Envy is a stingy and demanding master. It’s stingy because, unlike many other sins, there’s absolutely nothing pleasurable about experiencing it. Most sins bait the hook: lust offers excitement and escape, greed promises wealth and pleasure, gossip promises power and participation in the inner circle. And many sins are at least temporarily pleasurable (that’s why we do them).
But with envy, it’s all hook and no bait. There’s no upside to envy, not even a small or temporary spike of guilty pleasure. That’s why no one consciously plans or schemes to envy (as you might plan to satisfy a lustful desire). We feel envy in spite of ourselves, even though we don’t want to. It’s the great unsought sin.
Envy is also terribly demanding. Although it delivers nothing, it requires much. It can absorb and dominate a life. It can poison pleasures and steal joys and waste time. Envy can make your own blessed life feel shabby and inadequate. It is, in fact, one of the sins that presents the most obvious affront to the sovereignty of God; it questions God’s plans, choices, and goodness. Envy is rebellion.
Seven Strategies for Fighting Envy
Anyone, no matter how attractive, accomplished, respected, and successful, can feel envy. I’ve heard people I envied confessing their envy of other people. There’s always someone who has what we don’t or is better than we are at what we do. Envy is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic, and is often accompanied by other sins (James 3:14–16).
All of which is to say, this is an important enemy to study, understand, and battle with all our might. Below are seven strategies I’ve found helpful in the fight. Wielding these weapons won’t guarantee quick victory but will at least keep us in the thick of the fight.
1. See Clearly
In his book, The Godly Man’s Picture, the Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “A humble man is willing to have his name and gifts eclipsed, so that God’s glory may be increased. He is content to be outshone by others in gifts and esteem, so that the crown of Christ may shine the brighter. . . A humble Christian is content to be laid aside if God has any other tools to work with which may bring him more glory.” This humble attitude is the opposite of envy, which yearns to possess what others have. Envy is an expression of selfishness and pride. It’s good to see it clearly for what it is.
2. Confess Openly
Several years ago, I looked a dear friend in the eye and confessed my envy of his abilities and successes. I asked for his forgiveness. It was humbling and very helpful. I’m not suggesting we confess to every single person we ever envy, but particularly when we begin to envy a close friend, we’re not serving them well as a faithful friend. Our confession will allow them to pray for us, and the act of naming the sin will often help to minimize its power over us.
3. Pray Instead
When I pray for the success of someone I envy, my heart starts to change. Envy pits me against them but prayer puts me on their team. I am now calling God’s blessing down upon them. I’m invested emotionally in their well-being. I begin to envy them less. In fact, their further successes now become answers to my prayers! I asked God for that very thing they’ve now accomplished. How can I resent it?
4. Pursue Friendship
Envy both isolates and then feeds on isolation. It’s difficult to grow a genuine friendship with those who trigger our sinful feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness and discontentment. So, we may begin to avoid the people or situations who make us feel that way.
Envy, in turn, thrives in isolation. When we’re not in genuine relationships with those we envy, we won’t actually love and rejoice with them in their successes. Neither will we see their very real struggles and insecurities. Instead, we will spin our own distorted narrative, and the complex realities and hardships of that person’s life won’t be a part of it.
5. Identify Idols
Over the years, God has helped me glimpse some of the root causes of my envy and this has helped enormously. In spite of the unconditional love of godly parents, I forged (from an early age) a deep identification between identity and performance which endured into my adult years. It’s not difficult to see how envy thrived: if I’m valuable because of what I achieve, and someone else can do it better, they are better than me. Comprehending the roots of my own envy has helped me better understand its deep and enduring power.
6. Run to the Gospel
To combat the idols of my heart, I now more consciously fight envy by setting my heart and mind on gospel promises and by regularly reminding myself (especially at the beginning of the day) of my identity in Jesus. Because this temptation will likely not disappear any time soon, I know I must keep on preaching the gospel to myself.
7. Strive for Reality over Appearances
Richard Baxter has helped me greatly through his advice to “Study first to be whatever . . . you [rightly] desire to seem.” Envy frequently focuses on the external appearances or accomplishments of others; we long for the fame or respect or achievements of that other person without giving due thought to the hardship and discipline that led to it. Baxter wisely counsels Christians to allow their desires to seem godly to other people to remind them how much more valuable it is to actually be godly. The sharp stab of envy can serve as our reminder to pursue realities (whether or not anyone else ever sees).
Perhaps you’re discouraged that those envious feelings keep ambushing you, and you long to be free. Or maybe you’ve made peace with your envy of others; perhaps you’re so used to it, you hardly even notice anymore. This is a call to fight. There is hope for us in the battle against this stingy, demanding enemy. We can fight for freedom with the gospel weapons God provides, for the sake of his awesome glory and our great joy.
Stephen Witmer (@stephenwitmer1) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He helps to lead Small Town Summits, which partners with The Gospel Coalition New England to serve rural churches and pastors. He and his wife, Emma, have three children.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “Seven Strategies for Fighting Envy”
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