The poison of envy

  • Tanya Ling
  • 20 July 2017

If I tried to keep track of how many times in a week I compare myself to someone else, I think I would quickly lose count. It feels so ingrained that it almost happens as a reflex. For a while I wasn’t even conscious of it, it was so entrenched in my thought patterns.

A stranger walks past with gorgeous hair and flawless skin. I think to myself: I wish I looked like her.

A friend is describing their recent overseas trip. If only I could go on a holiday like that.

A person at church is sharing how God is at work in their life. I wish I were as godly as them.

Sometimes society even encourages us to think this way. Advertising tries to make us unhappy with the status quo and desire what we don’t have. If you’re bored with your life, then buy this car—your family will be as fun and adventurous as your neighbours! If you want to look as good as this model, then buy these clothes—you will magically look thin and fabulous! It is supposedly ‘aspirational’, but really it serves to make us feel inadequate, and feeds the sin inside us.

As Christians, this can be dangerous. When envy takes root in our hearts, it leads us down a dark road of outwardly looking proper and respectable as a Christian while harbouring evil poison inside. Believe me, I have experienced first-hand the way envy can negatively affect my relationship with God and others.

Proverbs 14:30 says, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot”. This is because envy has a way of spiraling your heart into a pit of bitterness. Like the spread of toxic spores, it can lead to other sins, such as discontentment, ungratefulness, judgement, malice and slander. James 3:16 says, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice”. 

There are many examples of people in the Bible whose envy is plain to see, and the consequences are never pretty. Cain was envious of God’s favourable response to his brother Abel’s sacrifice, and killed him out of anger (Gen 4). Saul’s envy of David’s success and anointing from God led him to try to kill David (1 Sam 18). For a milder example, the elder brother of the prodigal son was quick to complain about the special treatment and celebration that their father gave to his younger brother. He chose to stew in bitterness (Luke 15:28-30).

In my life there have been many different things that have caused me to envy: a person’s godliness or giftedness, their appearance, their success, their good health, their marriage, their popularity and respect… the list goes on. Sometimes it is just a fleeting thought, but other times there is more malice. For example, I noticed in myself a tendency to pass judgement on those I envied. In my thoughts I would look for their weaknesses, so that they wouldn’t appear so enviable. Needless to say, this was not an effective (or godly!) way of dealing with envy.

So if you are like me, and this particular sin is a struggle for you, what can be done? 

Thanks be to God, that if we confess our sins to him, he is forgiving, and will not hold our sin against us. And the Holy Spirit will help us change! As God’s children, we are to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10).

In my life this has meant a couple of things. Firstly, I pray often that God will reveal to me the moments and situations where I feel envy. And he has faithfully been doing this! This awareness is helpful because it often prevents the flow-on effects of envy that I mentioned earlier, such as the tendency to dwell in discontentment and bitterness or to pass judgement on others. It has the power to stop envy in its tracks.

Secondly, confessing this struggle with a couple of trusted friends has been hugely helpful. Envy is one of those ‘hidden’ sins that has the potential to stay secretly in the dark corners of my heart and fester, turning me into a “whitewashed tomb”. So it is important to bring sin into the light. I noticed a big difference after sharing my envy with others. Verbalizing it made me realize the true ugliness of my sin, which was great motivation to change. 

And finally, I believe that the true antidote to the poison of envy is thankfulness. If we are continually giving thanks to God for what he has given us, and the unique way he has made each of us, then we are less likely to be longing for things that others have. A truly grateful heart will be rejoicing in what God has done for us, and not be thinking wistfully of the things that he has chosen in his sovereignty to withhold. It will enable us to be generous and gracious in our love for others; for “love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast” (1 Cor 13:4).

We do not need to let envy take root in our lives, and poison our hearts and relationships. It will not quench our desires or give us contentment. We need to move our gaze away from other people, and take delight in our Lord, for he alone can deliver us and satisfy the desires of our hearts (Ps 37:4).