Envy Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Envy

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Envy is resentment of the goods of another, plus the desire to despoil him or her of the goods (and typically, but not necessarily, to have them for oneself: on 9/11 terrorists did not want to occupy the twin towers; they wanted to destroy them).

In Scripture

Cain and Abel Genesis 4:1-8 starts the history of envy. God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s, provoking Cain to anger and then to fratricide. The incident is the first in a biblical pattern in which God surprisingly prefers one person over another—typically the younger over the older—and then has to deal with the loser’s envy. Think Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Isaac and Ishmael, Joseph and his brothers.

Saul and David 1 Samuel 16-31 gives us the incomparable Saul and David stories. David is a teenager with beautiful eyes who became a giant-killer in his dual with Goliath and therefore a rival to his own sovereign, the stormy King Saul. Saul had been Israel’s undisputed war hero. But now this talented rookie is making the crowds roar and the women sing: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’ Saul was very angry; for this saying displeased him” (1 Sam. 18:7, 8). In fact, the refrain makes Saul want to kill David.

Resentment of another’s ministry Numbers 11:26-28 describes Joshua’s resentment of Eldad and Medad’s prophecy. The two of them hadn’t gone to the tent of meeting where the Spirit had inspired the seventy elders to prophesy. They had stayed home from church that day but started prophesying anyhow, and Joshua didn’t appreciate it one little bit. See also Mark 9:38: “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us;”” [i.e. “we’re the authorized exorcists, as you can see from our T-shirts”].

Moses and Aaron In Numbers 16, the story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (with echoes in Psalm 106:16) tells of God’s judgment on those Israelites who envied the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

Envy poisons Several Old Testament texts warn that envy poisons the envier, e.g., Job 5:2 (“Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple”, NIV) and Proverbs 14:30 (“a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones,” NIV).

Evildoers Several Old Testament texts caution believers against envying “the wicked” or “evildoers” (e.g. Ps. 37:1; Prov. 24:1, 19). The idea appears to be that envy of the wicked is superfluous. They may appear fat and sassy, but they cannot endure.

New Testament New Testament texts are of roughly four sorts: (1) Vice lists Texts in which envy is an undiscussed item in a list of vices (e.g., Rom. 13:13, 2 Cor. 12:20, Gal. 5:21, 1 Tim. 6:4); (2) Worldliness exhibits Similarly, texts in which envy is an exhibit of worldliness, (e.g., 1 Cor 3:3, Jame 3:14, Titus 3:3); (3) Envy of Jesus and Paul Texts in which envy is the motive for handing over Jesus to the Romans (Matt. 27:18, Mk. 15:10) or for opposing Paul’s ministry (Acts 13:14, 17:5); and (4) Various instances Texts in which the all-day employees in the vineyard resent advantages given to the latecomers (Matt. 20:15) or the elder brother resents the party thrown for his younger brother (Luke 15:28-30) or Martha resents Mary’s sabbatical for study (Luke 10:38-40) or John the Baptist’s disciples resent the crowds Jesus is drawing (John 3:22-26).

Points to Ponder

Not jealousy Despite ordinary usage and meaning in current English, envy in the “seven deadlies” tradition is not the same thing as jealousy, which is the keen desire to keep and protect goods one already has. (God wants people’s worship not to drift toward idols: God is a jealous God. A husband wants to keep his wife’s love for himself; he is properly jealous of it.)

Not covetousness Neither is envy the same as covetousness, which is unhealthy desire for the goods of another, and thus, classically, a motive to steal. (In the 1930s, the Japanese cast a covetous eye on the natural resources of Manchuria.)

Not emulation Envy is not emulation either—the desire to equal or surpass someone in achievement or quality. (“After hearing Wynton Marsalis I wanted to go home and practice for hours.”)

Vs. gratitude Envy’s opposite is gratitude to God for the genuine goods with which God blesses others. This is a high calling. Church fathers sometimes commented that it’s easier to weep with those who weep than to rejoice with those who rejoice.

Schadenfreude Envy’s natural corollary is what the Germans call Schadenfreude—the enjoyment of others’ misfortune. The envier not only sorrows over another’s good fortune and wants it to end; he or she also rejoices in another’s misfortune and wants it to persist.

Pure evil Nearly all the other seven deadly sins (pride, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust) have an element of pleasure in them. Not envy. It’s pure evil, as sickening to the envier as to everybody else.

Cain and Abel God may have preferred Abel’s offering because it really cost Abel something to give it—he gave the choicest cuts from his most valuable stock while Cain brought garden-variety produce. Or God may have preferred Abel’s offering out of the blue. To an envier, it doesn’t matter. The other person’s advantage is unfair either way.

Translation Insights

wu-guu (Kassem): In Kassem, a language spoken in the African nation of Burkina Faso, the word “envy” or “jealousy” is translated wu-guu which means “inner-being-killer.” In the Burkinabé culture of Burkina Faso, when a person is jealous of someone, it hurts his inner being almost to the point of killing him. Jealousy is more than just wishing to have what the other has; it also means wishing the other person doesn’t have it, perhaps leading to violent or destructive behavior.

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Many of the translation insights shown on this site are courtesy of the TIPs Bible.
Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.