I have a nice blend-in alto voice that makes a pleasant contribution to our church choir. A woman I’ll call Peggy has a gorgeous soprano voice and is often asked to sing solos. We don’t really look alike, except that we have the same color and length of hair. A few weeks ago as I was coming into church an elderly gentleman who sits near the back of the sanctuary stopped me and said “I want you to know that your singing is something I look forward to every week! What a gift God has given you!” I didn’t want to embarrass him, so I simply thanked him and went on up into the choir loft to take my place in the alto section. But I felt a momentary thrill of ownership for someone else’s talent. So that’s what it would be like to have a standout, solo voice!
I know that you, like me, have never been jealous of anyone else’s life, possessions or accomplishments either. That would be totally beneath us.
It does seem to be a problem for many people though. Envy is rooted in a sense of inadequacy, in feeling that someone else has something I want or something better than what I have and that there is not enough to go around. Shakespeare coined the term “green-eyed jealousy,” putting it on the lips of Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Iago in Othello. The connection between jealousy and the color green is probably that green is the color of the skin of a person suffering from nausea and green is the color of unripened fruit that could make a person nauseated.
The Greek gods and goddesses were consumed with jealousy of humans whose good looks or abilities rivaled their own. Hera, for example, regularly vented her jealousy on her husband Zeus’ lovers — turning one into a bear and doing things to others you don’t even want to know about.
Rooting out envy takes time and consistent practice. Practical advice on taming the green-eyed monster abounds. Antidotes include moving from “compare and despair” to “admire and aspire.” Identify what it is you envy in someone else and strategize how you might achieve it in your own life. Or send positive thoughts to the one you envy. If you envy someone’s intelligence, for example, send them wishes or prayers to get a job in which they can use it even more fully. Or if you envy someone’s athletic ability, wish or pray for them to play their best in an upcoming game.
God must have realized how deep seated our struggle with envy, jealousy, and covetousness is. After all, it’s the 10th commandment. God is even portrayed as jealous in the Old Testament. But God’s jealousy is not like human envy of someone else for having something more or better than what we have. God’s jealousy is a theological response to our tendency toward spiritual infidelity: our taking what belongs to God (our loyalty and love) and giving it to another (Exodus 20:3-4). The prohibition of idolatry is commandment #2.
The wisdom teachings of the Book of Proverbs, geared toward harmonious community life, remind us that “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion (often translated as “envy” or “jealousy”) makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30).
Paul viewed envy and jealousy as incompatible with Christian faith and a divisive force in Christian community.
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before those who do such things will not enter the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19–21, NRSV). See also 1 Corinthians 3:3 and Romans 13:13-14.
The author of the Book of James has this warning for his church:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth” (James 3:14).
Envy runs counter to the golden rule taught by Jesus and also found in several other world religions. Envy works against the cohesive energy that love of God and neighbor brings to the Church, the Body of Christ.
Envy or jealousy, as Pilate notes in Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10, is the motivation for Jesus’ enemies handing him over to be crucified.
This brief foray into the biblical witness about jealousy and envy makes me doubly glad that you and I don’t suffer from it. But if we did, we would know what to do. We would know to celebrate the spiritual gift(s) God has given us rather than wish for another’s gift.
We would know to take advice from someone who was and is the ultimate in non-envy — someone who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7).
We would heed this recipe for a tranquil mind from the Apostle Paul:
“Let each of you look, not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:4).