The story is told of a monk who lived in a cave in the wilderness. This monk had a great reputation for being a holy and godly man. In fact, his reputation reached hell itself, so the devil sent three of his demons to tempt the monk to sin and thus destroy his holiness.
When these demons reached the wilderness, they found the monk sitting at the mouth of a cave with a serene look on his face. The first demon walked up to him and planted in his mind the temptation of great power, with visions of kingdoms and their glory. But the face of the monk remained serene.
The second demon walked up to him and planted in his mind the temptation of great wealth, with visions of silver and gold and all that money can buy. But the face of the monk remained serene.
The third demon walked up to him and planted in his mind the temptation of sensuous pleasure, with visions of dancing girls. But still, the face of the monk remained serene.
The devil was annoyed and he said to his demons, “Step aside, and I will show you what has never failed.” He then walked up to the monk, leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Have you heard the news? Your classmate Makarios has just been named bishop of Alexandria.” And the face of the monk scowled with envy.
In Galatians 5:21, envy is listed as one of the works of the flesh. Last week, we began a new sermon series with an introduction to the Seven Deadly Sins. I closed that lesson with a challenge to you, and I hope that throughout this past week you having been praying that prayer from Psalm 139:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
This morning, we begin a closer look at those Seven Deadly Sins, and the sin we’re going to look at this morning is the sin of envy.
And there are several things that I hope to do in this lesson. First of all, I want to talk about what envy is and how it manifests itself in our lives. And I think you’re going to find that, whether you realize it or not, each and every one of you struggles with envy.
Second, I want to talk about why we tend to be envious and who we tend to be envious of.
And then, finally, I want to talk about how we can keep envy from taking control of our lives because in order for us to become more like Jesus Christ, we are going to have to figure out how to deal with the sin that’s in our lives.
1. What is Envy?
I think it’s important for us to draw a distinction between envy and jealousy. I realize that we tend to think of those two words as meaning pretty much the same thing, but there are two different Greek words found in the Bible – one which is translated “envy”, and the other which is translated “jealousy” – and they actually have different meanings. And envy is the worse of the two sins.
Here’s the difference. Jealousy says, “I want what you have.” We might say, for example, “I’m jealous that you got to go on a cruise.” What we mean by that it that I’d like to go on a cruise, too. Next time you go, take me and I’ll be happy. Or we might say, “I’m jealous that you got a new iPhone.” What we mean by that is that I’d like to have one, too. And if I get one, I’m happy.
Jealousy says, “I want what you have.” But envy says, “Not only do I want what you have, but I also don’t want you to have it. I want it to have it instead of you having it.”
If I am jealous, then I can be happy as long as I can acquire this thing that I want. But if I am envious, I can only be happy if I can take that thing away from you. And if I can’t do that, I will at least be happy if you lose it.
What that means is that envy is not really concerned about that possession. Envy is more concerned with the honor or status or worth that goes along with having that possession. If an envious person wants something, it is because that object symbolizes or signifies its owner’s position.
For example, suppose you love cars. You especially appreciate the quality that goes into making certain cars. And you have your eye on a certain BMW that your neighbor is driving, because you love the driving performance of this particular model. You would love to have that car. That’s not envy. It’s jealousy, but it’s not envy.
But if you want a BMW because it will make you feel superior to your neighbor, who just bought a new Camry, that would be envy. Anything but to be the only one in the neighborhood still driving a Taurus!
But notice, it’s not the car that makes us envious, so much as what being the owner of that car says about who we are. It’s about the personal respect and admiration that we command when we drive up in that car. We don’t envy the car. Rather, we envy the superiority, the classiness of a person who drives that kind of car. Getting the car is just a way to be seen as the person we want to be seen as.
And not to have the car is not just to lack that thing, but it is to be less of a person, to be deficient in some way. To fail to receive that thing makes the envier feel less admirable, less worthy as a person.
Let me give you a biblical example, because we see this in the Jewish leaders and their attitude toward Jesus. Matthew 27:18 tells us that Pilate recognized that “it was because of envy that they had delivered him up.” You see, the Jewish leaders saw that Jesus had the respect of the people and they were envious of him.
They weren’t just jealous. It wasn’t just that they wanted more respect from the people. They were envious, because they saw that Jesus had the respect of the people and they wanted to take it away from him.
That’s why jealousy is sometimes a bad quality in the scriptures, but sometimes it’s a good quality. Jealousy simply means you want something very, very much. And as long as what you want is good thing, then there’s nothing wrong with wanting it. That why God is described as a jealous God. He wants a relationship with us more than anything else. So jealousy can sometimes be a good thing, but envy is always sinful.
Envy doesn’t like to see others achieve recognition or prominence, and it will do whatever it can to bring the other person down. Someone has said that an envious person is a lot like a crab. If crabs are caught by a fisherman in his basket and one starts to climb out, the other crabs will reach up and pull it back down.
Someone (Buechner) has described envy by saying its desire is for “everyone else to be as unsuccessful as you are.”
There’s a joke that demonstrates the nature of envy. There was an Englishwoman, a Frenchman, and a Russian. Each of them was given a single wish by one of those genies who always seems to pop out of a bottle.
For her wish, the Englishwoman says that a friend of hers has a cottage in the country, and she would like a similar cottage, with the addition of two extra bedrooms and a second bath and a brook running in front of it. That’s not envy.
For his wish, the Frenchman says that his best friend has a beautiful blonde girlfriend, and he would like such a girlfriend himself, but a redhead instead of a blonde and with longer legs and a bit more in the way of culture and fashion. That’s not envy.
Then the Russian, when he is asked what he would like, he says that he has a neighbor with a cow that gives a vast quantity of the richest milk, which yields the heaviest cream and the purest butter. The Russian says, “I want that cow….dead.” That’s envy.
If I am envious, I can only be happy if I can take that thing away from you. And if I can’t do that, I will at least be happy if you lose it.
Now, at this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “I would never do that”, so envy must not be one of those sins that I struggle with. But stay with me. Because that’s what I thought when I started working on this lesson. But as I’ve prayed for God to search my heart, he has revealed just how deeply ingrained envy is in my life. And I suspect you may discover the same thing yourself.
2. Why Are We Envious?
At the very root of envy is the need to compare ourselves with others. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 10:12 (NCV), “We do not dare to compare ourselves with those who think they are very important. They use themselves to measure themselves, and they judge themselves by what they themselves are.”
And that’s what envy does. The bottom line for an envious person is how he stacks up against other people, because he measures his self-worth comparatively.
A good example of this comes from the story of Snow White. You remember how the Evil Queen stands in front of the mirror and wants to know, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who’s the fairest one of all?” And for a while, the mirror on the wall tells the Evil Queen that she is the most beautiful woman in the world.
But one day, the mirror informs her that Snow White has blossomed into the most beautiful woman in the world. And the Evil Queen goes into a rage. Because it’s not enough for her to be viewed as a beautiful woman. She can’t deal with being seen as less beautiful than someone else. It’s all about the comparison.
But it doesn’t just happen in fairy tales. Cain didn’t like the fact that God favored Abel’s sacrifice over his own, so envy led him to kill his brother. Joseph’s brothers didn’t like the fact that Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved him, so envy led them to sell Joseph off as a slave. Rachel didn’t like the fact that Leah was held in higher regard because she had children, and so she got envious. King Saul couldn’t stand the fact that women were singing the song, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (I Samuel 18:7).
It’s not enough for an envious person to say, “I am good.” He feels the need to say, “I am better.” All of us have a need to be loved and found worthy, but an envious person makes attaining this love and worth a comparative game.
How many times do we see this in the apostles? Several times we read that “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” (Luke 22:24). They didn’t want to be viewed as “great”. They wanted to be seen as the “the greatest”. They felt the need to compare themselves with all of the other apostles and come out on top.
That’s why the strategy of envy is not just to get something for yourself, but to take down the person you envy. Envy’s view of the world is essentially antagonistic: it’s me-versus-you. If you are “up here” and I am “down here”, there’s only two ways I can get on the same level with you. I can raise myself up, but that’s a lot of work. Or I knock you down, which a whole lot easier.
So what are some of the ways that we knock others down? Let me suggest some ways that envy can demonstrate itself. See if you can relate to any of these in your life:
• Envy feels offended at the talents, successes, or good fortune of others;
Somebody will give me a tape of another preacher and say, “Alan, you’ve got to hear this guy. He’s fantastic!” Well, my first inclination, once I begin listening to the tape, is to say, “He’s not bad, but I’ve heard better.” But if he’s really good, it’s hard for me to handle, because sometimes ego gets in the way. Now there are a lot of men that are better preachers than I am — I just don’t listen to their tapes. No, that’s not true, but you understand what I’m talking about, don’t you? It’s very difficult to rejoice over somebody who does exactly what you do, but does it better.
• Envy feels a rivalry and competition.
Let me suggest that if you have a “competitive spirit”, you probably struggle with envy.
• Envy takes pleasure at other’s difficulties or distress;
I remember when I was a kid, I played second base for a Little League team. I was on the first string (although for the life of me I can’t remember why). But one week, my family went on vacation. When we got back, I found that I had been replaced. The second-string kid was short, but in the game that was played while I was away, he had made a fantastic catch, so he re¬placed me. You find yourself thinking a lot of terrible things in a situation like that as you sit on the bench. Even though he’s on your team, you want him to flub up and commit errors. Even worse, you wish that he would break his leg or something.
• Envy will assume the worst about others’ behaviors.
I remember growing up that I would sometimes hear about churches in other parts of the country that were experiencing rapid growth. Almost always, my parents would say, “Obviously, they’re doing something unscriptural.” Because, if someone else is doing something better than you are, you just naturally assume the worst.
• Envy will belittle others and make false accusations;
• Envy will engage in backbiting (saying something bad behind someone’s back) or slander (saying something bad about someone in the open);
• Envy loves to gossip;
• Envy will arouse and foster antagonism against others;
• Envy will engage in teasing, bullying or ridicule.
• Envy will show prejudice against anyone whom we consider to be inferior, or those who consider us to be inferior, or those who seem to threaten our security or position.
There is a progression in this list, because sometimes envy involves what we think about, sometimes it’s how we feel, and sometimes it’s what we say and what we do. Envy tends to start out secretly (in fact, envy would prefer to accomplish its goal without being noticed), but if it is unsuccessful, the bitterness and resentment will grow. If it goes unchecked, envy will eventually lead to a full-scale hatred of a rival.
I Corinthians 13:4 says that “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast.” It should be obvious that the fundamental attitude of an envious person is directly opposed to love. If we love someone, then we want only good things for them and we rejoice when those good things happen.
As Paul tells us in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” But envy can’t bring itself to rejoice with those we view as our competitors. Envy weeps when good things happen to their rival, and envy rejoices when bad things happen.
And though it seems extreme, envy can eventually lead even to murder. You see it with Cain and Abel. You see it in the book of Esther where King Ahasuerus rewards Mordecai for saving his life. He puts Mordecai on a royal horse wearing a royal robe and leads him through the streets of the city. And that drove Haman absolutely crazy. He was so envious that he determined to do everything in his power to have Mordecai and all the other Jews killed.
And even if envy doesn’t lead to murder, it almost always causes strife. In fact, every passage in the New Testament that tells us not to be envious connects it with strife. “Let us walk….not in strife and envy.” (Romans 13:13). You see the same connection in James 3 and I Corinthians 3.
But of all the things that happen as result of envy, perhaps the worst thing is what is does to the person who is envious. Let me tell you something very interesting I learned about envy in preparing this sermon. In the original list of the Seven Deadly Sins, envy was not on the list. Or, to be more accurate, it was on the list, but it wasn’t called “envy”. It was called “sadness”. We don’t normally think of sadness as being a deadly sin. And it makes you wonder why Christians thought sadness and envy were the same thing.
But, when you think about it, it makes sense. Envy is probably the only sin that’s no fun. Think about it. If you lust after someone, it leads to some temporary pleasure. If you are guilty of gluttony, that can bring a lot of pleasure. But who enjoys envy, even for a moment? All envy does is make you miserable as you compare yourself to others and find yourself lacking. And the more envious you are, the sadder you become.
3. Who Do We Envy?
I want to consider for a few minutes who it is that we envy, because we aren’t envious of everybody, just certain people. And if we think about the people we envy, and why we envy them in particular, there’s a pattern that emerges.
Enviers don’t usually envy those who are very far removed from their own lives and lifestyles. That is to say, they don’t envy those who are vastly more talented or successful than they are. They tend to envy people that they think others will compare them to, people who are pretty much like them—only better.
Let me give you an example. When I read that Usain Bolt from Jamaica holds the title of being the fastest man in the world, having run the 100-meter race in 9.58 seconds, I do not feel even a little bit of a twinge of envy. Now, I am obviously nowhere near as fast as Usain Bolt and I am inferior to him, but I’m not envious because I don’t have to worry about anybody comparing me to him. Nobody has ever said, “Come on, Alan, you can run faster than that. You’re just not as good as Usain Bolt.”
But when Helen Street gets a new preacher and everyone starts to say, “This guy is great. He’s the best preacher we’ve ever heard. He’s a lot better than Alan was.” Now, the temptation to envy begins to take hold. Because the more they talk about how good he is, the more inadequate I feel by comparison.
If you’re an English major in college, you won’t be envious of a writer who wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, but you will very much be tempted to envy if you turn in a term paper that gets an A-, but one of your friends gets an A+.
If you are one of those people who defines yourself by your career status and your earning power, you will not find yourself being envious of Bill Gates or Donald Trump. But you will very much be tempted to envy the fellow who works in the office with you who just got a $2.00 an hour pay raise. As Aquinas put it, we only envy those whom we wish to rival or surpass in reputation.
William Willimon calls envy a “small town sin” because it’s a by-product of living so close to people with whom we make comparisons.
4. How Do We Overcome Envy?
Well, let’s close by looking at the most important question about envy. If envy is something that you struggle with, how do you overcome it? And the solution isn’t just to say don’t do it. Once we understand why we envy (to feel a greater sense of self-worth), then we realize that the only way to avoid this sin is to find a completely different foundation for our self-worth.
Someone has said that making the transition out of envy into love is like making the transition from dating to marriage. The premise of dating is that you have got to outdo the competition to win your girlfriend’s affection and secure that relationship. But once you’re married, it’s no longer a competition. You know that you are loved, and you can feel secure in that love.
Envy depends on a comparative self-value. The worth of the envious—at least from their perspective—is conditional on out-doing their competitors. But Francis Bacon was correct when he said, “Envy is joined to the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, [there is] no envy.”
And so, to overcome envy, we need to develop a view of ourselves where our sense of worth and our value is not dependent on what other people think about us. God says in Isaiah 43, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. . . . You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:1,4)
We are loved already, unconditionally — not because of our moral worthiness, our attractiveness, our worldly achievements — but simply because we are God’s children. We all need that kind of love. And that is exactly how God loves us.
Jesus in the gospels—especially in Luke’s account—makes a point of affirming and lifting up those who lack status or worth, those who were considered low in the social rankings of that day. And his love for them wasn’t based on performance or special qualities. It was an undeserved gift given to them just as they were.
Meanwhile, the Pharisees continued to compare themselves. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells about the brother who goes off and wastes his inheritance, but then he come home and his father throws a big party. And, of course, the older brother is upset. He “was angry and would not go in” (Luke 15:28). Why? Because he was envious. His brother was getting all the attention that he deserved. He says to his father, basically, “It’s obvious you love him more than you love me. You never threw a party for me.”
And the response of the father is to say, “Son, you are always with me.” “You’re my son. I love you. This is not a competition. You don’t need to compare yourself with your brother. You are special to me.”
Robert Roberts has said, “The message is that God loves me for myself — not for anything I have, not for my beauty or intelligence or righteousness or for any other “qualification,” but simply in the way that a good mother loves the fruit of her womb. If I can get that into my head — or better, into my heart — then I won’t be grasping desperately for self-esteem at the expense of others.”
I said earlier in this lesson that I feel convicted about the envy that I struggle with in my own life. And I want to confess to you the area where I struggle with the most. Because last week, I talked about the need for us to be honest with one another, because it’s only when we’re willing to be honest that we can find healing.
And so, it is with some degree of shame and embarrassment that I share this. Over my 40+ years of ministry, I have served in eight different churches. And every time I leave a church, I continue to keep in touch, which I think is a good thing. But one of the reasons I keep in touch is because I want to know how the church does after I’m gone.
And, of course, the right attitude to have, a spirit of love, would take great delight in knowing that a church I have worked with is prospering and doing well. But that’s where envy creeps in. And envy says, to you “If the church can do just fine without you, then maybe you weren’t very valuable.” If they like the next preacher more than they liked me, then that says something about my self-worth.”
And so, there’s a part of me that takes some degree of delight in knowing that things aren’t going very well in a church after I leave. If their attendance goes down or their contribution goes down, then I feel that I must have been a valuable part of that church, a part that is severely missed.
And even though I know it’s wrong to feel that way, I struggle because envy has a hold of me. My competitive spirit rears its ugly head, and Satan is pleased. But I take comfort in knowing that “when we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us.” (I John 1:9)
So, I wonder, is there anywhere in your life where envy has taken hold? Is there anywhere that you feel the need to compare yourself with others to feel valued? Because the more you compare yourself with others, the more tempted you will be to have envy in your heart. Is there anything you do to make others look bad just so that you look better?
Stand for a prayer.
This week, may your prayer be: “Search me, O Lord, and see if there is any envy in my heart.”