Of all the passions labeled the Seven Deadly Sins, envy is probably the most widely recognized as evil. Even the atheist Bertrand Russell said that it is one of the most powerful causes of human unhappiness. In the Bible, envy is at the root of a host of crimes. Satan’s rebellion against God was a product of envy. The Fall in the Garden of Eden was motivated from a desire to be like God, tearing down his authority over us. Cain envied Abel, and so killed him. Jacob and Rebekah envied Esau’s position as firstborn and so cheated him out of his birthright, leading to centuries of animosity between Israel and the Edomites. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery over envy of his favor with their father. Saul envied David his popularity and so sought to kill him. The list goes on and on, reaching its peak with the religious leaders in Jerusalem’s envy of Jesus’ popularity that led to his crucifixion.
The basic definition of envy is sorrow at another’s perceived superiority over you, whether in place, position, or possessions. You feel yourself lessened by the other’s success, which you deem undeserved. To put it differently, you view their good as an evil to you, and so you want to harm the other, to “put them in their place,” by depriving them of the advantages they have over you. You may also want to take their place yourself, though that is not necessarily part of the definition of envy.
It is said that if you put one crab in a bucket, it will crawl out. If you put two or more into the bucket, they will keep each other from crawling out by pulling them down every time they start to climb. That’s what envy looks like—we want to stop people from getting ahead of us.
To better understand envy, it will be helpful to contrast it with two other sins with which it can easily be confused, jealousy and coveting.
Envy and Jealousy
Envy is different from jealousy. Jealousy involves something that you do have—usually a close relationship to someone—that you are afraid of losing to someone else. The classic case is the person who is jealous of a significant other and either is afraid another person is trying to steal her or his affections or tries to control all the significant other’s interactions with people. Jealousy thus involves three parties: the jealous person, the object of jealousy, and the person(s) perceived as a threat.
In contrast, the envious person does not possess what is envied; someone else does. The path of envy thus does not involve the kind of obsessive protection you find in jealousy, but rather animosity against the person who possesses the object of envy. People given over to envy may not even be motivated by a desire to possess what they envy; they just want their target to be deprived of it.
Envy and Coveting
Coveting is closer to envy and sometimes overlaps it. When we covet, we have an inordinate desire for something. Coveting can take two forms. In the first, we want for ourselves the same things our neighbor has. Thus, if one of my colleagues buys a Lamborghini, I may become obsessed with getting one myself, whether because I like the car, I want to “keep up” with him, or because I want to show that I’m as good as he is. This form of coveting, though less serious than the second form it can take, nonetheless moves us into the territory of greed. It steals our joy and eats away at us from the inside as we obsess over the object we covet and turn it into an idol.
In the second form of coveting, I don’t only want something comparable to what my neighbor has, I want what he has. So if my neighbor has a beautiful wife, I may want her—not another beautiful woman. This kind of coveting could come from envy, though not necessarily. If my motivation is a desire for his wife, it is coveting, though tinged with envy; if my motivation is to hurt my neighbor by taking his wife from him, it is envy expressed through coveting. This form of coveting is more serious than the first in that it directly involves hating our neighbor and wanting to deprive him of the thing we desire.
A further distinction with coveting comes from the persons who are likely to be the targets of our envy. It is possible to covet something far beyond our reach. I might covet a yacht, a private jet, a large bank account so that I wouldn’t have to work, or that Lamborghini which I will never be able to afford. In contrast, we do not typically envy those who are far above us socially or economically but instead target peers or near-peers, seeing their success as an indictment of ourselves. The fact that the Queen of England owns a lot of castles does not incite envy in us, but a peer who suddenly purchases a beautiful house much nicer than ours could. We are envious of things that we lack but that we see as potentially our due.
The major exception to this occurs in revolutions, where the have-nots rise up against the haves. We see this in the Terror during the French Revolution, where the urban laborers who had been cut off from the political process rose up and guillotined so many members of the wealthier classes. We see it in Communist revolutions which loudly proclaim “all men are brothers”—except those they hang from lampposts. The politics of envy is incredibly dangerous, because in its mature form it results in brutality and slaughter in the streets.
Envy is thus a very dangerous sin. It can lead to serious harm to the envied with no benefit to the envier and with great harm to the heart, soul, and mind. So what is to be done about it?
Dealing with Envy
The ancient monastic theologians who studied envy said that once it takes root in a person’s heart, it is almost impossible to dislodge. With most sins, the cure is found in its opposite, but with envy, that is very difficult. Suppose, for example, a woman envies another because she has a beautiful diamond necklace. Should the owner give the necklace to the envier, it would not solve the problem: the envious woman would then resent the other’s generosity.
Further, even more than other sins, envy hides itself. Envy is recognized as a vice, and so no one wants to admit envying. To do so would simultaneously highlight the envier’s vice and the superiority of the envied, the very thing the envious wants to avoid. In fact, to avoid detection, the envious may even engage in excessive praise of the target of their enmity.
Envy is thus very difficult to deal with. The first step, as is generally the case, is to admit that it is lodged in your life. Confessing it to yourself, to God, and to a spiritual director or soul friend is a critical step toward freeing yourself from sins.
After that, the ancient monastics believed that we need to train our desires toward things that are not diminished when possessed. This may seem a riddle, but consider: if you see a beautiful scene, is your delight increased or diminished if you share that sight with others? Or is the love a husband and wife have for each other diminished when they have a child, since now they share their love with another person? As Paul tells us in Colossians, we are to set our hearts and minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:1-2). Physical possessions are automatically limited since what one person owns cannot be owned by another, but if we focus our desires more on these less tangible things, things which are good in themselves, we will not need to envy others.
Praying for the envied person is also a good practice for weakening the hold of the sin on our hearts. Specifically, thank God that the person has whatever it is that you envy them for and pray that God would bless it and them. If we are honest, this will be hard, especially at first. But as we confess our envy and pray with thanksgiving for its target, we make room for the Holy Spirit to work and take the sin out of our lives.
Ultimately, the solution to envy is found in humility, an attitude that is not focused on ourselves and what we think we deserve, and in charity, agape love that rejoices when good things happen to another person. We must learn to follow Paul’s instructions in Philippians 2 to do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than ourselves, and to have Christ’s attitude of love and service to others. As we grow in this, our hearts will have less and less room for envy.
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