I looked across the restaurant and saw a man and woman sitting across from each other, chatting, their hands touching, smiling. My dinner was not as enjoyable because I drifted into envy, wishing my wife were on the other of my table! A reasonable enough wish, you might say. It is, but instead of being thankful for them, I was focused on me!
“I want that!” is a longing as old as humanity. The Genesis story tells us that God provided rich abundance for Adam and Eve with just one stipulation: “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.” Temptation took hold, matched with a lie that promised more: they ate, and sin entered Creation.
The 10 Commandments include a prohibition of envy, too. Yes, God knew that envy would create all kinds of other difficulties so He said “You shall not covet (envy so much that you want it for yourself) your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:17, NIV)
The wisdom literature of the Scripture tells us that “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30 NIV) When we learn to be content, to appreciate who we are, where we are, and those with whom we live we discover a richness of life that is unparalleled, but if we are looking across the restaurant comparing ourselves to others, a kind emotional and spiritual cancer grows in us.
James bluntly teaches us that “where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:16, NIV) Remember Joseph, the favored son of Jacob? His father gave him a privileged place in the family and showered him with gifts. Joseph older brothers envied him and, given the opportunity, sold their brother into slavery and lied to their father that Joseph was dead. Yes, envy is not a harmless daydream about having another’s life. It is a shortcut to Misery Street. It will destroy marriage intimacy, turn brothers into rivals, divide the Body of Christ, and kill our joy.
Remember that old phrase about the deceptiveness of envy? In moments of envy it always appears that the ‘grass is greener on the other side of the fence.‘ Envy robs of us the ability to see OUR blessings. Because envy is both so common and usually hidden, we tend not to take it seriously. “Come on, Jerry, who hasn’t wished for something that his buddy owns?” True. And yet, just because we can hide it, just because so many experience it, we cannot dismiss the corrosive and sinful result of living with envy. Paul includes envy in catalog of sins that include “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness.” – Galatians 5.
So, what’s the cure?
Thankfulness, overflowing gratitude. The seductive song of envy is no match for the sweet melodies of praise. Try it. Offer little prayers of praise to God throughout the day, not after envious feelings take hold, but before. Thank others for the blessings they bring your way with sincerity. Praise God for the gifts of another!
Learn to be content. Yes, contentment is learned. We must not deny the truth about ourselves. If we are feeling envy, admit it, confess it, and leave it behind. Generosity with words, with our stuff, with our time helps us to be content, too. Make Paul’s words your aspiration, praying for the Spirit’s transformative work to be done deep in your mind and heart. He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13) Learning is not just acquiring knowledge. It is applying that knowledge and gaining life skill from it. So, in a world that works at creating envy, choose to learn contentment.
Here’s a word from the Word to take with you today, and to remember next time the voice of envy whispers in your ear.
“When I was beleaguered and bitter, totally consumed by envy,
I was totally ignorant, a dumb ox in your very presence.
I’m still in your presence, but you’ve taken my hand.
You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you bless me.
You’re all I want in heaven! You’re all I want on earth!
When my skin sags and my bones get brittle,
God is rock-firm and faithful.” (Psalm 73:21-26, The Message)