If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander,
and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.
From our youngest days, we compare ourselves with others. Which sibling notches the taller pencil mark on the door frame? Who can eat the most helpings of enchiladas? Who’s smarter? Stronger? Faster?
Competition is built into our schools. Students compete for the highest grades and the best SAT scores while school districts vie for the best average test scores. Athletes compete year-round to win Division I scholarships. We award Most Valuable Player and Valedictorian honors to distinguish the very best from all the rest.
Once we complete our education, we still play the game. Who drives the faster car? Who lives in the nicer neighborhood? Who sold the most widgets? Who got published by the best publisher? Who got tenure at a top-20 university? Who has the cutest kids? Who looks most like their senior picture at the 20th reunion?
We can debate the relative merits of living in a competitive world. In an Olympic year, I can certainly think of positive outcomes that result from the pursuit of “faster, higher, stronger.” However, we should also admit that competition has a dark side. One of the bitter fruits borne by our unceasing competition is envy.
Envy starts with the desire for something that someone else has. It can escalate to harboring ill will or acting out against the one we envy. Envy says, “I want what you have.” It resents the achievements of others. It can even seek the demise of its rivals. Envy figured into the first fratricide, the murder of Abel by Cain. Rachel was jealous of her sister Leah and the many children she bore. Joseph’s brothers envied his father’s preferential treatment. King Saul was jealous of David’s exploits in battle.
Dealing with our envy requires that we come to grips with our own sense of who we are. Rebecca DeYoung observes that envy involves a sense of inferiority, a feeling that we lack something others have. Ultimately, envy is our failure to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When we envy, we fail to love others as Christ has taught us. We envy because we do not love ourselves or believe that we are loved as we are.
Robert Roberts offers this parting insight on rising above envy. “The Christian’s self-understanding is that she is precious before God… and that every other person she meets has the same status… This vision … is also the ultimate ground of self-confidence. For the message is that God loves me for myself—not for anything I have achieved, not for my beauty or intelligence or righteousness or for any other ‘qualification,’ but simply in the way that a good mother loves the fruit of her womb.”