©Douglas Beyer 2000



EnvyEvery sin carries with it its own punishment. This is especially true of the sin of envy. Envy is a four letter word that is an obscenity to the human spirit. It is easy to see how someone might desire to commit adultery or murder or lie and find pleasure in it, but can you imagine someone wanting to envy? Yet we do, though there is no pleasure in it. Envy is both a deadly sin and a miserable punishment. James tells us, "Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing" (James 3:16). Envy is a sin no one wants to commit. But everyone does. Martin Luther said, "Too many Christians envy the sinners their pleasure and the saints their joy because they don't have either one."

Envy takes many forms.

Envy of possessions says, "I wish I had your house or car or clothes."
Envy of position says, "I wish I had your job or honorary degrees."
Envy of privilege says, "I wish I had your freedom or opportunities."
Envy of people says, "I wish I had your good looks or education or talent."

Envy is the only deadly sin that is also listed in the Ten Commandments: "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17).


Envy has been with us ever since Cain slew his brother Abel. Envy is the sin of the have-nots against the haves — just as greed is the sin of the haves against the have-nots. That doesn't mean we have to be poor to be envious because the rich rarely know who they are. On the other hand, the poor know who the rich people are: they are the folks who have fifty percent more than we have. Poverty is a state of mind induced by our neighbor's new car. Envious people count other people's blessings instead of their own.

Envy is the mud that failure throws at success. King Saul was happy when his people chanted, "Saul hath slain his thousands," until they added, "and David his ten thousands" (1 Samuel 18:7-8). From that day on he tried to kill his rival. Envy begins by asking, "Why shouldn't I enjoy what other's enjoy?" and ends by demanding, "Why should others enjoy what I can not?" Did you hear about the preacher who was disappointed because he wasn't invited to a neighbor's picnic? Later, when they got around to asking him, he said, "It's too late. I've already prayed for rain."

Envy is a great leveler. If it can't level things up, it will level them down. At best it is a social climber; at worst it is a destroyer. Rather than having someone happier than itself, it would make us all miserable together. In ancient Greece Aesop told about the man to whom Zeus granted any wish, provided his neighbor got twice as much. He asked for one chariot and his neighbor got two. He asked for a mansion and his neighbor got one twice as big. The story ends with the man asking to be blind in one eye! "O beware, my Lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster that doeth mock the meat it feeds on" (Shakespeare, Othello).

Envy sees other people as competitors for prominence instead of companions in progress. When a psychologist was asked if he thought women were the best judges of women, he answered, "Yes. And also the best executioners!"

Envy wears many disguises. It is often hard to recognize as it destroys individuals and institutions. Sometimes it assumes the form of truth and competency while it debunks honorable people. Some debunking, of course, is healthy and necessary. Hypocrites, who sprout like mushrooms in the shadows of noble virtues, should certainly be discovered and weeded out. But envy is not the right poison for that purpose. Envy destroys the whole plant trying to kill the parasites.

Judas debunked Mary's anointing of Jesus, "Why wasn't this perfume sold," he complained, "and the money given to the poor" (John 12:4)? He made Mary appear to be the transgressor of Christ's command to the rich young ruler: "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor" (Matthew 19:21). Judas' real problem, however, was not Mary's extravagance, but his own envy. Envy can make good people appear wicked.

Paul writes, "Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity, not in strife and jealousy (Romans 13:13). He puts jealousy in some pretty bad company. Drunkenness and sexual promiscuity are sins of the flesh; jealousy is a sin of the spirit which is even worse. The younger brother in the parable of the prodigal son sinned in the flesh, with carousing, drunkenness and promiscuity. The elder brother sinned in the spirit, with jealousy. In the end, we find the one who sinned in the flesh inside the father's house while the one who sinned in the spirit stands outside (Luke 15:11-32). Envy will shut you out from the Father's house quicker than anything else. Jesus said to the chief priests of his day, "Prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matthew 21:31 TEV). All sin is bad, but sins of the spirit are worse than sins of the flesh.

It was the sin of envy that nailed Jesus to the cross. Pilate "knew very well that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him because they were jealous" (Mark 15:10).

Envy creates hell in the human heart. It allows no satisfaction, no security, no peace — only the constant discontent of selfish desire. It is a deadly sin and a miserable punishment. How, then, can we get free from envy?


CovetousnessWe can move from the sin of envy to the virtue of contentment by doing two things. First, become moderate in our wishes. A wise man prayed, "Give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs! For if I grow rich, I may become content without God. And if I am too poor, I may steal" (Proverbs 30:8-9 LB). There are many who pray to be delivered from poverty and its dangers, but few who pray to be delivered from wealth and its dangers. Contentment without God is an attractive temptation despite its utter impossibility. Augustine knew better. He prayed, "Thou hast made us for thyself. And our hearts are restless until they rest in thee." Still there are many who foolishly struggle to acquire more money and less faith.

Contentment can come either from having more or wanting less. The contentment provided by the latter is seven times more durable than the former. We must learn to be satisfied with our lot even when we don't have a lot. Robinson Crusoe, alone on his island, said, "I do not possess anything I do not want, and I do not want anything I do not possess." As Paul told Timothy, "Religion does make a person very rich, if he is satisfied with what he has" (1 Timothy 6:6 TEV).

"Love… is not jealous" (1 Corinthians 13:4). Love makes us content with what we have and discontent with what we are. Those who are content have enough. Those who complain have too much.

Malcolm Muggeridge, former editor of Punch Magazine, said, "I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets — that's fame. I can easily earn enough for admission to the upper slopes of the Internal Revenue — that's wealth. Furnished with money and fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions — that's pleasure. It may happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on the world — that's fulfillment. Yet I say to you — and I beg to believe me — multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing — less than nothing, a positive impediment — measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are. What, I ask myself, does life hold, what is there in the works of time, in the past, now, and to come, which could possibly be put in the balance against the refreshment of drinking that water?"

To move from the sin of envy to the virtue of contentment we must first become moderate in our wishes. Second, we must become adaptable in our circumstances. Paul said, "I have learned to be satisfied with what I have… I have learned this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions [How?] by the power that Christ gives me" (Philippians 4:11-13 TEV).

In baptism Christians take a solemn vow to God, so to speak, "for richer for poorer, for better for worse, in sickness and in health, to love, honor and cherish Him till death do us part." And, indeed, beyond death! Faith means believing that God has taken that same vow for us. And Jesus Christ is the proof.

God has made us what we are and placed us where we are. Envy is a sign we think he made a mistake. The wise Elihu said, "Since you object to what God does, can you expect him to do what you want?" (Job 34:33 TEV)?

Envy is a deadly sin and a miserable punishment. The painful power that envy has over you can be overcome only by the greater power of Jesus Christ. A heart filled with him can no more envy someone else than an eagle can envy a sparrow. Those who have Jesus and nothing else are richer than those who have everything except Jesus.

Always be content with what you have, but never be content with what you are. Free from envy, count on Jesus Christ to complete his work in you, "working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever" (Hebrews 13:21 KJV).


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