Two of the most self-destructive sins we can commit are envy and jealousy. These two sins are often thought to be interchangeable, but they are not. Envy and jealousy are two different sides of the same coin, but they are not the same thing. Both are covered by the 10th Commandment where we are told we should not covet, but it is important to know how these two sins differ from each other.
Envy is coveting something another person has and wanting it for yourself. You might envy someone’s attractiveness, talent, popularity, financial success, social standing, or any other desirable factor. Jealousy is coveting something you already have and don’t want to lose. You might be jealous of someone your spouse finds attractive or someone who might take your place as the starting quarterback or captain of the debate team. With envy there is something you covet but don’t have and would like to. With jealousy there is something you covet and do have but don’t want to lose.
At one time or another we all fall prey to envy and jealousy. We might envy another person’s nice car and wish we had one just like it. We might be jealous of the way old friends are attracted to a new student in school. We might envy another person’s high salary or attractive looks. We might be jealous of someone who is competing with us for a promotion. There is no end to the list of temptations that can bring on the sins of envy and jealousy. Envy and jealousy are ever-present but pernicious symptoms of our fallen nature. Here are a few examples of envy and jealousy:
Lily became jealous when she saw her husband talking to an attractive colleague from the office during the annual Christmas Party.
Jacob felt pangs of envy when his friend, Mark, drove up in a brand-new sports car.
Sarah became jealous when the crowd applauded loudly for her co-star in the annual school play, but only politely for her.
John was envious of his friend’s new fishing boat and wanted one just like it.
Consider what the Bible says about these sins. As for envy, Proverbs 14:30 says: “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” These are strong words and a powerful warning against falling prey to envy. As for jealousy, James 3:14-16 says: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.” These are just two of many verses from Scripture that warn against envy and jealousy.
The key to avoiding envy and jealousy is learning to be content with our circumstances regardless of what they happen to be at any given time. This does not mean we cannot work to maintain or improve our circumstances. Rather, it means we should be content with where we are until we can do better. Further, our motivation for doing better should never be to one-up another person. God expects us to do the best we can with what we have. Therefore, honoring God—not giving in to envy or jealousy—must be the motivation for working to maintain or improve our circumstances.
Remaining content in less than desirable circumstances can be a challenge, but you can do it. Here is why. First, we know God has a plan for our provision and his plan is sufficient (Jeremiah 29:11). Second, even in bad times we are able to count our blessings (Ephesians 5:20). In the worst of times, we can recognize ways in which God has blessed our lives. Finally, we know that regardless of our circumstances in the here and now, a better life awaits us in the hereafter (John 3:16). John 3:16 assures us the circumstances that rob us of contentment in the here and now are only temporary.
Knowing these things provides a basis for accepting with equanimity your circumstances, regardless of what they happen to be at any given time; a challenge made less difficult when you know that bad circumstances are temporary because eternal life with Christ awaits you. As a Christian, strive to maintain desirable circumstances and improve undesirable circumstances, but do so for the right reasons. In the meantime, do not fret, fume, and complain about them. When you find this hard to do, keep God’s larger plan for you, his blessings, and the promise of eternal life foremost in your heart. Let these things bring contentment and peace into your life.
Envy and jealousy undermine contentment. Therefore, in practical terms, contentment means we do not envy others for what they have, nor are we jealous of others over what we have. We are not to complain because it appears others have it better in the here and now than we do or that they might want something we have or want. Rather, we are to seek fulfillment, satisfaction, and peace in the Lord’s provision for us.
This is what is meant in 1 Timothy 6:6-12 where we read: “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith…” This passage from Scripture leaves no doubt that being discontent with one’s circumstances can cause you to stray from the faith.
Some of the more edifying verses in Scripture about contentment are found in the Book of Job (Chapter 1, Verses 20-21). In these verses we learn that Job was tested, tempted, and tormented by the Devil. His circumstances were worse than any you and I are likely to ever face, yet Job did not yield to Satan. Job refused to let his desire for relief from Satan’s torment cause him to abandon God. Instead of giving in to Satan, Job fell to the ground and worshipped God. He then uttered words that have become some of the most frequently quoted from Scripture: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job’s faith in God was stronger than his desire to end his suffering. Thus, he was able to endure suffering that would have incapacitated anyone else. Had Job given in and cast aside his faith, he would have just made matters worse because that was precisely what the Devil wanted him to. It is also what the Devil wants you to do. Life’s difficulties are among Satan’s favorite tools for turning God’s children away from their faith. The most effective antidote to Satan’s scheming appeals to human discontentment is Biblical contentment.
Try this exercise. Develop a list of all the different ways you can think of to demonstrate contentment. You know yourself and your life better than anyone else except the Lord. Consequently, you know the things that might generate envy, jealousy, or unfulfilled yearnings in you. Make sure these things are at the top of your list. The list you develop should be personal to you. It should reflect circumstances and situations that sometimes tempt you toward discontentment.
Take the time to develop your list, but don’t be limited by it. Rather, stay in touch with your emotions so you know when envy, jealousy, or other manifestations of discontentment are bubbling up inside of you. When this happens, stop what you are doing long enough to say a prayer. Ask God to help you be content with the circumstances he has given you for the time being. Then thank him for the blessings he has bestowed on you and the eternal life that awaits you.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com