Envy: Tearing Down Those in Front of Us

One of the seven deadly sins and its antidote.

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.

 

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.

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