Author's Note: There is often confusion between envy and jealousy. Envy is desiring something that someone has. Your neighbor might get a new car/job/television, and you might desire the same. You might feel a sense of resentment toward the person for getting something you want.
Jealousy is more about holding on to what you have and becoming fearful of losing this to somebody else. For example, you are the blue-eyed boy in your organization, but then someone comes along who threatens to usurp you. Or you like this girl, but another guy is vying for her affections, who appears more charming than you are. You resent them for what they have or are.
An easy way to remember the difference is that envy is resentment because of something a person has, while jealousy is resentment toward a person.
Because they both involve a desire for what another person has or is, and both result in resentment, although, of varying degrees, we will use the terms interchangeably in this study.
Do you sometimes think as you drive: "Why does my neighbor get to drive that lovely Mercedes, while I am saddled with this tin can." Or, when you see a beautiful woman in the mall: "Why did God make her so pretty and me so plain? I wish it would be other way around." Or, if you're in the spiritual 'business': "Why has God blessed him with such a successful ministry, and me, despite my years of service, with just a handful of people?"
That's envy. And it's deadly. Like Basilea Schlink said, envy is "a poisonous root in our soul that can kill others, and ourselves." Or, if you prefer Scriptural quotations, here's one from the Book of Proverbs: A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones (Proverbs 4:30).
We don't have to look too far to see the truth of these statements. One of the first stories in the Bible is a story of envy—and its consequences. As there are many insights we can obtain from it, I reproduce the passage here, slightly abridged.
Cain and Abel
Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it."
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (Genesis 4:1-8).
We can speculate about why God accepted Abel's offering and not Cain's, although we get a clue when God tells him, "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" However, we mustn't miss the main point of the story, which is Cain's deep-seated hatred of his younger brother—a hatred fermenting from envy—and the horrific consequences thereof.
God warned Cain—as he does all of us—of these consequences: "If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."
Sin is like a drooling beast, waiting with fangs bared to see what we will do with the turbulent emotions raging within us. Tame them, and we'll be spared. Give in, and we're dinner.
Cain didn't heed the warning, and sin devoured him. It corroded his insides with poisonous hatred until he was finally consumed by it. The result? While one man's life was literally snuffed out, the spiritual life of the other ended. Cain became an outcast, consigned forever to be "a restless wanderer on the earth" (Genesis 4:12).
When Sin Devours
I don't usually speak about the devil because I don't like to give him any more importance than he deserves—and he deserves very little. Yet, we need a certain awareness of him, especially given this subject of envy. When God warned us about sin crouching at our door, ready to devour us if it wasn't tamed, he wasn't speaking metaphorically. This can happen in our lives. Peter put it this way: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).
We find a good illustration in the life of King Saul.
Saul was anointed the first king of Israel. With a bit of help from God, Saul defeated the Philistines in his very first battle. He then quickly defeated five armies (Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Amalekites). A great warrior, he was delighted in his success and the adulation from the masses.
Then David came into the picture and spoiled it all for him. After David killed Goliath, Saul took the young lad under his wing. Things went well for a while until David started going out to battle. One day, when David returned, Saul heard the people chanting: "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands" (1 Samuel 18:7).
It was more than the king could handle. Scripture tells us that an evil spirit rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house. As David played the lyre, Saul threw the spear at him, but David eluded him twice (1 Samuel 18:10). Earlier (see 1 Samuel 16:14), Scripture says that the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit began tormenting him. Evil spirits can—and do—take over at times, and envy is often the doorway they enter through.
There are several other stories of envious people in the Bible. A famous one involves Joseph of the technicolored coat fame. Joseph's brothers were envious of their father's love for him and tried to kill him. If not checked, envy invariably results in attempts to kill, if not the body, then the spirit, and although the envious person might succeed, he is also destroyed in the process.
A classic tale is told by the preacher Dwight L. Moody. An eagle was envious of another that could fly better than he could. One day, the bird saw a sportsman with a bow and arrow and said to him, "I wish you would bring down that eagle up there." The man said he would if he had some feathers for his arrow. So the envious eagle pulled one out of his wing. The arrow was shot, but it didn't quite reach the rival bird because he was flying too high. The first eagle pulled out another feather, then another – until he lost so many that he couldn't fly. The archer took advantage of the situation, turned around, and killed the helpless bird.
History gives us a real-life example. Theogenes was a celebrated victor in the Greek public games. A statue was erected in his honor, but it excited the envious hatred of one of his rivals who went every night and strove to throw the statue over by repeated blows. Ultimately he succeeded, but alas, the statue fell upon him, and he was crushed to death beneath it. Such generally is the end of the man who allows himself to be carried away by the spirit of envy.
The moral of Moody's story, and every other story about envy, is this: If you are envious of others, the one you will hurt the most by your actions will be yourself.
How do we protect ourselves from this deadly sin? How do we tame the beast crouching at our door? It would help to see him coming. Here are some signs.
Do you want to be first? Or the greatest?
We saw earlier (see The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride) how enviously the apostles reacted when they discovered that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had asked Jesus for places on either side of him in heaven. "Grant us to sit," they said, "one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."
Jesus had to call all of them together and set them straight. "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).
That's good advice for us all, especially Christian leaders, as a way to tame the beast crouching at the door. We need to have the attitude of real servants. A true servant is just happy to serve and please his master. If we can feel this way towards everybody in our lives, we can keep envy a long distance away.
There is a revealing little anecdote that John relates towards the end of his gospel (see John 21:20-23). I address it, especially to those who suffer from spiritual envy, perhaps the worst kind of envy we can feel towards each other, but unfortunately all too common.
Jesus had just finished telling Peter that he was leaving his flock in his care when the erstwhile fisherman turned around to see John following them. Not too content with the great plans that Jesus had for him, Peter wanted to know what plans Jesus had for John. "Lord, what about him?" Peter asked Jesus. Jesus answered, "What is that to you?"
Let us answer that question too. What is it to us what plans God has for others? Why should we concern ourselves with them? Let us not be bothered by God's plans for others, the gifts he bestows upon them, and the work he selects them to do. God has not shortchanged any of us. He has blessed every one of us in great abundance. Our main problem is that our eyes are often focused on the blessings others receive, not on the blessings we ourselves obtain. If we spent a few minutes each day counting our blessings, we would discover that we have far too much to be grateful for to be envious of what others may have. And even if he does bless somebody a little more, so what? Let us be happy for them rather than bitter.
Do you want to be rewarded more than others?
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (see Matthew 20:1‑6) offers some telling insights. The owner of a vineyard hired workers for his vineyard at an agreed wage of a denarius a day. Later, he saw some other men hanging around the town square, unemployed. He hired them too. He did the same thing at noon and again at three o'clock. At five o'clock, he went back and found still others standing around idle. He got them to join in the work too.
When the day's work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman to call the workers in and pay them their wages. Those hired at five o'clock came up and were each given a denarius. When those hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
"But he answered one of them, 'I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
We also might wonder about the fairness of God in this story. A man comes in at the last moment, does an hour's work, and gets paid the same as the guy who has spent all day working in the field? How is this fair? Don't you think? So, if this is what Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is, then it must mean God is not fair, right? This is Jesus at his annoying best, confusing everybody and turning everything upside down so that we can get it right.
So, how do we get it right? By looking at it right. This is not a story about fairness. This is a story about many other things. It's a story about generosity. The owner could have given each subsequent man he hired lower wages because they worked for a lesser time, but he showed his generosity by giving them the same wage. Do you see?
It is also a story about graciousness. These were people in need. They were hanging about the marketplace, looking for work to get enough money to provide for their families for the day. That's what a daily wage is. Anything less than that, and one or two stomachs might have to go hungry. The landowner realized that and acted accordingly. Do you see?
And it is a story about grudgingness. (Yes, that's a word, I checked). It's about being resentful of what others get. The workers who came in didn't complain that they were cheated. They knew that they weren't. They were paid precisely what they had agreed upon. They complained that the landowner made the others equal to them. Do you see?
If you do see, you will also see how we are like these people. We want God to be gracious to us, but we resent it when he is gracious to others. We want God to be generous towards us, but we hate it when he is generous to others. We want God to be merciful towards us, but we want him to damn others. Isn't that true?
Let us desire that God bless everyone, including our enemies!
Do you want better gifts?
The Corinthians did. They knew about the wonderful gifts that the Holy Spirit brought with him (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-11) but regarded some as better than the others. Consequently, they grew envious of those among them who were blessed with these "better" gifts and, resentfully, began to separate from the group. Paul had to scold some sense into them.
He writes: Now if the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? (1 Corinthians 12:15-19).
Their problem is our problem. We forget that while we are individuals, collectively we form part of one single body. God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:25-26).
What is the antidote?
The Virtue: Love
The antidote is love. If we are Christian, we become children of our Father. As John said: But to all who received (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12).
If we believe this, then all Christians become brothers and sisters. We acknowledge this when we say The Lord's Prayer, where there isn't a single "I," "me," or "mine" in the entire prayer. It is all about "us," brothers and sisters.
However, merely declaring we are "brothers and sisters" has little meaning unless we translate this into a deep and great love for them. If we don't understand this and, more importantly, practice it, then we may need to examine the basis of our faith. Are we really Christians? John is very blunt when he says: Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:20-21).
God commanded that we love one another (cf. Matthew 22:39). We are to treat even our enemies with brotherly love because we are all children of the same heavenly Father (cf. Matthew 5:44). True love seeks the good of another, not their destruction. It is expressed as happiness in another's success. When we genuinely love one another, we are not resentful of each other's achievements but take pride in them. It isn't easily achieved, but as with everything else, practice makes perfect. That, and the remarkable grace of God, sets us free from the capital sin of envy.
Consider the stories we looked at. If Cain had loved his brother instead of hating him, not only would Cain's relationship with his brother have been wonderful, his relationship with God would have been great as well. He would have done what was right, and God would have been pleased with his offerings.
If Saul had let love override his jealousy, he would have applauded David's triumphant entry into the city along with everybody else, and his story would have had a very different ending.
If Joseph's brothers had shown their love for their brother by not grudging him the attention he received from their father, they would not have been led to do the wicked things they did.
The apostles would have been happy that they were all chosen to serve God and tried to outdo one another in lifting each other up, and Jesus would have been pleased that they had understood what his kingdom was all about.
Love would have made the workers in the vineyard glad that their brothers and sisters, who needed the work — and the money! — had received the same wage as they did.
And the Corinthians would have rejoiced at the gifts their brothers and sisters received because it meant that they could grow the body of Christ powerfully.
In his first letter, John writes: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (1 John 4:7-12).
The Gift: Wisdom
The Gift of the Holy Spirit that we need to help us deal with envy and jealousy is the divine gift of wisdom. This is not worldly but heavenly wisdom, an ability to see things through the eyes of God, including ourselves.
What do you see when you look at yourself in the mirror? If you're a typical person, you'd probably see nothing there that is extraordinary. If you looked at yourself through God's eyes, however, you'd see somebody very beautiful, somebody he loves tremendously and made in his own image and likeness.
If we continued to look at ourselves through his eyes, he'd reveal to us who we are. Not insignificant people, like we might imagine, but very special beings. There are three main things—out of about a hundred other things—that make us so special. One, we are children of God. Two, we are disciples of Christ. Three, we are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Wisdom helps us understand why this makes us so special, and brings with it the understanding that if we are this special, then we have no reason to be envious of anybody else. What can anybody possibly have that is better than what we have?
We have God's promise that he will give the gift of wisdom to those who ask. James says: If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. (James 1:5).
Further on, James says: Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
Please note James' use of the word "demonic." He continues:
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-17).
Let us, therefore, ask God for this gift, the first and greatest of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
May the Spirit be with you.