Envy: The Enemy of God’s Peace and Wisdom

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul notes that the “mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” Of course, one must return to Paul’s earlier letter to the Galatians, where he lists the nine characteristic “fruits of the Spirit” (5:22, 23). One of the nine “fruits” is peace. And in his letter to the Colossians, he instructs his readers to “let the peace of Christ rule in (their) hearts” (3:15).

Jesus Christ also emphasizes the importance of peace as a prominent characteristic of his followers. He even says in John’s gospel that the primary purpose of his long instructional discourse to his disciples (chapters 13-16)—grand themes of the promised Holy Spirit, communion, and their temporary grief turning to eternal joy—is tied to Jesus’ desire that his disciples experience the peace that governs his life (16: 33). Of course, this includes peace with God, and with one another.

And approximately, one thousand years earlier, the book of Proverbs observes that a “heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (14: 31). Here it is again, peace—in the Hebrew, “shalom”—gives us life. However, this short proverbial description offers “envy” as a significant disruptive force that “rots” the bones. It sounds as if envy has a cancer-like power, a deadening force.

But just what is envy, and why might it be such a disruptive, deadly force? Envy is essentially wanting what someone else has. Although envy is often thought of as synonymous with jealousy, they are not the same concepts. Jealousy is the fear of being replaced, whereas envy in its strongest forms can be tied to a different category of fear—the fear of being dwarfed by the status or accomplishments of others.

James’ letter asserts that “bitter envy”—something characteristically “harbored” in our hearts—is an active barrier to experiencing godly wisdom. He further explains that whenever we find “envy and selfish ambition,” we’ll find disorder and every evil practice” (3:16). Augustine asserted that envy is even the “very root of wretchedness” and antithetical to true happiness. Christian novelist Frederick Buechner has bitingly described envy as the consuming desire to make sure “everyone else is as unsuccessful as you are.”

I have usually assumed that when I envied someone, it didn’t quite have the devastating impact as described by Proverbs, James, Augustine, or Buechner; that, somehow, envying someone for whatever reason was an inadvertent compliment to their power, prominence, or prestige. I might have been confusing envy with admiration. Or I might have been conveniently ignoring the costliness of envy on my mental and spiritual health.

It just might be, as Augustine asserts, that envy is the toxic presence that dissolves a healthy sense of contentment with who we are and the garden we’ve been given by God to work in (Genesis 2: 15). And envy just might be the underestimated enemy of the peace that our Lord Jesus Christ wants to rule in our hearts.

Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is one of our Refres{her} bloggers. We appreciate Paul's bravery to add a male voice and round out our blog perspectives in writing what God put on his heart to minister to women. He is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. Paul has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.