When the word envy comes to mind, we generally think it is a harmless feeling. But when left unaddressed, it can lead to very dangerous consequences. Envy has been experienced by humans since the beginning of time and throughout history there have been many instances when envy led to very disastrous outcomes. The Bible warns us sternly about envy by stating that envy “rots the bone” (Proverbs 14:30, KJV).
Envy is an emotion that we have all experienced at some point in our lives. It targets internal qualities that give a person worth, honor, and standing (DeYoung, 2009, pg. 43). It targets things such as talent or God-given qualities. Unlike covetousness, envy is less concerned with material items but more concerned with the symbolism of that item. In contemporary society we often seek some items because they symbolize our high status, superiority, and our success. We often use material things as a display of how successful we are. For example, a luxury car signifies that we are doing well. Envy covets the admiration that items command. Sometimes we envy things that money cannot buy, such as love and respect. Unlike envy, jealousy is concerned with the fear that the things we love may be taken away from us. Envy is a game of comparison. As DeYoung (2009) states, “the bottom line for the envious is how they stack up against others because they measure their self-worth comparatively” (pg. 44). It is therefore important to make the distinction that jealousy is far more excusable than envy because the jealous person wants to protect what he or she already possesses. Whilst envy is activated by that which we don’t have, by that which belongs to someone else, and that makes it contemptible (Stern, 2000, pg. 2).
The first introduction to envy in the Bible is the case of Cain and Abel. Most people in society are familiar with the story of the two brothers and how Cain’s envy led to wrath and hatred for his brother. Abel lost his life as a result of his brother’s envy. When we indulge in the vice of envy, it can become obsessional. The desire for the object of one’s envy can drive them to go to all lengths to acquire what they envy someone else. There are different degrees of envy (Epstein, 2003, pg. 21). Envy operates by attacking our ability to value and appreciate life at its source (Caper, 2008, pg. 36). Writer Leonard Stern (2000) points out that of all the seven deadly sins, envy carries the greatest social stigma because there is no acceptable measure of envy (pg. 2). Whilst some measure of sloth, or lust may be considered acceptable within society, envy of any amount is shameful.
In the contemporary world, we often use tools such as social media to incite the envy of other people. We become concerned about being envied for our material possessions rather than our spiritual attributes. We fully indulge in comparison and this constant comparison fuels our insecurities. Nowadays, it is so easy to assume that other people’s lives are better than ours and that they are happier than we are. This pushes us to display our lives in a better light than it actually is. Sometimes we become more concerned with the idea of “posting” pictures strategically so that others may become envious of our experiences, and we fail to enjoy the experiences ourselves. Envy does not just occur when we envy others. When we feel others envy us, we feel a sense of superiority. So, the vice of envy operates in the envier as well as in the envied person.
The desire to be envied often leads to vainglory, the excessive desire for recognition and approval of others (DeYoung, 2009, pg. 60). An example of this that we see in every day contemporary culture is the organization of extravagant weddings. People spend thousands of dollars every day to impress their guests, and they are sometimes more concerned about the image that a luxurious wedding portrays, than they are about who they are marrying. This deep longing to be approved and validated comes from a desire to be envied. As in the case of envy, the vainglorious person has a fragile self-worth which rests conditionally on others’ approval (DeYoung, 2009, pg. 55). Therefore, envy is also highly concerned with image.
Envy is dangerous because it can lead to wrath and the vice of anger. Nowadays, we often see on the news people who kill others because of envy. A business partner might kill an associate over a deal, or a friend over their spouse. This vice is perhaps the most dangerous of all vices. To conquer and overcome our vices, we must replace them with virtues. Gratitude is a virtue that counteracts the vice of envy. To prevent envy, we must also practice love towards one another. DeYoung (2009) refers to envy as the enemy of love because to love is to seek the good of others and rejoice of their successes (pg. 51). This is the opposite of envy. Enviers constantly seek happiness but such happiness can only come from God through the practice of gratitude and kindness. By filling our hearts with kindness, we can prevent envy from operating within our hearts. We know that kindness is of importance to God because in passages such as Micah 6:8, he instructs his people to “love mercy” (KJV). Kindness is a quality that belong to God (O’Connor, 2016, pg.35). We often encounter envious people, and when we do, we must extend kindness to them as well. O’Connor (2016) further explains that “To love kindness is to make it a priority, to live committed to it, to act from it fully. This is the kindness that God wants, the kindness that characterizes the believing community” (pg. 35). When we have a grateful heart, we appreciate the things we have and we do not envy other people.
The vice of envy, and any other vices can be conquered with the Word of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. When we are full with the gifts of the Spirit, we have no room for envy. When we remember that we are blessed every day, we do not allow envy to have any real estate in our hearts. In 1 Peter 2:1, the Bible teaches us to lay aside malice and envy (KJV).