feel unappreciated, undervalued or lacking desired respect? Envy will take advantage and corrupt your thoughts and isolate you while pushing you to blame others for your dark feelings and reactions.
In addition to honest self-evaluation, I have found the discipline of thankfulness to be a powerful tool in blunting the thrust of envy (see blog post on Thankfulness). When you choose to give thanks, you must adjust your focus from what you don’t possess to what you do have. As you meditate on all that God has given you, room is made in your heart to bless those around you who have what you want, things or qualities different than yours. And remember, they likely have to deal with envy as they observe what you possess.
It’s easier to resist envy’s allure when your heart and mind are saturated with awareness of all the good things with which you have been blessed. You really do possess more goodness from Him than you realize. You need never be victimized by this sin in which you devalue yourself according to what you don’t have, thinking dark, hurtful thoughts toward your neighbor who does have.
Identify where envy lurks in your heart. Choose to hate it. Declare war on it with thankfulness. Resist it to the end for the sake of your relationships, for the sake of your love, for the sake of your journey with Jesus.
*Also known as “cardinal sins” or “capital vices,” they include pride, greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony and lust. They are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one’s natural passions. For example, the sin of envy as a desire to have my needs met (which is natural) but now turned to self-pity and hoping that others fail to enjoy what I personally cannot possess.