Some years ago, I preached a sermon on envy. I had never really thought in depth about envy before, so it was fascinating to study this particular vice. It was also terrifying.
We typically think of pride as the chief of the vices and the opposite of humility, and that is right. C. S. Lewis called pride “the essential vice” and wrote, “It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”1
But envy is closely related to pride and stands near it, close to the very essence of evil. We might think of pride as the root of evil, and of envy as one of its necessary and immediate fruits, particularly in how it manifests itself toward our peers.
What is envy, exactly? It is typically understood as an unpleasant and resentful feeling toward someone else’s advantage. I like Thomas Aquinas’s brief and insightful definition of envy as “sorrow for another’s good.”2
Just think for a moment about how squarely malicious envy is based on this definition. In fact, just as pride is the opposite of humility, envy can be thought of as the opposite of love. Love says, “I’m happy when you’re happy, and I’m sad when you’re sad.” Envy says, “I’m happy when you’re sad, and I’m sad when you’re happy.” Could anything be more terrible?
Envy is Invisible and Miserable
Envy is more subtle and invisible than other sins. If you are struggling with murderous thoughts toward someone, you usually at least know what you are struggling with. But it is possible to be completely consumed with envy and not have a clue. It hides in our hearts. Like pride, the more we succumb to it, the more blind we become to its effect on us. The worst sins often are like that.
Envy is one of the most miserable vices. Most other vices tend to produce some kind of pleasure, however momentary. But envy is nothing but unpleasant, through and through. It is the constant thief of joy.
Imagine that you win the lottery. Are you happy? Not if you have envy. Envy will immediately come in and say, “But look how much the government took. And so-and-so still has a bigger house than I do. Why did I not win as much as that other person?” And so forth.
There is no joy in your life that cannot be destroyed by envy. No matter what you have, envy can say, “Yes, you might have X, but you don’t have Y.”
Have you heard this voice before, in your heart?
- “Yeah, you might have gotten into that college, but you didn’t get into that one.”
- Or, “Yeah, you might be making good money, but you don’t have enough time to enjoy it.”
- Or, “Yeah, your church might be growing, but you don’t have the opportunities that so-and-so has.” (Yes, ministers have thoughts like this; unfortunately, we are very prone to envy.)
The Distortion of Envy
The ultimate expression of envy came in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were literally in paradise, but envy came along and said, “Yeah, you may be in paradise, but you’re not God.” There is no heaven that envy cannot make into a hell. It blinds and distorts how we experience heaven itself. As Derek Kidner put it, “There is nothing so blinding as envy or grievance. This was the nerve the serpent touched in Eden, to make even paradise appear an insult.”3
I'm going on about this because I believe that envy is a huge source of misery in our lives, often in ways we are not fully aware of. I think it especially lurks on social media, where we are constantly tempted to compare ourselves to others.
I want us to see this so that we can understand just how crucial humility is to a life of joy. Humility is how we battle envy. Therefore, there could not be more at stake in the struggle between humility and envy going on in our hearts. It is as fierce and decisive as the battle between heaven and hell.
So what does it look like, practically, to fight against feelings of envy and instead pursue humility?
Battling Envy with Prayer
The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was once asked which musical instrument is most difficult to play. He reputedly answered, “Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm—that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”4
How powerfully insightful for life! The world is filled with people vying to play first violin. But can we play the second fiddle with enthusiasm? Finding our own unique role and being content in it—this is where flourishing happens. This is where life gets interesting. This is where the joy comes out.
One way we can pursue this is to pray for God’s blessings on others. Sincerely wish good for the first violinists who are in the spotlight. Ask God to make them flourish.
This is difficult! You might say, “But I don’t want God’s blessing on them!” Ah, but do you want to want it? Our prayers can shape our desires. The more you pray for God’s blessing on someone, the more the tentacles of envy around your heart are weakened.
From Envy to Joy
My brother Dane recently wrote an outstanding book (I’m guessing you’ve heard of it!) entitled Gentle and Lowly.5 Hopefully by this point you’ve picked up on the fact that I’m not Dane—but if you're reading this article because you thought I was him, I am glad you have made it this far!
By God’s grace, I don’t think I have particularly struggled with envy over the success of Dane’s book. But I wanted to make sure early on that I wouldn’t get anywhere near envy, because I thought it might be a temptation.
So I made a practice, every time I heard about how God had used Dane’s book, to pray that God would use it even more. (I can pray this sincerely because it’s such a fantastic book.) Every time I hear about how many copies have been sold, I pray even more will sell. I pray that the book will keep on selling until every person on earth has five copies, and then we can start shipping them into outer space to bless the aliens.
Can you pray for God’s blessings on those you are tempted to envy? Of course, this will look different for different people. If the people you envy are the wicked people Asaph was describing in Psalm 73, then you won’t really pray for “blessing” on them in the same sense. You could pray, though, for the blessing of their salvation.
But tragically, so much of the time, we envy other brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are tempted to this, praying for God’s blessing on their lives can help us replace feelings of envy with feelings of friendship, encouragement, and goodwill.
Start With this Prayer Today
Lord, help us learn to play second fiddle with enthusiasm! Help us embrace these words and know them as joyful words: it’s not about us. Give us a sense of the splendor of your glory. Teach us the joy and freedom of spending our lives to make you known, and unite our hearts together with everyone else serving this wonderful cause!
Meet the Author
Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. He is the author of several books and runs the popular YouTube channel Truth Unites. Gavin and his wife, Esther, have five children.
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- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 103.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, Q. 36, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948).
- Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1975), 291.
- Cited in Charles Swindoll, “Playing Second Fiddle,” Insight for Living Ministries, January 14, 2021, https://insight.org.
- Dane C. Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).