A simple definition of envy is “to want what belongs to someone else.” A more thorough description of envy is “a resentful, dissatisfied longing for another’s possessions, position, fortune, achievements, or success.” The Bible says envy is an act of the flesh, the result of human sin: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19–21; see also Romans 1:29; 1 Peter 2:1–2).
Envy and jealousy are closely related and sometimes used interchangeably in modern Bible translations, but they are not quite synonymous. Envy is a reaction to lacking something that another person possesses. Jealousy is a reaction to the fear or threat of losing something, or often someone, we possess. Envy is the distress or resentment we feel when others have what we have not. Jealousy is the sense of dread or suspicion we feel when what we have might be taken away. There is such a thing as godly jealousy (see 2 Corinthians 11:2), but the Bible never speaks of envy in a good light.
Another word in the Bible closely associated with envy is covetousness. To covet is to have an excessive desire to possess what belongs to another. Usually related to tangible items like property, covetousness is an intense craving or selfish desire that threatens the fundamental rights of others (Exodus 20:17; Joshua 7:21).
The first bout of envy in the Bible surfaces in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain, the older brother, killed Abel out of envy because God looked with favor on the younger brother’s sacrifice but did not accept Cain’s offering (Genesis 4:3–5). Later, Esau envied his brother, Jacob, because of the blessing his father Isaac had given him (Genesis 27:41). Rachel envied her sister because Leah gave birth to Jacob’s sons while Rachel remained childless (Genesis 30:1). Saul envied David for his success in battle and his popularity among the people (1 Samuel 15:6–16). The Jewish leaders had Jesus arrested because they were seized with envy (Mark 15:10).
The Bible paints a vivid picture of envy’s devastating effects. If left to grow in one’s heart, envy will lead to spiritual, emotional, and physical death: “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Here the New Living Translation likens envy to “cancer in the bones.” And in James 3:14–16, we find this stern warning about the sin of envy: “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Envy is an issue of the heart. Jesus taught that purity and godliness come from inside a person and not from external actions (Mark 7:14–15). Envy is one of many inward vices or heart attitudes that defile a person: “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, . . . deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you” (Mark 7:20–23, NLT).
First Corinthians 13:4 states, “Love does not envy.” If we are envious of our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we do not love them. The love of Christ is void of selfish ambition and desire (Philippians 2:3–8). Christians are called to dispense with envy: “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). How do we accomplish this? Believers in Jesus Christ have died to sin and have been made alive by the Spirit of God (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3; Romans 6:7–11). In a real sense, the struggle between the sin nature and the Spirit continues, but Christians have power through the indwelling Holy Spirit to strengthen them in the fight.
Paul taught in Galatians 5:16–26 that, if we walk by the Spirit, live by the Spirit, and stay in step with the Spirit, our lives will bear the fruit of the Spirit: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (verses 25–26).
The root of envy is a dissatisfied heart. We experience envy when we cannot have what our heart desires. We have not yet learned the secret of contentment (Philippians 4:10–13), of delighting ourselves in the Lord. The most effective way to avoid envy is to trust in the Lord and delight in Him: “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun” (Psalm 37:3–6).