What Does the Bible Say About Envy?

The Bible teaches that envy is a vice experienced by all people. Believers must be on guard against envy. Jesus can free anyone from envy.

What Does the Bible Say About Envy

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 Does the Bible Say About Envy (KJV)?

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” Genesis 30:1
“A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” Proverbs 14:30
“Again, I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit.”Ecclesiastes 4:4
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up”1 Corinthians 13:4
“Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.”Galatians 5:26
“For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.”Titus 3:3
“Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings”1 Peter 2:1

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:

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” (ESV; all references henceforth ESV unless otherwise noted.) Mark 7:21-22
What Does the Bible Say About Envy

Examples of Envy in the Bible

The Bible not only teaches about envy, it describes people who experience envy.

“While dwelling in the land of Canaan, after being blessed a hundredfold in this harvest, the author of Genesis describes the Philistines as being envious of the patriarch Isaac ” Genesis 26:12-14
“After seeing her sister bear children and being unable herself to bear children with Jacob, the Bible describes Rachel’s experience of envy. Her discontentment with reality led to bitterness of soul toward her sister (Genesis 30:8) and even her desire to die if she were unable to bear children like her sister ” Genesis 30:1
“After Joseph discloses to his brothers and parents his dreams of ruling over his family members, his brothers’ disposition toward him is described as envious ” Genesis 37:11

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:

“For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” 1 John 2:16

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.

Is Envy a Sin in the Bible?

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”:

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Romans 1:28-31

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:

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21

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:

“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:11

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:

“For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”Psalms 73:3

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:

“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” Psalm 73:16-19

The Bible is clear is other places about the dangers of envying sinners and their sin:

“Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day.” Proverbs 23:17

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:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16

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.

Stephen D

Stephen Dillard serves as a Bible Scholar with Wycliffe Associates and is a contributing writer on Revelations.org. He is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He and his wife, Madison, have four children and make their home in Indiana.

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