Proverbs 14:30 reads, “A heart at peace gives life to the body but envy rots the bones.” Solomon knew that envy would decay the soul of the envier. He paints a picture of envy as something like cancer or root-rot that gnaws its way into the very marrow of one's being. Church Fathers like Evagrius, Cassian, Gregory the Great, Tertullian, Basil, and Aquinas expounded on the powerfully destructive effects of the Seven Deadly Sins, of which envy is one, on the soul of an individual.
We rarely talk about envy in our churches or youth ministries. And we never define envy as cancerous for people in ministry, especially youth workers. This sin has a stealth effect. It's often masked, misunderstood, trivialized, or rationalized away as spiritual correctness.
The early church fathers viewed envy as the personal pain that arose from the good fortune of another. That definition is overly simplified and as a result gives rise to misunderstanding. Envy is often misunderstood as a form of jealousy on steroids. It's not. Jealousy is an emotion that fixates on the loss of something the jealous one already possesses, like appreciation, affection, recognition, etc. The jealous person fears that someone will get more or that he/she will be replaced or diminished. This isn't envy. Jealousy and envy are also misunderstood to be covetousness, which is the burning desire to have what someone else possesses. While jealousy and covetousness are problems, they are more easily overcome than envy.
This “pain that stems from one's good fortune” (envy) has even more complex distinctives when we dissect the writings of theologians through the centuries. We begin to see that envy carries with it the desire to destroy or deprive another of the good things they have. More than desiring to possess, envy becomes an insatiable desire to rob the envied person of the qualities or possessions that person has. We see this in King Saul. He had the crown, but he was still envious of David. He didn't want what David had; he just didn't want David to have it. The same is true of Cain, Esau, and Joseph's brothers. Envy became the sole, driving, destructive force in lives of these people. Envy destroys the soul of the envier, because the more the envied is fulfilled, the more the envier is in pain. Envy becomes the infection that yields blisters of bitterness, resentment, judgment, malice, and hatred on the soul of the envier.
Envy has a stealth effect because often the envied doesn't even know of the envier's heart. This can be played out in ministry as a form of spiritual correctness. Haven't you ever looked on someone's ministry success and started theologically and methodologically picking apart the ministry and/or the person? Envy is creeping in. Many have created platforms to rob others of ministry success in the name of spiritual rebuke, correction, or accountability. While I believe that the Church needs to hold leaders accountable, we must carefully examine our hearts first for the cancerous spots of envy. Envy can quickly root itself in the souls of youth workers so bent on taking down the other person in the name of a biblical corrective that they miss the blessings God is accomplishing right before them.
Since envy is a sin that consumes one's focus, the antidote lies in a shift of focus. There are three lenses that, when kept in front of the envier's line of vision, eliminate envy.
Overwhelmingly, the consensus from early to modern literature describes love as the antidote for the root-rot of envy. Love becomes the distinguishing mark of disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke more about this than anything else. He tells us that we should love our enemies and rejoice with those who rejoice. In place of this desire to rob someone of the good fortune he possesses, the envier should replace it with a desire to be a man or woman marked by love.
This becomes a painful thing for the envier, because she must pray that God will make her love the person she envies. Love becomes a surgical knife that cuts envy away. The envious heart bent on destroying softens to one that emulates the highest virtue of the Christian life.
This takes on two forms: first, seeing God as good, and second, seeing one's life work as marked by goodness. We know that every good thing comes from God and that God pours goodness on all people, even the wicked. The prosperity of another isn't the result of personal actions, but of the goodness of God. God also pours or lavishes goodness on the life of the envier. When the envier sees God as the author and generous giver of goodness, that trajectory shift begins to kill envy.
Additionally, when the envier begins to see that his or her own life is to be punctuated by good work for the expressed purpose of bringing glory to God, envy's grip is weakened. The drive of the believer becomes good works as a reflection of the goodness of God, replacing the drive of hate and destruction produced by envy.
In a capitalistic culture that defines fulfillment by quantity and value by tangibles, the intangible quality of goodness can be lost, leaving a void for envy to fill. Envy becomes hell-bent on destroying goodness, the very thing that can destroy envy.
Gregory the Great said, “The lessening of envy is the feeling of inward sweetness arising, and the utter death of it is the perfect love of Eternity.” Seeing eternal value often kills many diseases of the Christian's soul. Jesus reminds us that seeking the Kingdom of God first adds to the quality of life that envy diminishes.
We're told to lay up treasure in heaven that can't be destroyed by earthly corrosives. Eternal perspective concentrates on things that won't burn away: things like loving God and loving others. This brings us full circle in the remedy for envy.
Envy has a hold on many youth workers' hearts. It attempts to stay undetected but is revealed by a lack of satisfaction in ministry when others experience joy and good results in ministry. The envious youth worker is faced with a choice: hold on to the very thing that'll only destroy the soul; or let love, goodness, and an eternal perspective liberate and restore the soul.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.