Envy and Vanity

Yesterday, while listening to the audio version of John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, I was hit between the eyes, i.e. convicted, by two sentences: “Envy is the reverse side of a coin called vanity. Nobody is ever envious of others who is not first proud of himself.” Ouch! It hurt because it’s true.

Envy is “the feeling of displeasure produced by witnessing or hearing of the advantage or prosperity of others.” It oozes from our pride, which has convinced us that we deserve better than we have received. This manifestation of our arrogance is a breeding ground for other sin. The psalmist confessed, “But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant, as I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2–3). In the New Testament, envy always carries an evil sense. For example, Matthew informs us that it was “because of envy” that the angry crowd delivered up Jesus to Pilate (27:18). Galatians 5:21 includes envy in the list of the fruits of the flesh. When envy is present, we know without a doubt that we are not under the control of the Holy Spirit, but rather of the flesh.

There are three means to overcoming envy, which all flow from growth in humility. 

  1. First, since envy feeds on ingratitude, it is necessary to nurture a thankful heart. Scripture exhorts, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:18).
  2. Second, guarding our hearts from envy also includes cultivating contentment—being satisfied with what God has given us. “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). Paul’s own personal testimony was that he had “learned to be content in whatever circumstances” he was in (Phil. 4:11).
  3. Third, to replace envy with practical righteousness we must also learn to rejoice with other believers when their blessings seem to exceed our own. Through self-discipline, we must strive to replace selfish feelings of displeasure with those of rejoicing so that we can indeed “Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Rom. 12:15).

This kind of heart is nurtured by applying the others-focused application of the gospel, that is, esteeming others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). This both defeats our pride and establishes the Christlike virtue of humility.

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