Posted by Katharine Swartz, 26 Mar 2020
Katharine Swartz examines the deadly sin of envy.
A psalm of Asaph.
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”
This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
How might envy be the opposite of peace?
A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Proverbs 14:30
Envy tends to be one of those insidious, secret sins that is far too easy not to acknowledge or even be aware of. It can be a creeping thought, a vague state of mind, a general malaise with what your home, or job, or body, or marriage looks like. It’s fifteen minutes on Facebook, putting your phone down with a grimace of dissatisfaction you might not even realise you’ve made. And yet what is the result? It rots your bones.
The destructiveness of envy
That is because as ephemeral as envy may seem, it is utterly destructive. As James admonishes in his letter, ‘where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice’ (James 3:16). Envy might start as a simple question. Why don’t I have… why can’t I be like… Yet that seemingly innocent question has, at its root, a lack of faith not in just God’s provision, but his entire character.
Envy often starts out small. A dictionary definition is ‘a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.’ Someone at work gets a promotion. A neighbour’s house is bigger than yours. Or maybe it’s not about material possessions, which can make envy even more insidious and harder to recognise — your friend’s children seem to have it more together. Your colleague’s ministry is so much more fruitful. Yet instead of being encouraged or perhaps necessarily convicted by their blessing, you feel bitterness that you are not having the same experience. Resentful longing takes root. And from that terrible little seed, a terrible, destructive vine grows and twines around your heart, choking everything.
Envy becomes destructive when we feed it, which we, in our sinful state, like to do. We have an unfortunate tendency to luxuriate in the self-righteous, self-pitying reflections on how unfair life is. Instead of trying to ‘take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5), we allow and even encourage those negative thoughts to fester and breed so they take over not just our minds, but our lives. We choose to view the world through a murky lens of dissatisfaction as our resentment turns into a sense of self-entitlement, anger, or even acts of violence. Saul’s envy of David led to his alienation from God. David’s envy of Uriah led to death. And while we might not experience such dramatically dreadful results in our own lives, envy can still be just as harmful in its small and insidious ways, because it causes us to doubt God’s goodness, just as Adam and Eve did in the garden.
When we doubt God’s goodness, we are questioning who he is. We are doubting the words of Psalm 18: ‘As for God, his way is perfect: The LORD’S word is flawless.’ We put ourselves in God’s place and we begin to believe that we know better than he does what we need and how our lives should look. So we start to think and speak and act accordingly, until we have wandered so far away from the truth we can no longer see it reflected in our lives, or even recognise it for what it is — and often we don’t even realise we’ve moved from the solid ground we took for granted.
The antidote to envy
So how do we battle envy? For while there is no sin in being tempted, we need to respond to that temptation rightly. The way to battle any temptation is with truth. As Peter writes, ‘Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation’ (1 Peter 2:1-2).
When you spend an hour on social media and feel that twitch of resentful longing, run to the word. When you start to ask that needling question ‘why don’t I…?’, think of something you are thankful for instead. Constantly and consistently remind yourself of God’s great promises, of all he has given to us in Christ, so that we ‘may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe’ (Ephesians 1:18-19).
When we continually remind ourselves of the love God has lavished on us through Jesus, and that which he continues to show us in his day-to-day provision, the bigger house, the thinner body, or the better-paying job are all put in their proper perspective. As sinful creatures, we need to be reminding and reorienting ourselves day by day, sometimes minute by minute. The more truth we imbibe and imbue in our lives, the more we will be able to recognise envy for what it is — insidious and destructive.
But what if you’re not envious of your neighbour’s car, but his prayer life or ministry or sense of joy? This can be much harder to recognise, with its seemingly holy trappings. Sometimes seeing someone else’s spiritual riches can lead to self-pity rather than conviction, repentance, and encouragement. We feel God has short-changed us. Again, we need to run to the Word. God has already given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. Let that first twinge of temptation bring a renewed desire to serve and love the Lord, the Father of heavenly lights, from whom every good and perfect gift comes.
Questions for Reflection
1 How might envy lead to further sin and destruction in your life?
2. Is there a particular area in your life where you struggle with envy? Will you repent today of this and draw near to God?
3. What aspects of God’s character can you reflect on to remind you that he has given you all that you need?
Loving heavenly Father, our creator and sustainer,
who gives us all good things richly to enjoy:
grant us grace so to value all the blessings you lavish upon us in Christ,
that we may neither envy nor covet the gifts of others,
but find all our containment in him,
in whose precious name we pray,
Katharine Swartz is an author of contemporary fiction under the name Kate Hewitt. She lives in Monmouth, Wales where her husband is chaplain to the Haberdasher schools there.
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