Last week we talked about pride, and how it “goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).”[i] Pride I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable, “The Peacock:
The Peacock, they say, did not at first have the beautiful feathers in which he now takes so much pride. These, Juno, whose favorite he was, granted to him one day when he begged her for a train of feathers to distinguish him from the other birds. Then, decked in his finery, gleaming with emerald, gold, purple, and azure, he strutted proudly among the birds. All regarded him with envy. Even the most beautiful pheasant could see that his beauty was surpassed.
Presently the Peacock saw an Eagle soaring high up in the blue sky and felt a desire to fly, as he had been accustomed to do. Lifting his wings he tried to rise from the ground. But the weight of his magnificent train held him down. Instead of flying up to greet the first rays of the morning sun or to bathe in the rosy light among the floating clouds at sunset, he would have to walk the ground more encumbered and oppressed than any common barnyard fowl.[ii]
Pride is a one-person affair—thinking that you’re so great that you deserve special honor. Envy is a two-person affair—comparing yourself to others and wishing you had what they possess. Aesop’s story begins with the peacock’s pride, and ends with the bird’s envy. Both exhibit a sense of discontent in what a person already has, or what a person already is. When a person compares what they have with what others have, we often say they are “green with envy.” According to one website, “The origin of the idiom 'green with envy' is believed to come directly from the great William Shakespeare himself. In Othello, Iago warns Othello: ‘Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’”[iii]
The Bible is our book of virtues that has much to say about the topic of envy. Interestingly, most of the references to envy take the assumption that the people you might feel this way towards are all dirty, rotten, sinners. Let me give you a few examples. Proverbs 3:31-32 says, “Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways. For the Lord detests the perverse but takes the upright into his confidence.” Proverbs 23:17-18 says, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.” Proverbs 24:1-2, 19-20 says, “Do not envy the wicked, do not desire their company; for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk about making trouble. Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of the wicked, for the evildoer has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.”
While it’s true that some people do envy the wicked, it’s also true that we’re far more apt to paint people as wicked if we envy them. You see, envy is a creative artist who knows how to depict us as the good guys who have been slighted, and people who have something we want as the miserly bad guys who just refuse to share. The Book of Proverbs doesn’t argue against your false assumptions but works within them. Instead of saying, “Now, you know, they’re really not that bad,” Proverbs says, “Ok—you say that the people you’re envious of are sinners—let’s grant that for a moment, but let me show you why it’s not a good idea to envy them.” Proverbs says that we shouldn’t envy because God is with the upright, and because God has a future hope for us. Besides this, “the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out” reminding us that all gain is temporary—so why rush after it like a green-eyed monster?
The Bible is filled with stories of people who caused trouble because of envy. In the Old Testament, Joseph’s brothers resented him because of the coat of many colors.[iv] In the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells the story of the delinquent returning home. But the older, well-behaved and responsible brother is envious of the attention lavished on the one who had been pardoned.[v] The result of envy is that it sickens the spirit, and the Bible says, can even sicken your body. Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Envy is bad for you, Proverbs says—but having a peaceful, contented spirit gives life.
Envy is bad enough on its own, but when you combine envy with pride, you get covetousness—a sense of entitlement that says that what another person has ought to be yours. Sometimes this can be not a one-person or a two-person affair, but even a three-person problem. Exodus 20:17 gives one of the Ten Commandments as: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Coveting isn’t just envying something like your neighbor has. Coveting is wanting the same thing that your neighbor has. Often, it can lead to you wanting to take what your neighbor has. And when that object of your obsession is a person (that belongs to your neighbor), you’ve created a complex problem that leads to destruction.
In Luke 12:15, Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Jesus advises not to give thought to worldly possessions, but to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first—and then sit back and wait for God to give us what we need (Matthew 6:33). The solution is learning to be content with what you have, and in who you are (which is even more important). Learn to see yourself not by comparison to your neighbor, but as God sees you—whole and complete, made in God’s image and worthy of God’s love. God made you just as you are, and God has a purpose for you. That purpose doesn’t involve trying to acquire or become something that’s not meant for you. It involves a heart at peace (Proverbs 14:30).
That peace can be awfully difficult when you’re constantly comparing yourself to another. Aesop told a tale about a horse and a donkey that illustrates this point:
A Horse and an Ass were travelling together, the Horse prancing along in its fine trappings, the Ass carrying with difficulty the heavy weight in its panniers. “I wish I were you,” sighed the Ass; “nothing to do and well fed, and all that fine harness upon you.” Next day, however, there was a great battle, and the Horse was wounded to death in the final charge of the day. His friend, the Ass, happened to pass by shortly afterwards and found him on the point of death. “I was wrong,” said the Ass: “Better humble security than gilded danger.”[vi]
Instead of comparing what you have to someone else, or comparing who you are to someone else, it’s better to find contentment inside yourself. Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Find your identity in Jesus, because He is the One who gives life to the full.
[i] All scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.
[ii] . September 11, 2018.
[iii] . September 12, 2018.
[iv] Genesis 37
[v] Luke 15:11-32
[vi] . September 12, 2018.