A fellow believer approaches you, eager to share her exciting news. You try to smile, but it is forced and uncomfortable. Instead of genuinely celebrating her blessing, your heart sinks, wishing you were the bearer of the good news instead of her. While she is praising the Lord, you are thinking, “Does she have to rub it in my face? Don’t I deserve that more than she does?” Once again you are reminded that it is often easier to “weep with those who weep” than it is to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom 12:15 ESV).
The Root of the Matter
The problem is that envy and jealousy1 fester within your heart. They are a product of the sinful flesh with which we are all born, and both are listed among the works of the flesh in Galatians 5: jealousy2 in verse 20 (emulations KJV), and envy in verse 21. These sins epitomize selfishness, the hallmark of the flesh, as we are naturally selfish people. We want to keep for ourselves what we have been given – we want what others have, and we are often upset if our desires remain unfulfilled. It is sad that one of the first scenes in human history reveals man’s envious heart.
The Record of Scripture
Cain was not only angry with God for not accepting him and his offering (Gen 4); he was envious that Abel and his offering were accepted. Envy towards people more righteous than ourselves and toward their relationship with the Lord is not uncommon. Sadly, the response often bears this similarity with Cain’s – instead of repentance, there is persistence in self-seeking ways. If you want the spiritual strength others seem to enjoy, why not obey the Lord as they do?
Later in Genesis, “the Lord blessed [Isaac] and the man became rich … so that the Philistines envied him” (Gen 26:12-14 ESV). We have been taught the value of eternal treasure. It is a profound shame, then, if we feel the same as the enemies of God’s people when we see the Lord granting others material prosperity. Regrettably, we tolerate this sin too easily.
Our experiences in desiring a partner and children may even provide reasons for envy and jealousy. Leah envied Rachel because of Jacob’s love for her and felt Rachel stole her husband (Gen 30:15). But “when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied [Leah]” (Gen 30:1). This is a sensitive area, exposing the weakness of our flesh and our need for grace to find our joy in the Lord.
The church in Corinth was afflicted by “jealousy and strife” (1Cor 3:3 ESV), seemingly related to who was connected to the better preacher or who had the most prolific gift. Do today’s churches ever reflect the same spirit? The Apostle Paul calls it what it is – carnal, natural, and immature.
Jealousy and envy frequently reign in our hearts when we desire greater influence, or when we feel our position is being taken away. “Love does not envy” (1Cor 13:4 ESV), but our self-seeking nature blinds us to the needs of others, and to what is truly best for the Lord’s work. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram became critical of God’s appointed leaders (Num 16). Why? Scripture says they “were jealous of Moses and Aaron” (Psa 106:16 ESV). As David rose to prominence and people perceived his greatness, Saul was jealous. He saw David as merely a young challenger to his throne (1Sam 18:5-8), instead of as the man the Lord raised up for the future of the kingdom. Many years later, another man was raised up of God in an age of unspiritual leadership. The Lord Jesus was rejected by chief priests hungry to maintain their position. “It was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matt 27:18 ESV). Truly, “Jealousy is [as] cruel as the grave” (Song 8:6).
The Reality Check
“Why were people saved in their gospel meetings and not ours?” “I can’t believe he wants to go out with her instead of with me.” “We take our children to gospel meetings regularly and nothing happens, but they hardly ever come, and their children get saved!” “She talks so easily about the things of the Lord – why does she have to act so super spiritual?” “He’s got so much more going for him just because his parents are rich.” These specific cases may not strike a chord with you, but if you are honest, you can think of your own enticements to envy. Have you considered how destructive it is to your soul?
“Envy makes the bones rot” (Prov 14:30 ESV). It takes root within, sprouts incessantly, occupies more and more of your heart, and will never be satiated. “As a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a man” (John Chrysostom). Saul is a prime example of how envy or jealousy can twist your perspective and distract from your purpose. Bitterness and self-pity often follow. “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16 ESV). When clamoring after someone else’s stewardship, a believer may feel his “overlooked talents” will be more appreciated elsewhere. As in Corinth, strife spreads when individuals display envy instead of humility and mutual submission.
Begin with a sincere self-assessment. Envy and jealousy grieve the Spirit of God, and must be confessed. Consider the circumstances that give rise to these sins in your heart and how they reveal the selfish desires that specifically tempt you. Try to be expressly thankful for the goodness of God to others. His work in and through them is contributing to the growth of the body of Christ, of which you are a part. Serving the Lord is not a competition, so remember that all individuals are of great value to God, irrespective of their abilities and accomplishments – and that includes you. “Be content with what you have” (Heb 13:5 ESV), including your possessions, your relationships, and your abilities.
All of this requires a focus on Christ, which is how the Spirit will produce in you His fruits of love, joy, and peace. The Lord Jesus was conscious of His great responsibility to do what His Father willed for Him (John 4:34; Heb 10:7). When people tried to make Him king, He went to be alone (John 6:15). He knew His disciples would do greater works than He (John 14:12), and He was content with this. He did not jealously guard His blessings, but shared them with us (Rom 8:17). “Let us walk properly … not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:13-14 ESV).
1 Generally, jealousy describes your concern that something you have will be taken by another, whereas envy is the emotion experienced when you want what someone else has.
2 Jealousy is sometimes a good thing in Scripture. For example, “God is jealous” (Nah 1:2) for the hearts of His people, as they are rightfully His. Paul tells the Corinthian church that he is jealous over them “with a godly jealousy” (2Cor 11:2).