Everyone experiences envy at some point in life. At times we envy a neighbor or a friend who has an abundance of desirable things, or a coworker who lands a big promotion, or perhaps even a family member who seems to be successful in everything he or she does. Sometimes we are jealous or envious of the things people have; other times we are simply envious of other people themselves.
The Bible teaches that envy is ultimately an issue of the heart. And while it may be commonplace in some cultures to speak of envy as if it were benign (saying “I envy you” as if it were a compliment), the biblical depiction of envy is much closer to that of a cancer that eats away at our very soul.
While the Bible is not reserved in its clarity or willingness to call envy a sin, nor is the Bible reluctant about saying we have all experienced envy at some point, it is nonetheless clear that the sin of envy can be forgiven by Jesus’ substitutionary death on our behalf.
Jesus died to free his people from the sin of envy.
What is Envy in the Bible
Jesus mentions envy when teaching his disciples about the difference between external and internal corruption. He speaks to them plainly about the dangers of the unregenerate, unrepentant heart, from which comes all vices:
Examples of Envy in the Bible
The Bible not only teaches about envy, it describes people who experience envy.
God is said to be a jealous God (Exodus 20:5), using the same word in Hebrew for envy (qānāʾ). This is perhaps the one clear exception to jealousy in the Bible that is not associated with sin. God reveals himself as a jealous God over his people. This attribute of God describes the zeal with which God desires his people and claims them as his own, a jealousy which Paul describes as “divine jealousy” (2 Corinthians 11:2). This theme of God’s jealousy for his people is carried throughout the prophetic books (see Zechariah 8:2 for example).
Causes of Envy in the Bible
Jesus teaches that envy flows out of the heart (Mark 7:22). The process of envy may be described as the disposition of the heart unsatisfied with the goodness of God, triggered by the sight of something desirable, left unchecked to retain residence in the heart, leading to discontentment and animosity toward others.
In his first epistle, John also describes the dangers of things which the eyes take in:
Our eyes can lead our hearts to sin if we are not actively fixing our eyes on the goodness of God (Psalm 119:6, 15). When our eyes (or the eyes of our hearts) become captivated by the successes of others, the things people have that we too want, or even a virtue that a person possesses that we desire, we are in danger of falling into the trap of envy or jealousy, a bitterness of soul toward others.
The term “envy” in our English Bibles is used most prominently to describe the sin of envy. In many places in the New Testament, the biblical writers place envy in close association with other sins, some of which are more “obvious”:
Paul’s words to the Galatian Christians, drawing a direct contrast between the works of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit in 5:22-25, is that the works of the flesh are evidence of the unregenerate’s lack of inheritance in the kingdom of God:
The language of the Bible concerning the sin of envy is certainly severe. And yet the graciousness of God in sending his Son to deliver people from the sin of envy is even more remarkable:
What Does the Bible Say About Envying Sinners?
There are occasions in the Psalms when the author speaks of the apparent prospering of the wicked:
Because the Psalms are intended to be sung publicly, there is an element to Psalm 73 that rightly associates each member of the community with the author: we have all been guilty of the sin of envy, even envying sinners for their successes or other blessings, whether they be supposed or legitimate. But Psalm 73 is also clear about the fate of the wicked, and thus the envy is corrected by worship of God and his justice against those who oppress the righteous:
The Bible is clear is other places about the dangers of envying sinners and their sin:
What Does the Bible Say About Overcoming Envy?
The people of God in the New Testament are exhorted to trust in the resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit to enliven those who are united to Christ to do good works and obey God and his Word (Romans 8:2-6; 13:14; Ephesians 2:10).
With this in mind, Paul speaks in Galatians 5 of the necessity of walking by the Spirit, which is the counter to sins like envy, gossip, slander, even muder:
After describing the effects of the flesh and the effects of the Spirit, Paul reminds the Galatians of the correct order in which these things occur: we are made alive by the Spirit, which enables us to also “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). The sin of envy, then, is only overcome by relinquishing control over to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, who alone has the power to destroy the vices of our hearts.