What Is Envy? Analyzing This Subtle Sin

Graphic featuring two plants, one upright, and one drooping. Each plant has a person sitting on it, likely thinking about the other person's situation. This graphic represents the perils of envy.

Envy typically means the desire for something someone else has. It can be used as a noun or a verb. So, for example, we might avoid envy (the noun) or we might envy someone (the verb).

Jealousy is a close cousin, though it’s often interchanged with envy. One possible difference between envy and jealous? Jealousy can also include a fear of losing something you already have.

The Bible mentions both envy and jealousy. Both can be a powerful force. Either way, they are typically bad news. (Though sometimes not—but we’ll get to that).

“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming,” wrote Solomon, “but who can stand before jealousy?” (Prov 27:4).

Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy? Proverbs 27:4

Good question.

The meaning of envy then & now

Of course perspectives and words often change over the centuries. So it’s a good idea to compare our understanding of envy to that of believers who went before us. Maybe we’re missing something?

Reformer John Calvin once prayed, “help us not to envy the fleeting happiness of your (God’s) enemies.” That sounds an awful lot like a certain Bible verse, which we’ll soon see.

The great preacher Charles Spurgeon warned in one of his devotionals of a force that can quickly shred a congregation. He wrote that “Where converts were multiplied, and God was glorified, jealousy and envy do the devil’s work most effectually.”

And in the Primer of 1559, a worship handbook compiled under the direction of Queen Elizabeth I, we find this prayer:

Lord, you are the inventor and maker of all things, the giver of gifts in your abundant generosity. You give to each of us more than we deserve—enough to each person. So we have no cause for resentment or envy.

Grant that we would not envy, but remain quietly content. Help us to be thankful for what we receive, and never to murmur against the way you decide to distribute your free benefits.

Rather, may we love and praise your abundant generosity in our life and in the lives of others. And may we always magnify you, Lord. You are the deep well of all gifts and goodness. To you be glory forever, amen.

It’s still a thing

We don’t need to just take Mr. Calvin’s and Spurgeon’s (or Queen Elizabeth’s) word on it. More recently, here’s what pastor and speaker Alistair Begg said about envy:

Oh, we can call it all kinds of names. Disguise it in all kinds of ways. It is one of the accepted evangelical sins. I have never found it on the top 10 list anywhere, at any church, that is added to the list of things that the people in the church are not allowed to do.

I’ve found playing cards. I’ve found dancing. I’ve found smoking. I’ve found drinking. I’ve found movies. I’ve never found jealousy on the list. I’ll tell you something: It’s on God’s list.

You look and you find how many times ‘envy’ jumps right up in the middle of some of the most sordid material that the New Testament epistles address. Why? Because it is so crucial.

Semantics & sin

Envy is a crucial issue, yes. But let’s be clear what we’re saying when we use that word. Because we’ve probably all heard someone say things like, “I envy you” or “I envy your (fill in the blank).”

Is that always wrong to say? In many such cases, “envy” is simply another word for “admire.” Something like, “I admire your composure,” or “I admire the way you treat your spouse.”

Innocent? Perhaps. Except when it seamlessly morphs into something worse. And it can do so easily—sometimes without us even realizing. From “I like your toy,” we slip to, “I want it,” and then, “Give it to me!”

That sounds like a child speaking. But later in life, we might say (or think) “I envy your salary/car/house/spouse.” If that’s the case, innocent admiration and shared joy at another’s fortune is left behind.

And in a job setting, ambition (or drive or dedication) can also slip unnoticed from admiration into envy. How easily our footsteps wander over the thin line. “Envy seems to be born of a restless heart,” said John Piper, “that does not find God satisfying.”

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Envy: The universal gateway drug

James the half-brother of Jesus had a good understanding of the ultimate danger posed by envy and the dark side of jealousy. Perhaps he had dealt with it personally in his relationship with the Savior. Regardless, the word holds true:

If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heats, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (Jas 3:14–16)

Ouch. The forerunner for every vile practice? That sounds serious. Deadly, even. It’s probably why envy is listed among the “Seven Deadly Sins,” a list developed by the early church probably somewhere around the fourth century.

In addition to envy the list includes pride, greed, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. All nasty stuff, by any measure.

And while the list of seven is not lifted straight from the Bible, it may have been inspired by Proverbs 6:16–19. (“There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him.”)

As the Faithlife Study Bible (available for free) notes, however, “this does not suggest that Yahweh hates only six things while considering seven an abomination.”

Envy in the Old Testament

But back to Scripture. Old Testament accounts are chock-full of examples where envy led to nowhere good.

  • King Saul went crazy in his envy when the young David got more attention and praise than him. “And Saul was very angry” (1 Sam 18:8).
  • King David envied another man for his wife (Bathsheba, in 2 Sam 11). That led to a tragic and dark chapter.
  • Persian high officials couldn’t disguise their jealousy of Daniel’s success and favor. We read in Daniel 6 how he ended up in the den of lions.
  • The psalmist Asaph admitted how “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps 73:3). He links that envy to bitterness and near disaster.1

And that’s just a start. Let’s not forget the recurring envy/covet theme in the wisdom of Proverbs.

  • “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Prov 14:30). Which sounds like a condition best avoided.
  • “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways” (Prov 3:31). Very possibly the verse John Calvin referenced earlier.
  • “Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day” (Prov 23:17). Again, good advice for living.

For a more comprehensive list of how the Old Testament treats this spiritual landmine that is jealousy, click to look up “envy” in the Logos web app’s Factbook tool.

Envy in the New Testament

Of course, references to envy don’t end with the Old Testament. As we read in the New Testament, envy can rear its ugly head in ministry or workplace, at home or in everyday relationships. Just like in our own lives. And it seems to travel with a disgusting lineup of partners, often mentioned in the same breath:

  • “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry… out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:15, 17).
  • “He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissention, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction” (1 Tim 6:4–5).
  • “For where there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Cor 3:3).
  • “You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (Jas 4:2).

Take a deeper dive into New Testament use of “envy” in Marvin Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, included in the free Logos app.

Is there such a thing as good jealousy?

Though it sounds like an oxymoron, the Scriptures actually do describe a better version of jealousy. It’s fervent and righteous, though!

For example, we’re often told that God pursues his people. He wants the best for us, he wants us to live holy lives, and wants us to be saved. The prophet writes, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath” (Zech 8:2).

God also told Moses “you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod 34:14).

On a similar but human level, the apostle Paul told new believers that “I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2).

So a little healthy jealousy goes a long way to help protect God’s family. But remember we’re talking about a “divine” jealousy here. There’s a big difference.

Next steps: learning to overcome jealousy

What’s the antidote to a life filled with toxic jealousy or envy? The apostle Peter advised us to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Pet 2:1–2).

Easy? Perhaps not. But “to deny that we face these issues,” says Alistair Begg, “will be to create a dilemma worse than the one we’re presently in.”

So we steer with humble honesty toward the truth of 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Confession thus leads to cleansing—and ultimately straight into God’s loving embrace. And 1 Corinthians 13:4 reminds us that “love does not envy or boast.” As John Wesley once told his congregation, “It is impossible it should.”2

Let’s dig deeper! Explore more of these and other Bible verses dealing with envy and jealousy with the help of the free Faithlife Study Bible and Lexham Bible Dictionary. Both are included in the free Logos Bible study app for web, mobile, and desktop. Download it here.

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Take Your Bible Study Deeper, Faster
  1. John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Ps 73:2.
  2. John Wesley, “Sermon 22: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” in Sermons, on Several Occasions (Logos Mobile App, 1771).
Written by
Robert Elmer

Robert Elmer has written more than fifty books, including youth and adult fiction, nonfiction, and devotional. He earned his undergraduate degree in communications and Bible from Simpson University, with post-graduate studies in education at St. Mary’s College. He began his career as a copywriter, reporter, and news editor, and is now the editor of the “Prayers of the Church” series from Lexham Press, which includes Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans and Fount of Heaven: Prayers of the Early Church. Robert and his wife make their home in the Pacific Northwest.

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Written by Robert Elmer
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