For the past three years, I’ve struggled with envy in the Christian ministry and life. I saw classmates and co-workers have spiritual gifts or gifts fitted for ministry that I did not have, they received opportunities I wished I was given (or thought I deserved), and as a result, grew bitter, resentful, and pitied myself. This was my blind, wicked foolishness called, “envy.” I loathed in this sin until a man I’ve considered a wise mentor shared a wonderful quote with me by Gregory the Great (see below). By this kind gift from God, I realized just how sick and wicked and therefore foolish and blind I really was. By envying others, I was not only rejecting God’s gifts to them, but also God’s gifts to me. Envy is a dangerous sin that causes bitterness and blindness to God’s gracious gifts. My aim in this brief post is to offer a definition of envy and explain its foolishness in the Christian life. In this article, I’m particularly focusing on the envy of spiritual gifts or gifts often employed in ministry (e.g., teaching), not so much material gifts, though there is a sense of that in here also.
Envy: A Quick Definition
To begin, here’s a short definition of envy. Envy is the sin against God whereby humans are wickedly unhappy at the happiness of others receiving God’s good and gracious gifts. Conversely, envy is the wicked sin that rejoices at the sight of loss and pain in others’ life. Joe Rigney puts it this way: “Envy is a feeling of unhappiness at the blessing and fortune of others” (Rigney, Envy and Rivalry in Christian Ministry). It reverse the biblical order and is pained at the rejoicing of others and rejoices at the pain of others.
Idolatry and Ingratitude
Envy is a wicked sin that rejects God’s good and gracious gifts. It is a sin that exemplifies the triplet sins of idolatry, ingratitude, and pride. Envy looks at God’s gift to others—whether it be success or opportunity or any of God’s kindnesses—and says, “I want that! Why does he get it?” It says, “I’m not content with what God has given me, I want that gift that he has.” Further, it says, “I’m ultimately not content with God’s greatest gift—himself. I would be much happier with that other skill that he or she has.” Thus, envy seems to elevate the gift above the Giver and similarly, elevates the creature above the Creator. It rejects God’s gift of himself and says, “I want that instead of this. I’ll be happier and content if I have that.” In other words, envy is an evidence of an internal reality of idolatry and ingratitude—you are not thankful that God is who he is to you. Naturally, this flows from and into another sin: pride.
Envy, a sin often-attuned to idolatry and ingratitude, typically flows from or to pride. Envy focuses not only on the gift, but also on the self. Envy looks at others and is concerned primarily (or sometimes only) with the self. It looks at what I want, what I need, and what I get and is upset or pained at what others get instead of me. It is self-centered and typically desires the praise of man. It says, “I want that gift that he got so that others can praise me.” It’s a self-glorying sin that desires praise of man rather than praising God.
Envy is a sick-twisted sin that rejects God’s gifts. It is idolatrous, ungrateful, and proud. It elevates gift above the Giver, and further elevates creature above the Creator. It ultimately rejects God as the supreme satisfaction of the soul. Further, something I have not touched on too much is this: envy rejects God’s gift to you in others.
Different Members of One Body
Envy is the foolish desire of what you already have in others through the spiritual union of Christ. When we think of it, we often see ourselves envying our own brothers and sisters in Christ—at least I do. I see old classmates and co-workers employ their God-given gifts in ministry and the Christian life for the good of others. I often find myself wishing I had that same ability and gifts to help others. But then it hit me. A kind word from a mentor helped me realize that I was envying something I already have in others. If the body of Christ is one (1 Cor 12:13) and the one body of Christ has many members who are equipped with various, spiritual gifts (12:4–5, 11, 20), those other various gifts given to others also, in a sense, really belong to me because we are one body and I get to benefit from them. I get to partake in the joy of others employing their gifts. Our one identity in Christ—sealed by the one Spirit—enables me to enjoy God’s gifts to others in that same body. If we belong to the one body, there is a sense that others truly have different gifts (since there are many members), but because we are all one in Christ, those gifts, in a sense, also belong to me in a different way. God has given me gifts in other people, namely, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, envying other brothers and sisters in Christ is rejecting Gods gift to you in others.
Conclusion: A Short Note and a Long Word from Gregory the Great
I hope that I’ve shown that envy is complete foolishness. It submerges itself in idolatry, ingratitude, and pride. It rejoices at the pain of others and it pains at the rejoicing of others. It is a wicked sin that rejects God and his gifts. In the Christian life, we need to see how foolish this really is. Envy says, “I want what he has instead of what God has given me, whether it’s his various gifts or himself—God just doesn’t cut it” (idolatry and ingratitude); it further says, “this is about me and my praise, I want that gift so that others may look at me” (pride, not so different from the other sins).
Envy is a wicked sin. But further, it is a foolish sin. It rejects the soul’s supreme satisfaction—God—and it rejects his gifts to you in others. These gifts in the one body of Christ really belong to you and you can really benefit from them, especially when others can bless you with them. Why then reject what God has given? Let us then get pain and rejoicing right: let us be pained at the pain of others, and let us rejoice with those who rejoice. But most of all, let us be satisfied with God himself.
I’ll let Gregory the Great have the final words:
“The envious are to be admonished how great is their blindness who fail by other men’s advancement, and pine away at other men’s rejoicing; how great is their unhappiness who are made worse by the bettering of their neighbour, and in beholding the increase of another’s prosperity are uneasily vexed within themselves, and die of the plague of their own heart. What can be more unhappy than these, who, when touched by the sight of happiness, are made more wicked by the pain of seeing it? But, moreover, the good things of others which they cannot have they might, if they loved them, make their own. For indeed all are constituted together in faith as are many members in one body; which are indeed diverse as to their office, but in mutually agreeing with each other are made one. Whence it comes to pass that the foot sees by the eye, and the eyes walk by the feet; that the hearing of the ears serves the mouth, and the tongue of the mouth concurs with the ears for their benefit; that the belly supports the hands, and the hands work for the belly. In the very arrangement of the body, therefore, we learn what we should observe in our conduct. It is, then, too shameful not to act up to what we are.
Those things, in fact, are ours which we love in others, even though we cannot follow them; and what things are loved in us become theirs that love them. Hence, then, let the envious consider of how great power is charity, which makes ours without labour works of labour not our own. . . The envious are therefore to be told that, when they fail to keep themselves from spite, they are being sunk into the old wickedness of the wily foe. For of him it is written, But by envy of the devil death entered into the world (Wisd. 2:24). For, because be had himself lost heaven, he envied it to created man, and, being himself ruined, by ruining others he heaped up his own damnation. The envious are to be admonished, that they may learn to how great slips of ruin growing under them they are liable; since, while they cast not forth spite out of their heart, they are slipping down to open wickedness of deeds.
For, unless Cain had envied the accepted sacrifice of his brother, he would never have come to taking away his life. Whence it is written, and the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering, but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell (Gen. 4:4). Thus spite on account of the sacrifice was the seed-plot of fraticide. For him whose being better than himself vexed him, he cut off from being at all. The envious are to be told that, while they consume themselves with this inward plague, they destroy whatever good they seem to have within them.
And rightly it is there added, Envy is the rottenness of the bones; because through the vice of spite what seems strong to human eyes perishes in the eyes of God. For the rotting of the bones through envy means that certain even strong things utterly perish.”
*Article indebted to my former, college professor for sharing quote by Gregory the Great.
 Gregory the Great (NPN XII, The Book of the Pastoral Rule of Saint Gregory the Great, III.X).