This post is by Sharon Hodde Miller (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). Miller is a contributing author to Christianity Today’s blog for women– Her.meneutics, and blogs regularly at sheworships.com.
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And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. – Ecclesiastes 4:4
“Rampant envy.” That was the finding of a study that explored the experience of using Facebook. According to the study, conducted by two German universities, one in three Facebook users reported increased feelings of dissatisfaction, loneliness, frustration and anger after using the social media site. The primary trigger of envy was vacation photos, followed by “social interactions,” such as comparing one’s quantity of birthday wishes or status “likes” to those of others.
In addition to these general findings, the study also found that Facebook envy affects different demographics in different ways. Women, for example, were more likely to envy the physical attractiveness of others. People in their mid-30’s were “more likely to envy family happiness.” Not surprisingly, those most vulnerable to the effects of envy were those with pre-existing low self-esteem, but regardless of one’s age, gender, and life stage, the study found a general relationship between using Facebook and overall dissatisfaction with one’s life.
In short, this study gives new meaning to the Biblical warning that “envy rots the bones” (Prov. 14:30). Envy isn’t just unpleasant. Envy is an emotional poison that begins with your heart and can swallow your self-worth whole.
The problem is, envy isn’t always easy to identify. That’s because envy’s greatest tool is distraction. When you detect some part of yourself that is wounded, lonely, insecure, or afraid, envy turns your attention outward, not inward. Envy shouts, “The problem is that you don’t have that. If only you had a spouse, or a little more money, or that job title, THEN, you would be happy.”
Rather than address what’s going on in your heart, envy distracts. Rather than examine why you aren’t content in the Lord, envy lunges after an idol.
How, then, can we identify envy in our hearts? As Ecclesiastes 4:4 demonstrates, Scripture draws a connection between envy and action. It’s why Cain killed Abel. It’s why Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. It’s why Leah competed with Rachel. It’s why the Chief Priests persecuted Christ.
Envy leads to action, silently fueling much of what we do. And that’s how you can recognize it. How you live your life and spend your time is a good indicator of what you envy: what fills up your schedule? What stresses you out? What keeps you from the Sabbath?
For many of us, the answer to those questions is rooted in envy. I may not sit around feeling jealous, but much of my action is motivated by it. I covet my friend’s growing ministry, or her perfect home, or her beautiful appearance, and then I take the steps to have those things for myself.
However, just as Scripture warns, this envy-driven busyness produces a spiritual rot that sucks the joy out of your work. Once I recognized what was happening in my own life, I came up with two diagnostic questions that help me to stop looking outward and refocus on the inward. The first is this:
In those areas of my life where envy pressures me to earn, to succeed, and to have as much as the other person, is Christ is not enough? Is salvation not enough? Is God’s unwavering love not enough for contentment, joy, and peace? In this area of comparison, or perceived failure, or pressure to perform, is the gospel is not enough for me? Can I find greater joy in anything other than Christ?
Which leads to the second question: Does God give more of Himself to some than to others? Does that other person, with all his success and achievement, have more of God’s favor, God’s promises, God’s freedom, and God’s love than me?
These two questions have helped me to identify the lies behind envy, lies that are oh so familiar. They echo the voice of an ancient serpent who once suggested Eve was missing out (Genesis 3). “God is holding out on you,” the serpent craftily explained. “God can give you so much more than this.”
Within those words are the cousins of my own distrust. I struggle with that same fear of missing out, especially when confronted with the seemingly greater blessings of others. And just like Eve, my fear shapes my choices and the way I conduct life.
In response to those lies, we have this truth: God does not show favoritism to those who are in Christ (Rom. 2:11). He does not give more of Himself to some believers than to others. God gives His all, and while it might look different in one person’s life than it does in mine, we all have the same access to the One who gives all things.
Not only is the gospel enough, but the gospel is enough in your own particularity. In whatever way God has chosen to manifest Himself in and through you, it is enough. So you don’t have to toil and you don’t have to achieve. You can simply rest.
What joy and what peace awaits those of us who trade envy for the good news of Christ, given freely to all, equally, and abundantly.