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 are forever comparing ourselves with others. Which sibling notches the taller pencil mark on the door frame? Who gets the better grades in school? Who can eat the most helpings of enchiladas? Who’s stronger? Who weighs less? Who runs faster? Who’s better looking? Who is less prone to tears?
Competition is built into our schools. Students compete for the highest grades and vie for the best SAT scores so they can gain admission into the most prestigious universities. Athletes train and compete year-round in order to win division I college 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 cooler car? Who makes more? Who lives in the nicer neighborhood? Who married well? Who landed the Fortune-500 account? Who’s getting published by the best publisher? Who got tenure at the top-notch university? Whose church is bigger? Who looks most like their senior picture at the 20th reunion? Who has the cutest, smartest, or most talented kids?
I suppose that we might debate the relative merits of living in a competitive world. In an Olympic year, I can certainly think of positive goods that result from the dedicated 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 and advantages of others. It not only pursues its own success but seeks the demise of its competition.
Envy figured into the first fratricide, the murder of Abel by Cain. Rachel was jealous of her sister Leah and the children she bore for Jacob. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of the preferential treatment he received from his father. King Saul was jealous of David as he was greeted by the victory songs of Israel’s maidens.
Dealing with our envy requires that we come to grips with our own sense of who we are. Francis Bacon said that “where there is no comparison, there is no envy.” 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. More fundamentally, we envy because at some level we do not love ourselves or believe that we are loved as we are.
Robert Roberts provides this parting insight into how we may rise above envy. “The Christian’s self-understanding is that she is precious before God—however much a sinner, however much a failure (or success) she may be by the standards of worldly comparisons—and that every other person she meets has the same status… This vision, when appropriated, 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.”