When You're Troubled by Envy

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 13:4

In the tragedy of Othello, Shakespeare referred to jealousy or envy as a “green-eyed monster.” Let’s think today about what God’s grace can do to tame that monster.


Lots of us are bothered by that ugly green-eyed monster. You know his name: E-N-V-Y – Envy.

Envy comes from a French word which means “to inspect or look on.” You might call it a certain way of looking at things, or especially at people. Webster defines it like this: “Painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another, joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” Notice the elements here: you become aware of someone else’s advantage, you want that gift, that goodie, for yourself, and then you feel pain and resentment. In other words, when you are envious, you notice things in others and you don’t like what you see. It seems to you that that advantage, that quality, that benefit, ought to be yours.

Now why do you suppose we call envy a “green-eyed monster”? The “green” part may come from something physiological. You’ve heard about someone turning “green with envy.” That actually happens – or almost. When people are filled with feelings of envy, it can affect the circulation of the blood. I’m told that it causes “peripheral contraction of the capillary arteries.” What about that? And when those tubes contract, you get pale. And of course, when you get pale, you actually do begin to look a little green – green around the gills, as we say.

And why is envy a “monster”? Because of all the evils in life, there are few things as damaging to happiness, destructive to persons, and damning to the soul, as envy. For the person who experiences it, the envious one, it brings nothing but misery – absolutely nothing else. Other forms of sin may be equally “bad news” in the end but they at least bring a kind of temporary pleasure and satisfaction. The promiscuous must find some enjoyment in their affairs. The covetous get “kicks” from their wealth, I suppose, and the proudly ambitious feel elation when they become famous. But envy makes you feel miserable from the start and worse and worse as you go along. If it really gets a grip on you, it can squeeze the joy right out of your life.

But that’s not the whole story. Envy goes to work on the other person, too, and its effects are not pretty. At heart, envy is a killer. It goes right for the jugular vein in other people. Think, for example, about the first murder in history. What was behind it?

Two brothers, Cain and Abel, both bring an offering to the Lord. Abel’s offering is accepted; Cain’s is not. Cain sees this – both how Abel seems to be favored and he slighted. “He was angry,” we read, “and his countenance fell.” Maybe he had the first green complexion in history! God warned him to watch out for that attitude. But it wasn’t long before he took his brother out in the field and murdered him. That’s what envy did.

Remember King Saul, when young David began to win his victories on the battlefield? Saul became very uncomfortable. Then the young girls in Israel began to sing their hero songs. One popular number went like this: “Saul has made havoc of thousands, but David of ten thousands.” That was too much for the king. It kept eating away at his insides until one day he picked up a spear and tried to nail David to the wall. He missed, but Saul kept on trying to get rid of David for the rest of his own unhappy life. That’s what envy did to him.

Or what about King Herod, when he heard the news from the Magi that an infant king was to be born? “What?” he thought, “someone to be king, to take my place, to be considered greater than I? There’s no time to lose. I’ll kill off all possibilities of replacement, even if I have to butcher hundreds to get the right one!” Well, his plan failed. But when others finally did murder that young king some years later, do you know how it happened? The New Testament records that the religious leaders of the day delivered up Jesus to die – you guessed it – “out of envy.” Why? Shakespeare’s worst villain, Iago, expressed it perfectly when he said this about a man he wanted to destroy, “He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”


Well, that’s the monster we’re talking about when we speak of envy. But what does that have to do with decent people like us, who surely wouldn’t do anyone harm? We don’t have any problem with this kind of thing, do we?

We’d like to think that we don’t. Envy is such an ugly, wretched thing, and is so universally despised, that no one wants to appear guilty of it. So when it crops up in us, we try hard to hide it from public view. We may even try to convince ourselves that it isn’t there.

After all, if I’m envious, it must mean that other people are somehow better off than I am. I’m obviously inferior. Then, on top of that, if people find out that I’m envious, I will seem to them a louse, a contemptible person. And if I have to face the fact that I’m envious, I’ll be so ashamed of myself that I’ll feel like so much garbage. So if there’s any envy in me, I’m likely to decide that no one is going to know about it.

We need help, then, to uncover this thing in ourselves, to see where it’s working on us. Actually, no one of us is immune to envy. And probably most of us have real struggles with it somewhere along the way.

To start the ball rolling in self-discovery, let me tell you how envy gets hold of my life. I discovered early that envy cropped up in me toward other people who were doing the same thing that I was doing, those with whom I was in some sense competing. The more important the activity was to me, the greater the problem I seemed to have. When I was going through high school, athletics were a big part of my life. I wanted to play first string in basketball, to be a starter, but it often seemed that I wasn’t quite making it. I was the first substitute. There was one man ahead of me. I noticed that when he was in the game I sometimes found myself less than happy if he scored, if he played well. Now that’s really bad, isn’t it? After all, this is our team. Any loyal player ought to be pulling for our team, happy when anyone helps out, but I wasn’t, at least not always. Of course, I didn’t let anyone know that. I cheered. I said like the other guys, “Nice game, Joe.” But I knew how I felt inside. And it sometimes bothered me.

Someone chuckles, “That’s just an immature, childish trait.” Maybe so, but I find it hard to shake even in my later years. When my sons participated in team sports, I sometimes felt the same pressures working on me. It’s the day of the big game and some other boy is playing ahead of my son. Somehow I can’t be as glad when he excels as I should. I’m envious. I seem to want that position, that opportunity for my son. And most coaches know what a problem such fathers can be!

But I have to fight this at a deeper level too. Now the thing I want to do most in my life is serve Christ, build up his church, make known his gospel. You would think that such an aim would free a person from unworthy, envious feelings. But I still struggle with them sometimes. Here’s a servant of the Lord who’s doing a far better job than I am. Maybe he’s reaching more people, maybe his labors are more recognized than mine. Maybe he writes best-selling books that I wish I had written. Sometimes I envy that man. I can tell that, because when others praise him or point out his successes, I find myself feeling suddenly uncomfortable. Somehow I don’t like it, and I don’t like myself for not liking it. There I am, in the grip of the monster, in the envy trap.

Maybe you’ve been there, too. Whenever you’re uneasy, unhappy at the gifts, success, prominence of others, you’re in that battle. You may react in any of several ways. You may withdraw from that person, from mention of him, from reminders of him or her. You may come on very aggressively toward that person in attack or criticism. Or you may seek to undermine them in oblique, devious ways. But none of those things gets you out of the bind.

But if you can recognize that you’re in it, that’s a major gain. If you’re willing to label it, you can confess it, and that’s the first big step toward deliverance. When you’ve faced it, confessed it, you can begin to look at it honestly. Why do I feel that way? What’s going on in me when I envy someone? Here’s the truth about it: envy is a dead giveaway that I have sold myself short. It shows a lack of appreciation for my own uniqueness and worth. When you envy, you don’t even see yourself. The other person becomes all – important – his or her gifts, successes, achievements. You spend your energy watching him or her, being threatened by that person, not wanting them to succeed. So you don’t develop your own potential. You feel more and more alone, humiliated, worthless, inclined to reject yourself.


Now bring the Lord and his grace into that picture. What difference can that make? As you come to Jesus Christ, trusting in him, he accepts you even though you may be full of envious feelings. He forgives you freely. But there’s much more. His welcoming love helps you to see yourself as special. By his Spirit, he has given you unique gifts. You have something important to contribute. When you know that and when you’re becoming able to use your gift, you won’t be threatened by what others may have to give.

And suppose you can see the successes, the accomplishments, the victories of others as his gifts, too? That puts them in a different light. What an outlook John the Baptist had! When his followers were going over to Jesus and reports came of his friend’s prominence and popularity, John gave this profound response: “A man can receive nothing unless it be given him from heaven.” Pondering that led me into a rich experience a while ago. I tried to think of all the people I’ve been tempted to envy and began instead to thank the Lord for their gifts. It’s difficult then to keep on envying them!

We Christians need to face this reality as we live in the fellowship of believers. Envy will always spring up where the gifts of some are not recognized, not seen as significant, not welcomed. One of our chief responsibilities is to call forth the gifts of others. We need to express our own gladly, of course, but to remember that our brothers and sisters have much to give, too.

“Love doesn’t envy,” writes Paul. No, when you know you’re loved by God and you’re becoming free to love yourself, you can begin to rejoice in God’s gifts to others. You can even do a very beautiful thing: you can admire. The church should be, in the best sense, a “mutual admiration society.”

Paul says in another of his letters that we aren’t to envy each other or to provoke each other. We can fall into both sides of that trap. We can be eaten up with envy toward others, or we can so parade and publicize our own gifts and achievements that we tend to stir up the same evil in them. Both are “works of the flesh.” Both are injurious to the body of Christ.

Finally, then, what do we do about the green-eyed monster, envy? Number 1: recognize it, label it, confess it to God. Number 2: trust in the grace of God that accepts you in Jesus Christ and then express your unique gifts. And number 3: thank God for the gifts of others and do all you can to call them forth.

In other words, live out of Christ’s love for you. Keep your eyes on the giving God and make it your aim to affirm other people. As you do, the green-eyed monster may still climb up on your shoulder at times and whisper in your ear. But you won’t be feeding him much any more and pretty soon he may just shrivel up and blow away!