Can envy ever be a good thing? Seems a ridiculous question. How can envy ever be good? Envy is jealousy of someone else, or what they have. Envy is the opposite of contentedness and gratitude. Envy wishes that we might be like another person or enjoy the things they enjoy. Therefore it prevents us from valuing who we are and seeing the gifts that we have been given. The sixth deadly sin diminishes us and gives little in return. Could it ever be used for good?
In the Bible, the tenth commandment tells us not to covet: do not covet your neighbour’s ox, his ass, his house, his wife, or anything that belongs to him. Proverbs 14 verse 30 recognises that envy eats us up from inside: ‘A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh but envy makes the bones rot.’ Jesus lists envy as one of the evil thoughts that pollute a person from within.
And in the passage we read today from James chapter 3v13 through to chapter 4 verse 8, James lists what the results of envy can be. How often children fall out over sharing toys, or a parent’s attention! Adults are not immune – what is often called a personality clash may well be down to envy of someone else’s perceived good fortune. It has a corrosive effect in our society, as advertising encourages us to raise our aspirations, to compare ourselves with our neighbours, to imagine we can satisfy our deepest needs with the latest clothes or gadgets.
The Christian response to envy is to cultivate thankfulness. If we regularly give thanks for the good things we enjoy, we are much less likely to consider ourselves hard done by. In v. 3 James urges us to ask God for the things we need – simply pray for what is necessary. St Paul in his letter to the Philippians chapter 4 verse 13, tells us that he has learned to be content in every situation, whether with a little or a lot. For if our deepest needs, for God, for human relationships, for meaning in our work – if those needs are met then we are less likely to try and fill the hole with wanting more stuff. The good news is that following Christ means we do not need to envy!
How then do we deal with envy? If you’re prone to it, do you have a straight choice between squishing it or allowing it to take over? Or is there another way? After all, the problem with trying to suppress emotions is that they have a nasty habit of popping up unexpectedly elsewhere. Or the pressure builds up until the boiler bursts.
In v. 14 James writes about bitter envy and selfish ambition. Yet does ambition have to be selfish? Perhaps we can imagine a kind of ambition that can be positive: an ambition to make your company a force for good in society; an ambition to change the world for the better; an ambition to be the best you can for God. If ambition can be selfish, but need not, might there be such a thing as an envy which is not bitter?
I’m reading a book by the philosopher Alain de Botton, called The Joys and Sorrows of Work. It’s lyrical, astutely observational, occasionally a little smug but often entertaining as the book reflects on the world of work. Surprisingly, although Alain de Botton is an atheist, some of his thoughts on the value and purpose of work and human identity have close correspondence with Christian beliefs.
At one point he watches a vocational advisor giving careers advice. This is not to sixth formers, but to mature executives who have lost their way. Christians might say that they are seeking a more profound vocation. The adviser urges one of his clients to identify people that they envy – be honest, he says, and if there’s not at least two close friends on that list I’ll know you haven’t been truthful.
What’s he playing at? If we can identify who and what we are envious of, we might then be able to discern some misplaced desires of our hearts. So perhaps if you are envious of Carol’s fast car, maybe you long for fun and freedom? If you spend your time looking at gorgeous houses and gardens in the paper, do you have an unmet need for beauty, or a desire to give hospitality, or are you just tired and want to relax? I expect many people have a friend who doesn’t own much but whose simplicity of life and strong relationships are deeply attractive.
Identifying what we envy and thinking about why is a very interesting exercise. Perhaps with prayer and discernment, it can teach us something profound. It may even point us towards adjustments we can make to find deeper fulfilment and draw closer to God’s plan for our lives.
Of course, this isn’t the same as giving in to it! James’ point is very clear: unchecked envy is a powerfully destructive force. If we find it in our hearts, which v.14 recognises can be the case, then what do we do? Verses 15 and 16 show that giving in to envy, indulging it, leads us down an unhealthy path. Curious isn’t it, that those who have the most often seem most prone to compare themselves to others and want more as each bite satisfies less and less.
I would argue that understanding envy, and thinking about where it comes from, will give us a much greater ability to defeat its negative consequences. Then, as v.17 urges, we will not be hypocritical but able to live at peace with ourselves and with others.
Nonetheless, as we fight against any temptation, there will be times when that is a struggle and we need to draw on real willpower and learn to work with God’s Holy Spirit. When James talks of peace and being willing to yield, it teaches us that we ultimately have a choice: we can choose to let others be others and be content with who we are – or we can try and prove ourselves. We can choose to spend time giving thanks in prayer – or we can choose to flip through the catalogues.
Making peace requires effort, the ability to reach out to someone else. Moving on to verse 7, resisting evil is a deliberate choice too. ‘Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts you double minded.’
As James closes this passage, he brings the battle against envy onto a spiritual dimension – an ongoing spiritual warfare. Resisting the devil is about knowing right and wrong, and being aware when there is a battle on. Some significant battles have been lost because one side didn’t know there was a war! We need to acknowledge that there is a battle for our hearts and minds, a spiritual dimension.
Submitting to God is explained later on – it’s about being humble and drawing close to God. We need his spirit to help us, and as we draw close to God then he draws close to us. Cleanse our hands is a picture of repentance, of acknowledging when we have done wrong and turning from it. Purifying our hearts recognises that we can learn to control our thoughts.
To sum up then: Envy is a powerful emotion. It lurks within – and if we’re aware of it, it’s better to be open with ourselves and with God. If we pray about it, the roots of envy may even reveal useful things about ourselves. And when we have understood it and rejected its negative consequences, thankfulness and contentedness are the blessings that God gives.