Envy is the only sin I can think of that is really no fun at all.
It begins in negative feelings of inferiority, progresses into nasty feelings of resentment, and then stagnates in a stewing, frothy mess of petty or belligerent offspring sins. Even when envy gets what it wants—the destruction or removal of another person’s good gift—it is left with empty energy that must be redirected to a new object of hatred.
None of this lights up any pleasure centers in anybody’s brain. Gluttony, greed, lust, vanity, pride, and all their cousins at least have that much going for them. Envy is a perfect example of slave-master sin—it requires all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and delivers you nothing (not even a lighted pleasure center) in return.
Put on Love to Put off Envy
Thankfully for the Christian, it’s both our right and our business to “put off your old self” and to “put on the new self” (Eph. 4:22–24).
The Christian who battles the sin of envy may mistakenly feel that he’s in more of a skirmish than a battle. Why? Because envy is so easy to keep a secret, even from oneself. And like other sins of the heart, the human imagination is always trying to relegate it to second place in the sin scale. Envy can’t be as dangerous as fornication because nobody ever sees it and it doesn’t really hurt anyone. Then, if envy ever produces natural offspring—other, more overt sins—our tendency is to cut off the sin that has flowered up out of it without attempting to remove the envious root.
Envy is the only sin I can think of that is really no fun at all. . . . Envy is a perfect example of slave-master sin.
This attitude is terribly insufficient. Here are two good reasons to take envy seriously enough to pull out the big guns against it.
One, Scripture makes it clear that although man cares mostly for the outward appearance, God is concerned with the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). This means that all this business about envy being a “secret sin” is nonsense. God can see your envy and your fornication side by side as if they were two slugs lying next to each other in the sun. There are no secret sins.
Two, Scripture makes it clear that what is in the heart doesn’t stay in the heart because, as Jesus observed on more than one occasion, it’s out of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34; 15:18). Envy often leads to action—like every other sin of the heart. Envy is not safe, it doesn’t stay put, and it comes with some very unpleasant friends.
Envy is a monster, and you’re going to have to do explosive, violent war with it. In the spirit of Ephesians 4, one wonderful way to “put off” the sin of envy is to “put on” the virtue of love. Here are four ways to fight envy with love.
1. Thank God for the success of the person you envy.
Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies as one way of doing good to them (Matt. 5:43–48). But the envious heart turns even friends into enemies. Whether or not it’s accurate, your heart believes that a friend or acquaintance is an enemy to your happiness—just because they have (or are) something you would like to have (or be).
That means you can pray for your coworker, whom you’re thinking of as an enemy, and still be obedient to Jesus’s word here. When you pray, thank God for her and for the gifts God gave her. Thank him for granting her success.
2. Ask God for the further success of the person you envy.
That’s right. Pray specifically for her continued success, especially in whichever gift you’re envying her for.
Ask for things for your friends the way you would ask for things for yourself.
This means that if you have a friend who is getting all A’s and just got a free ride to Yale, then your order of business is to pray that he would keep getting A’s at Yale. If your friend just married the kind of man you’d have done anything to marry, pray for rich intimacy and growth in their marriage.
Ask for things for your friends the way you would ask for things for yourself, giving thought to their spiritual good as well as their earthly blessings.
3. Enjoy the gifts God gave to the person you envy.
Many of the things we envy in others aren’t possessions but personal traits, such as intelligence, beauty, talent, and interpersonal skill. The wonderful thing about these divine gifts, though, is that they can be possessed by one person and enjoyed by others—simultaneously.
This means that when you’re spending time with your friend, her charm and humor is something you can belly-laugh over. When you’re listening to your coworker give a talk at a professional convention, you’ve got a chance both to learn something and to worship the Father for making him so good at what he does. The fact that your sister plays really good music means—to state the obvious—that you have the opportunity to hear really good music.
Go through the exercise of doing what you may have avoided for a long time—gaze upon the glory with an unflinching gaze. Look for opportunities to praise the Father for what he has made.
4. Praise the person you envy.
Under normal circumstances, praising something is both a natural result of enjoying it and part of the process of enjoying it. So for you to silently, stoically sit and soak in the gifts of a friend or acquaintance without expressing admiration is unnatural. It truncates the exercise of enjoyment.
Ephesians 4:29 commands, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
What talk is more corrupting than the natural talk of an envious person in polite society? They find ways of inserting a barb into every compliment. They find ways of gossiping without openly declaring anything
What talk is more corrupting than the natural talk of an envious person in polite society?
But the alternative, according to this passage, should fill us with joy and possibility. We can instead use words that are “good for building up,” that “fit the occasion,” that “give grace.” Is that possible? Can we really do that today? Yes—by God alone as the sole source of every good gift. This liberates us to praise our neighbor naturally and freely.
It’s not for us to make our hearts new. Only the Spirit can produce love in us—which is exactly what he’s promised to do (Gal. 5:22)! Love is flowing even now; it’s beginning to crowd out other things in our hearts.
In the end, God will remove all traces of envy from his world. Good things—you may be sure—will be happening all the time to other people in heaven. A million Instagram accounts won’t be enough to capture it all.
The difference will be our reaction. Our love for God, responding to love from God, will produce genuine gladness for those around us. This is the kind of existence we’re preparing for.
Envy is for now. Love is forever (1 Cor. 13:8–13).