Love Does Not Envy

How does it make you feel to see someone else do well? Does the answer depend on whether you’ve experienced a similar success yourself? Rejoicing at another person’s blessings is not hard if you feel blessed, too.

But sometimes watching somebody else prosper makes us feel sick inside. Like when another person succeeds where you’ve failed. Or when he has a blessing, a talent, or an opportunity that you don’t. “What makes him deserve that?” you complain. “Why him and not me?”

Sometimes the good fortune of another can really get us steamed. The New Testament word usually translated “jealous” reflects the same idea—it comes from a root that means “to boil.” Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 13:4 when he says that love “does not envy.”

Envy is a self-destructive emotion. Scripture calls it “rottenness to the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). It eats away at our spirit, leaving us bitter, resentful, and vindictive. Joseph Addison described it thus: “What a wretched and apostate state is this! To be offended with excellence, and to hate a man because we approve him! The condition of the envious man is the most emphatically miserable; he is not only incapable of rejoicing in another's merit or success, but lives in a world wherein all mankind are in a plot against his quiet, studying their own happiness and advantage.” No wonder God says that envy and jealousy are “works of the flesh” which will cause many to forfeit heaven (Galatians 5:19-21).

It’s bad enough that envy defiles the person who harbors it. Unfortunately, not all of the damage that it does is internal. Envy is hard to keep confined to mere thoughts and feelings, because it wants to “level the playing field.” If someone else has what I don’t, envy may resent him so badly that it wants to make him suffer for it. It wants to lash out at him, to say or do something that will hurt him and take joy away from his success.

People do evil things when they’re consumed with envy. Cain murdered his own brother (Genesis 4:1-8). Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and cruelly led their father to believe he was dead (Genesis 37). King Saul’s jealousy of David became an obsession; he wasted untold time, resources, and even lives in his futile efforts to kill the young man. And even the pagan governor Pilate could perceive the envy which stirred up the Jewish leaders against Jesus (Matthew 27:18). James warned, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:16).

Envy is at its worst when it turns members of the Lord’s body against each other. It wreaked havoc at Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:3), and it can do so today. One preacher is jealous of another who has baptized more people or holds more meetings. One brother envies another that he thinks is more talented or more knowledgeable. One sister is embittered toward another who excels in hospitality. A brother who wants to run the church covets the position of the elders. An entire congregation resents another across town that is growing faster. Caught up in our petty jealousy, we turn away from our God-given work and focus on snipping at each other. Lost souls are neglected. Relationships are damaged. Elders and preachers have to put their duties on hold to referee squabbles. The church’s reputation suffers. And Satan laughs. “But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).

Renowned conductor Leonard Bernstein once was asked what is the hardest instrument in an orchestra to play. Without hesitation he replied, “Second fiddle!” God’s graciousness toward others can be hard for our human pride to swallow. But remember, love puts the good of others above self and the cause of Christ above all else. It knows that we are God’s stewards, whether entrusted with little or much (remember the parable of the talents in Matthew 25). Instead of fuming over someone else’s blessings, love tries to stir him up to use those blessings for God’s glory. The way of love is encouragement, not envy. It will “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15).