Envy is a sin I’ve always struggled with. I can tell you my origins story for this, tell you all the ways I felt like I had the short end of the stick throughout my life while others had it easier, but that would be a waste of time and energy–both for me and for you.
A religion teacher in high school once told my class that envy is the only sin which cannot bring a person pleasure. Really, where is the fun in envy? How can envy feel good? My teacher made a valid point, but I think he forgot something.
If a sin does not feel good, people would not keep returning to it.
So there has to be something I get out of envy. But what is it?
Now, I’m not a theologian or anything, but I think envy is rooted in a lack of contentment with your own life. There is a reason why the apostle Paul said this in Phillipians 4:12–
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
I’ve been reading the book of Acts during my morning commute, and I’ve been reminded of how many atrocities Paul had to endure while he was preaching the Gospel. Entire towns turned against him. He was loved and despised by both Jews and Gentiles, slaves and authority figures. He was flogged, imprisoned, shipwrecked, stoned–Paul had a rough time. Perhaps some would say that this was God’s retribution for the time Paul spent persecuting Christians before he became one himself.
But I wouldn’t say so.
I think life happened to Paul. Reading through Acts feels almost like reading the book of Job. There are times when I’m reading it and I think to myself, but why would God allow so many bad things to happen to His servants? They’re preaching the Gospel for His namesake, so why is He allowing so many tragedies to befall His people? Why????
Peter had an easier time with his ministry than Paul did, based on my feeble human reasoning. In reality, it’s senseless to compare one person’s suffering to another’s, because pain is a very personal thing and we all experience it differently. Again, though, based on a mental tally mark chart of how many things Paul went through versus how many things Peter went through, as it is recorded in the book of Acts, I think Paul had a lot more difficulty in his life.
Interestingly enough, though, Paul never has a pity party in his letters to the various churches. He could have reminded the Thessalonians about the mob that had ensued after he preached about Messiah. If Paul wanted to, he could have written “We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. Except for those people who forced me out of the city. We don’t pray for them. Remember them? How are they doing now, eh?”
Paul didn’t write that, though. Nor did he waste time comparing his hardships to those of Peter’s.
In the end, both men were martyred. Any earthly gain they had–or didn’t have–did not matter. Both men were going to spend eternity in God’s presence.
Put in this perspective, my complaints are irrelevant. Obsessively looking at the lives of other people prevents me from seeing how [strangely?] wonderful my own life is. Has it always been easy? No. But I don’t need to walk three miles a day to fetch water from a well, so I can be grateful for that. I have a job that I love, I live close to the sea, my home is peaceful, I have friends who care about me, I’m young and free in NYC, and, above all, I have a Savior who loves me.
So, what pleasure does envy derive? The only pleasure I can think of is the happiness I feel when I see something go wrong in someone’s seemingly perfect life. That sounds absolutely horrible, but don’t pretend you haven’t felt that way before, too. We all like to see celebrities get humiliated on TMZ.
As a sidenote, if I envy someone because of something I could have if I work for it, then that is just plain stupidity. I am to blame for my own mediocrity.
Oh, and the downside to envy–why it’s wrong–is ingratitude. Being envious tells God that you think He made a mistake, or that He hasn’t been a good provider. If God wants you to have something, He will make a way. Ultimately, though, He knows what’s best.