The Deadly Sin of Envy image

The Deadly Sin of Envy

In late-modern society we have performed a strange trick of inversion whereby jealousy is generally seen as a bad thing whereas to be envious is socially acceptable. Jealousy in relationships is perceived as a destructive thing, whereas we routinely speak of envying this and envying that; and our entire political and economic model is designed to work on the stimulation of envy.

Biblically speaking it is the other way around. Jealousy is actually a positive emotion, in that it means one is protective of an exclusive relationship. Thus the frequent Old Testament references to God being jealous for his people and not wanting them to prostitute themselves to other gods. Similarly, husbands and wives are to be jealous of one another in the sense that they guard and protect the exclusivity of their marriage. Seen from this perspective, jealousy can be good; but envy is always bad.

Some of this is simply semantics: As one of my teenage daughters might say, “You’re well jel of my intellect/athleticism/looks”, when really she means, “You are displaying envy about areas of life in which I supersede you.” We shouldn’t get too hung up on semantics, but when it comes to dissecting the deadly sins it is important we are able to distinguish between jealousy (which can be good) and envy (which is always bad). John of Damascus’ axiom that, “Envy is sorrow in the face of your neighbours good” is a helpful way of clarifying this.

Jealousy guards what is rightfully ours, whereas envy desires what is not ours and resents someone else possessing it. God is jealous, but he is never envious. Envy is a self-destructive sin, because, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30).

What, then, are signs that we may be in danger of this deadly sin?

Both our attitudes and actions will be the giveaway. If we find it easier to be negative about others than positive it is likely we have envy issues. Similarly, if we have a tendency to assume that the possessions or life situation of others are superior to our own we are displaying traits of envy. If we agree every time we hear a politician saying, “You should be better off than you are!” we might be nursing envy. And if we respond to every advertisement with an emotional reaction of, “It’s not fair, I should have that!” we are most likely dying of envy.

In the battle that is the Christian life we can be vulnerable to envy because it is easy to imagine everyone else is having a much easier time of it than are we. This kind of assumption is revealed when we hear of another church that has (say) had a huge offering for (say) a building project and our knee-jerk response is, “They must be a much wealthier church than us”, rather than, “They must be a really generous church who have dug deep into God’s grace – what can I learn from that?”

Church leaders can be very vulnerable to envy when they compare their own churches and ministries with others. It is all too easy to grieve over the success of other leaders and churches rather than celebrating them. The through-gritted-teeth, “That’s really great” can come more easily than the open-hearted, “Hallelujah!”

Many of us are also prone to the envious turn of mind that says, “If I were ‘there’ everything would be different.” We imagine that if we were in a different church, a different town, a different country, had a different spouse, or different kids, life would be so much better for us! Of course, the fatal flaw in that line of reasoning is that no matter where I live, which church I go to, or who I am married to, I am still me, and it is me who is the problem! If we fail to grasp that, it is likely that envy will grasp us.

Envy really sucks. It rots the bones. Don’t do it.

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