Henry Fairlie wrote, “Envy is the one Deadly Sin to which no one readily confesses.”[1] Why is this so?  Pride is the root of all sins, and yet it can have a positive meaning and even in its sinfulness has a sort of perverted nobility.  What makes envy so nasty?  In order to answer this question, we’ll need to define envy carefully and distinguish it from two closely related words “covetousness” and “jealousy.”

Solomon Schimmel’s writes, “Envy is the pain we feel when we perceive another individual possessing some object, quality, or status we do not possess.”[2] John of Damascus defines it as “sorrow for another’s good.”[3] Among the sins that Jesus condemns as coming from the heart is “envy” (Mark 7:22). The Greek is literally “evil eye.” This figure is meant to capture the resentful way a person looks upon the possessions of others.[4]  The same expression is used in Ecclesiasticus 14:10. The New English Bible translation is telling.  “A miser grudges bread and keeps an empty table.”  “Miser” translates “evil eye.”  Even though he does not desire bread (“keeps an empty table”), he resents that others have it.

These definitions clearly understand envy as wholly negative.  Pride believes in excellence.  Vanity wants the status that comes from people thinking it is excellent.  Avarice at least values the objects that it desires.  Whether it is an object such as a fancy car or a lovely house, a personal quality such as beauty or intelligence or the status that comes from being a boss or even having a good reputation, envy doesn’t primarily desire it.  It just does not want others to have it.

Although distinct from pride, the two are related.  Pride is an exaggerated view of one’s person and accomplishments, that looks down upon others and views itself as better than them.  Envy is given to comparisons too but from a different perspective than pride. Schimmel explains, “When we compare ourselves unfavorably to others our self-esteem is impugned and envy is our response to this hurt.”[5] Envy feels that the other person’s good or accomplishments diminishes its own.  This feeling creates a dangerous emotional spiral.  The first stage is dejection.  The envious person feels pain and sorrow.  He feels hurt by the other person’s good.  Dejection then leads to a hostility to others which disparages the good of others.  Finally, envy becomes destructive and seeks to take away the other’s good and bring the other down.[6]

Covetousness is condemned by the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17) and by Jesus in Mark 7:22. It differs from envy in relation to the desire for the possessions of others.  Envy resents their possessing but does not necessarily desire what they have.  Covetousness does desire what belongs to others.  We envy people, but we covet possessions.

Jealousy is often used synonymously with envy, but strictly speaking there is a distinction.  As defined above, envy is the pain we feel at someone else’s good.  It is not a good that we possess.  In contrast, jealousy is the desire to maintain what is ours.  If the object desired is rightfully ours and not valued more highly than it should be, then jealousy is not a sin.  God is described as a jealous God because he rightfully claims his name or status as the only being worthy of our worship and wholly dedicated service (Exodus 20:5; 34:14).  The Christian should also be jealous of God’s name and so prays, “Hallowed be your name,” or “May you, O God, receive the honor that is your due” (Matthew 6:9).  However, it is wrong to seek to guard for ourselves what is not truly ours or value inordinately what we do possess.  This latter desire is sinful jealousy.

The Scriptures make clear the dire consequences of the sin of envy.  Proverbs 14:30 warns, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” In contrast to a tranquil heart, envy is restless and destructive to the inner person.  It is like a cancer that destroys the envious, eating away at joy and peace.

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 illustrates how the internal workings of envy result in harm to others.  Abel and Cain offer sacrifices to the Lord.  Abel’s is accepted, but Cain’s is rejected.  We are told that Cain became “very angry and his face fell” (v. 4).  In other words, he responds with anger and the feeling of being shamed.  However, his anger and shame are not because he was rejected by God but rather because his brother had been accepted.  God rebukes Cain for his anger and feeling of humiliation and tells him, “if you do well, will you not be accepted” (v. 7)?  Cain will be accepted by God, if he offers his sacrifice properly.  This Cain does not do.  Instead, he kills his brother Abel (v. 8), which leads to his judgment by God.  What embittered Cain was envy of his brother.  That his brother was accepted by God galled him.  He would rather kill his brother than be accepted by God.  Such is the strength of envy’s rage.

Envy is fundamentally a failure of love.  We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31).  Paul’s panegyric on love in 1 Corinthians tells us, “Love does not envy” (v. 4) because it is not in competition with others.  It is not resentful (v. 5) but is joyful (v. 6).

Envy is also a failure of faith and hope.  Love rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6).  Envy does not want to accept the truth that God is greater than we are.  Its competitive nature and exclusive focus on self means that it refuses to give itself fully to God in worship.  It does not want him to have the glory.  Love also hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).  Hope leads us to humble ourselves before God and trust in his promise to exalt us in due time (1 Peter 5:6).  Envy is resentful of God’s greatness.  It feels humiliated and angry. As does pride, it hates humility.

In our next post, we’ll take up envy’s righthand man—anger.

[1] The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), p. 61.

[2] The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 57.

[3] On the Orthodox Faith., ii:14, quoted by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 36, A. 1.

[4] William L. Lane, The Gospel according to Mark (Grand Rapids, William b. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 257.

[5] Seven Deadly Sins, p. 61.

[6] See Os Guinness, Steering through the Chaos, p. 72.

35 Responses to “Envy: The Thoroughly Nasty Sin”

  • Sophie Cather:

    The article did not pull any punches with regards to such a rotten sin, and it made profound statements about envy and its attributes. Before, envy and jealousy were synonymous terms; they both meant the desire of something I do not possess. Envy, as I have discovered, is much more severe and rooted in bitterness. Recalling the Faerie Queen, the creature, Envy, rejoiced at the pain of others and had poison trickling from his mouth. Not only did this article connect to the Faerie Queen, but it also reveals the internal state of an envious person. Envy is harmful, for it eats away at your joy and peace, as you said, and leaves the host feeling sick. Envy consumes everything and leaves one feeling empty. Could it be called the connecting sin between pride and vainglory since they are all sins concerning identity? To explain my connection, one could begin with an inflated view of themselves, observe another who has that which the first does not have, and (after envy has overcome them) become empty which brings about the need for approval from others.
    I was also confused when you said, “Envy does not want to accept the truth that God is greater than we are” (par. 9). How can envying a friend result in the refusal to submit to God? I do not think that when someone is envious that they are thinking, “I refuse to give the glory to God.” Perhaps you were solely applying it to the story of Cain and Abel or I misunderstood.

    • Thank you for the comments, Sophie. I do think that pride and envy are closely related, since the resentment an envious person feels relates to an exaggerated sense of his or her importance. I’m not so sure about the vainglory connection because as I understand it envy doesn’t want the praise of others. It just wants others not to be praised, which is how Cain felt. With regard to your question about envy and God, my point was that an envious person ultimately will resent God himself because all glory should be his. Thanks for the Faerie Queen reference. Should we look at it in class?

  • Drew Sullivan:

    I had never thought of envy being a failure of love, or that envy is pain or anger at seeing another person’s good. I always associated envy with jealousy, and didn’t think jealousy could be good unless God was the jealous one. Envy seems extra dangerous to me because it is done in the mind. I know I have been envious of others doing better on test or in sports than me before, what is the best way to lose a mindset of envy when others succeed and we don’t?

    • Good question, Drew. It is the challenge of the second commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can then rejoice at their success. Although reason can sometimes be overwhelmed by sin, we need to remember that not all relationships are competitive. Somebody’s success on a test is not relevant to ours. We get what we get based upon our own merits. Even in competitive sports, there needs to be a recognition of the justice of the game and that success is playing your best, which does not always mean winning, but I’ll admit that it’s not easy. If we are commanded to love our enemies, then surely we are to love our opponents. This can only be done ultimately by prayer and God’s help.

  • Chandler M Vincent:

    Dr. Isley,
    First, Pride can have positive connotations, Vainglory can have positive connotations, but Envy cannot? Will there be any other sins that cannot have positive outcomes? Or is it just Envy?
    Second, can you be envious of somebodies possessions and want them? Or would that only be covetousness? And can you have something that was already yours, but others are enjoying it as well and be envious of them? Or would that only be jealousy?
    I really did enjoy this reading, I had never really thought of Envy as anything other than jealousy, so just recognizing (or bringing to the surface what my subconscious knew) that you do not always want what you are envious about is a really cool thought. Thank you for taking time to write this!
    Have a good night!

    • Thanks, Chandler. I am glad that you are finding these posts helpful. I think all the rest can be seen as perverted goods. I struggle to find that to be true with envy. The desire for others’ possessions would be covetousness. A specific example would be helpful with your next question. If others are sharing it, that sounds like something that isn’t yours. On the other hand, you might very well resent the fact that they are enjoying it and you aren’t.

      • Chandler M Vincent:

        So a specific example might be, something I am not to familiar with so I do not know if this is correct but I am going off the movies, if I had a boyfriend and my boyfriend has other friends that are girls. Nothing immoral, but genuinely just friends. I, the true girlfriend, might be jealous that sometimes my boyfriend is hanging out with his other friends and not just me. So to make sure he does not continue hanging out with his gal friends, I either put them down or make him stop talking to them, so that I can have him as my own. And isn’t that also Envy? Because you defined it as “feeling the other persons good or accomplishments diminish your own”. So I, the girlfriend, might feel like she is not enough for him so he has to go seek a jolly time with his other gal friends, instead of being content with just me. So would this example not be both jealousy and envy at the same time?
        – again this is not a personal experience just what I have gathered from the movies on romance and drama (like telenovelas but those are much more dramatic). This is just an example –

        • Chandler, what you have described is sinful jealousy. A boyfriend or a girlfriend by their very nature of that relationship does not have the kind of commitment that a married couple has. Because of their vows the married couple rightly can say, “I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.” However, a spouse that never wants his or her spouse to have any interaction with someone of the opposite sex is wrongfully possessive and probably insecure in the relationship. Having said that, I would add that it is wise for married couples to be cautious in how they relate to those of the opposite sex who are not their spouse.

  • David Groleau:

    Thx Bill – distinguishing between terms is very helpful, although painful. Far too easy for me to brush-off-lightly a confession of jealously, etc— but digging deep into terminology forces me to ask the Lord to dig deeply into me and my true motivations. Ah, how far from holiness we all will be until transformed by merciful grace in glory!

    • Thanks, Dave, and it is so good to hear from you. I likened the need to define our terms carefully to the task of a physician to diagnose properly the disease.

  • Taryn Durbin:

    I liked seeing the comparison between envy and jealousy because in the past, I saw envy and jealousy as the same thing. I liked how this article clarified that envy is the pain we feel at someone else’s good, whereas jealousy is the desire to maintain what is ours. Similarly, I did not realize that there was a difference between envy and covetousness. However, as the article describes, while envy resents what others possess, it does not necessarily desire what they have. Covetousness, on the other hand, does desires the possessions of others. It was helpful to read the example of Cain and Abel because it showed me an extreme example of the capability of envy in a person which can lead them to the extent that some will go for their own selfish desires.

  • Jude Borchers:

    I had never considered that negative effects on others are inherent in envy. I knew that envy was damaging to me internally, but I didn’t think about how envy strives to bring others down. It’s an interesting contrast where pride is so self centered that it can completely ignore others, but envy focused on others. It was strange to hear about envy as sorrow and pain. I had always thought of it just as a desire, but it really is more than that now that I think about it. Is any instance of wanting something that belongs to someone else envy or is it exclusive to when you’re upset that someone else has it?

    • Thanks, Jude. When we want something that belongs to someone else, it is coveting. Beside being a sin itself, coveting can lead to theft and even murder as we seeks to seize possession of something that is not ours.

  • Tess Ewing:

    Wow, this post was really nice! Before I read this post, I was unclear what the difference between envy, jealousy, and coveting were, but now I know, so thank you for always including such nice definitions! A question that I came across well reading this is, does and envy turn into covetous? I was wondering is because earlier in the text you said that envy first causes dejection, but then eventually leads to hostility to others due to envy, which I thought went along with covetous, but I may be wrong. Overall I did really enjoy this article, and enjoyed all of the different Bible verses that helped illustrate different examples of the terms we are talking about.

    • Thanks, Tess. Envy and covetousness are distinct in that the former merely resents that somebody else has something; whereas covetousness is wanting something that another has. I think that it may be more likely that our covetousness could turn into mere hostility to the person. When someone has a possession or certain characteristic that we can’t or don’t have, we have a tendency to begin finding ways to denigrate the person or the possession. We say, “She’s so smart, but being smart isn’t so important.” Or maybe, “She isn’t really that smart.” In reality, we are unhappy with ourselves and unwilling to be at peace that someone has something we don’t or perhaps to make the effort to improve ourselves in some area. In either case, we are not loving the person, because love rejoices with those who are blessed.

  • Kylie Cleverdon:

    Thank you so much for writing this, Dr. Isley! A couple things struck me that were very insightful and I had never thought about or heard before. I didn’t know that envy doesn’t necessarily desire what it’s trying to take away from someone else. In addition, you stated in paragraph 5 that we envy people, but we covet possessions. This statement cleared up a lot of my confusion and helped me to better understand how to define envy. I do have a question though, and that is, what’s the reason for envy resenting other people’s possessions, but not actually desiring those possessions itself? When one is envious, are they striving to place themselves higher than others, so that’s why they don’t necessarily desire the possessions themselves?

    • Good questions, Kylie. I think that your are right about envy and possessions. It is pride or the desire to be better than others, but it seems mostly to be desired by pulling the others down. There is just a real failure of love.

  • Melissa Gossard:

    Some great comments to a good write up. I find the definitions helpful, Dr. Isley. I still feel their are fine lines between jealously and envy. I appreciate the insight regarding envy being different in that it doesn’t necessarily want the possession of someone else but simply doesn’t want any good for the person. Truly the opposite of love.

    I find myself wondering if it is possible to be in competition with someone internally and still be able to love in the way God commands us to?

    • Thanks, Mrs. Gossard. I do appreciate that fact that the line between jealousy and envy is fine. We humans are complex beings, but I think the distinction is helpful as we diagnosis our sins. The competition question is a difficult one to answer. Competition is a good thing, if done in the right spirit, but it is a challenge to love our competitors. I would say that we need to act in love toward someone whom maybe we’re feeling negatively and that with time the very act of loving will change how we feel about them. What do you think?

  • Skylar Ball:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, I had mistaken envy for covetousness because I did not realize that an envious person does not necessarily desire the thing the person has. I feel like I have always heard of the story of Cain and Abel as jealousy, so could there be some jealousy in Cain feeling like he deserved better? I also thought it was interesting that envy had no positive meaning but pride and vainglory can have a positive meaning.

    • Thanks, Skylar. Cain may very well have thought that he deserved better, but in the end he just wanted to destroy his brother since God had accepted Abel’s sacrifice. Yes, it is true that vainglory and pride can have some positive element or at least that they have a good that they pervert. theologically I feel that that should be the case with envy, but I haven’t been able to think of one. Any ideas?

  • Jaley Barkley:

    This article really stretched my thoughts about envy. Whenever I think about envy I directly think of jealousy. I had never really thought about envy as not wanting someone to have something and not even desiring it yourself. It’s crazy how selfish we are by wishing someone didn’t have something even though we don’t even want it. From this article though I learned how over taking envy can be. The story about Cain and Abel is an extreme example of envy because envy overtook Cain and he ended up killing his own brother. I had also never thought about jealousy being a good thing. I do have a question though, I am still a little confused though on how jealousy can be good. Yes, if we rightfully own something and don’t put it to high in priorities we can be jealous of it, but isn’t jealousy wanting something of someone else’s and not of your own?

    • Thanks, Jaley, for your thoughtful questions about jealousy. To understand good jealousy we need to think about God as a jealous God. We are his people and are to worship only him. He will brook no rival. However, this is not selfish. He wants us fully for himself, but it is for our own good. However, no human, even a husband or wife can make such an exclusive and all-encompassing demand on his or her spouse. We should, however, want the best for our spouse and not just see the spouse as our possession for our use and we are committed to keep ourselves sexually wholly for one another. Does that help?

  • Hadley T.:

    Dr. Isley, this blog post was exceedingly helpful in clarifying what envy was and how it differed from jealousy and covetousness. I recall, when I used to think that envy and jealousy were much more similar than they are, that when I heard that God was a jealous God, I was very confused. I have never thought of jealousy as maintaining what is ours. Envy, with this new and clear definition, struck me as an extremely petty sin and something I know I am guilty of. One does not necessarily want it but they resent the person’s success just because they did not receive the same gain. This sin seems to walk hand in hand with vainglory. The unhealthy desire for positive feedback and then the vexation at those who receive more praise or opportunity, at least in my life, go hand in hand. You posited that Envy was a failure to love. Wouldn’t that be all sin? What are some specific actions or examples of how to combat this petty sin?

    • Thanks, Hadley. I’m glad that it was helpful. You’re right that all sin is a failure of love, and envy really is petty. The reason for the centrality of love is that the two great commandments that summarize all the law according to Jesus are to love God and to love our neighbor. Augustine seems to understand that by nature we humans were meant to be beings who love. What I’ve been attempting to do in these posts is to tie all of them in some way or another to faith, hope, and love. The first step in combating this sin is to recognize when we see it in ourselves. I think what we need to do is perform acts of love for the person we envy. With God’s grace we’ll probably began to change how we feel about them and hopefully envy will wither away.

  • Lauren Drum:

    This post really opened my eyes on to what envy really was. I have always just thought envy to be something that you hate or resent about another person, but it really goes deeper than that plus more. There was something that you said that stood out to me more than anything though, and that was the sentence: We envy people, but we covet possessions. That had me thinking and I have a question about it. If we envy a person, does that automatically make us covet their possessions? Especially if we envy them because we feel as though the are more than us? They have more things, they have more friends, they have more followers, etc. I suppose you could envy a person but not covet their possessions, but I just feel like its more natural to have the two go hand and hand.

    • Good question, Lauren. I think that it is important to maintain these distinctions in the definition, but maybe, just maybe, just like we can have several good motives for an action or attitude, perhaps it is the same with sin, except that the motives would be bad. We’re complex creatures, even in our sin.

  • Kassidy R Napier:

    I liked how this post had definitions on EVERYTHING associated with envy. I did not know the difference between jealousy and covetousness. I think envy is one of the most twisted of sins. We humans are so prideful, vain etc., that we wish hardship on other human beings because of their “blessings”. Obviously, we should be happy for them and their achievements, but what are we supposed to when we aren’t? What would be the next step?

    • Kassidy, you are right to point to how sinful we are to “wish hardship on other human beings because of their ‘blessings’.” What to do when we aren’t happy for them? First, we need to recognize what a terrible sin it is, as you pointed out. Second, to overcome it we need to recognize that they are gifts from God (“blessings”) and be willing to submit to God’s will and rejoice in that, because our envy ultimately is a kind of resentment directed at God who has blessed the other person. Third, we should recognize that envy is a negative kind of competition in that we think that we are diminished by someone else’s blessings or successes and realize that God has called all of us to live and work together as a body. Fourth, since envy is directed at the person, we should begin to perform acts of love toward them because we are called to love our neighbor. By loving them eventually God will change our heart and rather than resent them we shall rejoice with them.

  • Halle Pavlik:

    This article greatly improved my understanding of envy. Similar to Drew, I also had never thought about envy being a failure of love. It is a completely different idea of envy than I have really thought of. Before this article, I had 2 ideas of envy. One was that it is a bad thing and the other is it can be good on occasion (which I think might contain some truth.) I always understood envy as the equivalent to jealousy, I thought they were perfect synonyms. Clearly, this article has really opened my eyes and shown me that this idea is inadequate. Now, the second idea is that through love and with good intentions, envy can be beneficial. For example, if one was to admire someone’s relationship with God, and are very happy for that person but want to have that relationship as well, I believe that is envy. A good kind of envy. If you still love that person, are happy for them, do not want to strip something away from them, and want to enjoy this along with them, is that envy? Now, this idea might just be me thinking of a different term. If it is not envy what is it? Or is there even a name for it? And finally is this okay and is this thought a sin? As you can see, this article really made me question how I view things ( as do most of your blog posts,) but none the less, I enjoyed it very much!

    P.S. I really love these articles not only because they are helpful, but also because I can tell how much work you have put into them! I really appreciate your dedicating your time to this and I fully intend to continue reading your blogs even after this class is over!

    • Thank you, Halle, for your thoughtful reflections and your very nice comments. I’m glad that you are finding these posts beneficial. What you describe as a good envy, I think is better understood as a natural admiration for a person and their gifts and a desire to be like them. If what you are admiring is their godly character, this is the basis for modeling our life on the example of someone. Paul, himself, tells us to imitate him as he does Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). It is one of the ways that we grow in Christlikeness.

  • Adolphus Ghoston:

    Dr. Isley thank you for writing this report I thoroughly enjoyed it. My question is where is the line between setting something that someone else has up as a goal and envy. is there any difference can you want someone else items in a non-envious way?

    • Thanks, A.D., for your good question. You might check my response to Halle in which I see what you are describing as a way to grow in Christ by having others as godly examples.

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