May 24, 2023

What Is Envy?

4 Min Read

The Christian gospel announces: “The love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9–10). A Christian’s life consists of knowing God’s love for us in Christ as we love the Lord with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29–31). What does love have to do with envy? In a word, “Everything.” Paul reminded the church at Corinth of the essential connection: “Love does not envy” (1 Cor. 13:4).

Understanding Envy

In his marvelous exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, John Angell James calls envy “the basest” of sinful passions. “It is unmingled malignity, the very worst and bitterest dregs of human depravity,” James says. Envy is “the most direct [opposite] of love.”

How can we define this vice? Envy is a passion that causes a person to feel uneasy or unhappy at another person’s possessions, making us dislike that person. We tend to envy those we most closely identify with, envying them in the areas we value most. Further, envy is no solitary sin. It is a parent of malice, hatred, falsehood, and slander—sins that one old preacher called envy’s “ordinary brood.” So common is envy that the wise Teacher declares: “I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 4:4).

While many live as if it is a respectable sin, envy mars the holiness of God and His gospel. God is love (1 John 4:8). His love delights in beauty and goodness, and His grace produces both. The free salvation found in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, perfectly displays God’s love for His people. Therefore, an envious Christian is a description that makes no biblical sense. Yet, many Christians still struggle with envy. It’s why Galatians 5:26 commands, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another,” and 1 Peter 2:1 urges, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy.”

Mortifying Envy

How, then, can we shrivel envy’s stronghold? What tools might the Spirit use to mortify envy? Strive in the following graces, and you’ll find the Spirit putting the deeds of envy to death.

Trust God’s providence. Envy secretly complains against the Lord. It looks at the providential blessings bestowed on someone else and declares, “I should have that, not him,” or “I deserve that, not her.” What you lack may be a need He has decreed. John Flavel captures this essential point well in his book The Mystery of Providence. “Providence is wiser than you,” Flavel reminds, “You may be confident it has suited all things better to your eternal good than you could do had you been left to your own option.” Trusting God’s providence in your life while going to Him in prayer with your needs can protect your heart from envy (see James 4:1–3).

Envy is no solitary sin. It is a parent of malice, hatred, falsehood, and slander.

Cultivate gratitude. Gratitude means “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Gratitude is the sun that chases away envy’s shadow. Instead of looking upon others’ possessions with sinful desire, a grateful heart rejoices in another’s blessings with thankfulness to God, our provider (see Phil. 4:19).

Increase in true love. Because love and envy are opposites, growth in Christian love dissolves envy as the heat melts ice. The grace of loving our neighbor energizes our delight in their favor, rather than being miserable by their blessedness. Love rejoices with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15). The Holy Spirit makes His home in a redeemed soul. Ask God by His Spirit to grow that sincere and spiritual love that is so central to the gospel. Pray for His power to replace envy with charity.

A Word to Ministers

“Is there any sin to which even the ministers of the gospel are more exposed than [envy]? Is there any one which they more frequently commit?” asked John Angell James. “How much grace does it require in any man, to see the popularity, and hear of the usefulness of others, and to find himself overlooked in the process.” Every modern pastor intimately understands the temptation of which James speaks.

Dear pastor, your commission is to preach Jesus Christ, the Savior who compels contentment, humility, love, and thanks. Labor, in the Spirit’s power, to increase in those graces. Resist the devil’s scheme to set your mind on being known, becoming famous, or having a platform. Look upon the fruitfulness of other ministers with joy: through His church, Christ’s kingdom is advancing, and Satan’s kingdom is diminishing. Pray for the gospel to go forth from other pulpits, and rejoice when it does.

May all God’s servants realize and pursue the wisdom of Proverbs 14:30: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”

This article is part of the Virtues and Vices collection.