Wisdom and Envy

*Envy is ” discontentment or resentful longing at another’s good.” It’s not the same thing as jealousy, which is a subcategory of envy that focuses on coveted affections. It’s different from greed, which says, “I want more.” Envy says, “I want more than what you have.” It’s different from admiration, which says, “I want to be up there with you too.” Envy says, “I want to be up there instead of you.”

Imagine you’re crossing the bridge to Holden Beach, NC, thrilled to be starting your week-long vacation, and you see on your smartphone that your friend just landed in the Bahama’s for a month-long vacation. That feeling creeping up within you is envy.

Here are two principles and two practices from Proverbs to help you live wisely in regard to envy.

Principles

1. Envy will kill you.

Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy? (Proverbs 27:4)

Yes wrath and anger are cruel and overwhelming, but jealousy (which could also be translated ‘envy’) surpasses both. It is a devastating work of the flesh according to Galatians 5:19-21:

19Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Though it isn’t as obvious as sexual immorality or sorcery, envy is just as destructive a sin. Proverbs 14:30 says,

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.

Envy is like bone cancer. As Peter Kreeft points out in his book, Back to Virtue, “Envy, though not the greatest sin, is the only one that gives the sinner no pleasure at all, not even fake and temporary satisfaction.” All it does it eat away our contentment, gratitude, joy and capacity to worship and love.

2. You have hope and a future. 

17 Let not your heart envy sinners,
but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day.
18 Surely there is a future,
and your hope will not be cut off. (Proverbs 23:17-18)

19 Fret not yourself because of evildoers,
and be not envious of the wicked,
20 for the evil man has no future;
the lamp of the wicked will be put out. (Proverbs 24:19-20)

Envy says, “If I had their spouse, girlfriend, joy, kids, etc.; then I would have a future.” Wisdom says, “If you are in Christ, no matter your circumstance, you have a future.” As a Christian you can rest assured that God is working all things together for your good all the time, even your health condition, your lackluster social life and your poor financial situation.

Practices

1. Don’t envy. 

Let not your heart envy sinners,
but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day. (Proverbs 23:17)

You are going to see something today that tempts you to envy. You friend will have better luck hunting than you’ve had all year. You neighbor will come home with a new car. Your relative will announce plans to build a new house. You’ll feel low and see seemingly happy people living cheerful lives. You’ll see something that seems better than what you’re experiencing and your heart will start pulling toward that thing like a dog on a leash. It’s your job to restrain it.

And especially don’t let your heart envy “sinners.” You’ll notice that whenever Proverbs specifies whom we should not envy, it refers to evil, wicked or violent people. I believe this is because we tend to emulate whom we envy. Notice how the following proverbs connect envy with how people choose their ways and their company.

Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways… (Proverbs 3:31)

Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them… (Proverbs 24:1)

You see this more easily in children and young people because they haven’t yet become adept at hiding it. They see that the class clown gets the laughs and attention, so they start to talk like him, even mirroring vocal tones. They see that the flirty girls get noticed, so they start to emulate them.

Whom are you tempted to envy? What triggers envy in you regularly? “Let not your heart envy” these people and things.

2. Instead of envying, fear the Lord.

Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day. (Proverbs 23:17)

Fearing the Lord means revering him with proper awe. He is the Creator and we are the creatures. He is Supreme an we are his subjects. This Supreme Creator has the power and right to judge us, yet came down to be one of us and die to pay for our sins. He loves us and knows what’s best for us and we can trust him. This sort of reverence is envy’s opposite and antidote. You cannot fear the Lord and envy people at the same time. They are contradictory. And fear of the Lord will dissolve envy upon contact.

Last week my daughter had a dental appointment. Wanting to make it as easy on her as possible, we promised her a milkshake on the way home. Since her appointment took place first thing in the morning, we had to take our son to his grandparent’s house for breakfast and a ride to school. Once each heard what the other would receive that morning, they both became discontent with their lot in life. Lillian went from excitement about a milkshake to sadness at missing out on a morning with her grandparents. Elias went from excitement about his morning with his grandparents to sadness at missing  out on a milkshake. If the kids could have remembered for a moment that we love them and know what’s best for them, they could have relaxed from their stress and enjoyed “tranquil hearts,” trusting us.

The soothing effect of fearing the Lord can heal the rottenness envy brings.

Conclusion

How does one switch from envy to the fear of the Lord? The answer is Jesus. Consider Philippians 2:5-8:

5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus let go of everything graspable in order to serve. He stepped down from his heavenly throne, down from his divine form, down from divine substance, down from power and into nothingness, servanthood, humility and a brutal death for us.

There was as story going around not long ago of a Special Olympics race in which a contestant fell. When he fell, the other runners stopped, went back and helped him up. Such an act of sacrificial kindness changed the nature of the race. It was no longer about winning. It became about serving. This is what Jesus’ incarnation does to the human race. In a world all about winning, Jesus’ forfeit changes everything. For the Christian, life can no longer be about winning, but serving. Therefore envy is a fundamental contradiction to Christianity. 

But Jesus was not only an example. His death on the cross paid for our envy and paved the way to forgiveness and restoration. We are then able to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, which includes peace–a tranquil heart which gives life to the flesh, the opposite of envy.

*Much of my definition for envy came from John Piper’s sermons on the subject and Peter Kreeft’s book Back to Virtue.

Discussion Starters

  1. Read Proverbs 14:30. When is the last time you felt envious? If you’re comfortable doing so, share with the group. Did the envy effect the way you felt physically, as this proverbs suggests it can?
  2. Read Proverbs 27:4. How is envy even more devastating than wrath or anger? 
  3. Read Galatians 5:19-21. Which of these sins does our culture find the most evil? Which does our culture condone? Which is easiest to spot? Which is hardest to spot?
  4. Read Proverbs 23:17-18 and 24:19-20. What does hope and the future have to do with envy? How is our perception of our hope and our future tied to our experience of envy?
  5. Read Proverbs 23:17. What are some practical ways you can “let not your hearth envy?” What should the wise Christian do with the temptation to envy strikes? How can we “continue int he fear of the LORD all the day?” What does this look like in real, practical examples?
  6. How does being a Christian give one unique tools and power to overcome envy? Read Philippians 2:5-8 to get your thoughts started.

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