Envy: The Danger, and The Invitation

This morning, I’m writing to you from the front porch of an adorable orange beach house, just steps away from the ocean in Imperial Beach, California.

My dear friends and I have spent the weekend mostly with sand between our toes, interrupting our time on the beach only to sleep and drink coffee and eat Mexican food.

There’s nothing like new and beautiful scenery to get me reflecting on the things that matter most. In the valley between mountains, in the air above the clouds, on a rainy morning by the lake, on the doorstep of the ocean. These are the places that I discover God, and often hear his voice in both comforting and confronting ways.

As I read through my journal on the porch of our beach house this week, I re-discovered a quote from a podcast I listened to recently. The host of the show said something that was both interesting and unsettling for me.

I always know where the Lord is going to lead me into big growth next,” she said. “All I have to do is examine the things I’m most envious of.”

Yikes. Envy. Good beach talk, huh?

She went on to talk about the envy she’s experienced around relationships, lifestyle, romance, and job success, and how her desire for what others had (or seemed to have) fueled her into asking important questions.

Her words didn’t sit right with me at first. It sounded icky that God might allow envy in our hearts, even if the purpose is to lead us or teach us.

I decided right then that I didn’t believe this to be true about God. I don’t believe God instructs us away from something – like envy – only to use that very thing to tease us or manipulate us.

And God’s instructions are clear on envy:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Exodus 20:17

The Message version of this commandment puts it this way: “Do not set your heart on anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Our Good Father tells us where we should and should not set our hearts, and he tells us that envy is not a safe place.

God cautions us against envy for our good. I think He saw from the beginning what envy does to fragile human hearts, and He invites us not to hang out there. He knows we’ll encounter envy in our broken world. He knows we will hunger for things that are just out of our reach. He knows we will crave a life, a job, an image, and a circumstance not our own, taking our eyes off of God’s gifts and exact purposes for our lives and putting our focus on lack.

He knows envy’s sting, and that’s precisely why he tells us not to camp there. Feel that sting, He says, but then move on.

Don’t set your heart there.

“A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” Proverbs 14:30

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” Galatians 5:26

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” 1 Peter 2:1

That podcast discussion made me wonder if maybe it’s helpful and even hopeful to engage with our envy a little. Not to let it run rampant, but to stare it in the face and examine where it came from.

What if envy can be the jumping off point for good and important questions? For examining our hearts to get to the root of our emotions and true desires?

Maybe looking at the root of my envy can show me where I am in need of God’s care and leading.

Maybe envy is the beginning of a thought process that eventually reveals what I desire for my life, or what I’m being called into.

Maybe feeling envy is a signal to my heart to turn my eyes off of the people beside me and instead train my focus on the relationships and work that I’ve been given.

Maybe the danger of envy is in camping there, and the invitation from our Good Father is simply this: To move on.

Maybe the point is that even if we start there, we don’t stay there. 

I don’t believe God uses envy to tease us or torture us. But I do believe that God is in the business of taking our sin – our envy, our longing, our desire for the things of this world – and redeeming it for good. I do believe God is in the business of retraining our focus to align with our best selves and His good calling for our lives.

And maybe that’s what the podcast host was saying. Not that envy is a place to look for truth, but that envy is the staring point from which you can travel toward truth.

Friends, if you get anything out of this, let it be that there is hope here.

No sin we struggle with is beyond God’s hope and healing, and this is absolutely true of envy. In the same way the natural beauty and power of the ocean can exfoliate your skin and wash away debris from the beach, God’s beauty and power is refining and revitalizing your very heart.

Let’s show envy Who is boss.  If we envy our neighbor’s job, let’s take a class to see if that’s something we might be good at. If we envy travel, let’s get something on the calendar. If we envy her friendships, let’s invite our own dear friends out for coffee more often.

Let’s not camp there. Let us believe in His abundant provision in our lives.

Recently, I decided that one of my goals for this blog is to offer more questions than answers. I want this to be a place where we wrestle with tough and important questions together, ultimately pointing one another to our best selves and towards God’s good call on each of our stories.

So today, as you participate with me in the messy middle, here are some questions we can ask and return to when we’re battling envy.

  1. What do I actually envy? Her lifestyle and home and relationship seem put-together and idyllic compared to mine. But what is the heart of my desire? Reputation? Comfort? Companionship?
  2. What does that envy tell me about what I believe? Do I believe that my life is lacking? Do I believe that she must have it easier? Do I believe that there is unfairness in what I have been given? How can I talk to God about that?
  3. What does that envy tell me about what I value? Do I value possessions, appearance, perfection or control?
  4. What is the next step? What does my envy tell me about what my priorities are, and how can I reflect my priorities in my schedule in the coming weeks?
  5. How can God’s truth bring light to what I’m feeling?

Thanks be to our Good Father, who is ever in the business of turning our hurt into His hope. Amen.