Pastor Kent Hughes recounts the fable of two men who lived in an ancient city — one was envious while the other was covetous. The ruler of this city sent for the two men and offered to grant each of them one wish. A small difference arose, however: he would grant the first man exactly what he desired, but the second man would receive double what the first man had asked for himself.
The envious man was told to make the first request, but he obviously was immediately conflicted inwardly — whatever he received, the other would receive twice as much, and thus his envy would be intensified rather than satisfied. What could he do? After a long consultation with himself, he declared that he would like one of his eyes to be gouged out.
While the story is apocryphal in nature, it does describe the picture of envy and its results. Envy will lead one to places unintended with consequences undesired, all the while deluding him that he is receiving good and that he is satisfied.
Charles Swindoll [Come Before Winter] pictures the progression of jealousy and envy in the heart of an individual:
I love something very much, indeed, too much. I desire, in fact, to possess it completely. But the thing I love slips out of my hands and passes to another’s. I begin to experience the gnawing pangs of jealousy. Strangely, the feelings of zeal and love begin to change. By the dark, transforming power of sin, my love turns to hate. Once I was open, happy, filled to the brim with exquisite delight, but no longer! Now I am closed within a narrow compass of inner rage, intensely and insanely angry.
The problem of jealousy is not only the actions it produces, but also the heart out of which it arises. And this is why Solomon counsels his sons, “Do not let your heart envy sinners…” (Prov. 23:17). Idolatrous envy arises not out of the circumstances of life but out of the perversions of the heart. You see, envy is something that can be used for good — it is the intense love of God for His people in which He seeks to protect them and His relationship with them (Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Dt. 32:16, 21). But envy is also something that can be twisted into ungodly passions that destroy rather than protect relationships. For example, Rachel was jealous of her sister’s ability to bear children for Jacob (Gen. 30:1) and Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him because of his dreams and position of favor in the household (Gen. 37:11) — both with unhappy consequences for those homes.
It is that ungodly envy that is the object of Solomon’s warning. In fact, in the context of Proverbs 23, Solomon also provides warnings of the kinds of things that might provoke envy in one’s heart — the apparent prosperity of sinners who seem to have fewer cares and burdens and more pleasure (23:17; cf. also 24:1, 19; Ps. 37:1), a life of ease and prosperity with many good pleasures to enjoy (23:20), illicit sexual sin that seduces with the appearance of delight (23:26-28), the immediate satisfaction of a sparkling glass of wine that seemingly removes the awareness of burdens and sorrows (23:31). All these point to various idols — desires that entice with suggestions of satisfaction but always leave one craving more, and ever dissatisfied with the results (cf. 23:21, 27-28, 29-30, 32-35).
Solomon has done his sons (and us) a great favor in identifying the reality of the root and consequences of envy and jealousy. The problem with envy is not that one has a desire; the problem is that the desire is misplaced. Envy expects that the desire for satisfaction and joy and contentment and peace in life will be filled by a pretender to the throne of God. Ease and pleasure and wealth and escape from burdens and self-indulgent sexual conquests and pride all become more important than the one thing that can truly satisfy — the worship of God and satisfaction with Him.
And that is why Solomon says that the antidote to envy is the fear of God — “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but live in the fear of the Lord always.”
The envious man considers only the object of his illicit desires and does not consider the One with whom we all have to do (Heb. 4:13). He does not consider that God is worthy of fear (because of His coming judgment) and worship (because of His exalted position). And he has forgotten also that there is a future with God (and no future with envy): when he fears God, “Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off” (23:18).
What do you crave? What tempts your heart toward envy? Those who have more money than month? A woman or man who does not belong to you — either in an air-brushed photograph or in person? A life of entertainment and ease? A lack of cancer or diabetes or high blood pressure? Good health and the appearance of fitness? Fewer hours and responsibilities at work with more accolades and appreciation? More children or grandchildren, or progeny who are “like hers…”? Position and stature among your peers like your neighbor or former classmate?
Even more, what sins or sinners do you envy? Are you enticed by those who have various fraudulent monetary practices or those who engage in various sexual sins or those who are leisurely and lazy or those who overextend their credit for unessential purchases or those who place no limits on their intake of alcohol or food or those who have what you want — but they are haters of God while you are a lover of God?
When those desires surface, recognize that those are all attempts to find happiness in something other than the Lord. You are becoming dissatisfied with God. In that moment, you are an idolater, moving away from worshipping God to worshipping something or someone else. Moreover, you are distrusting God and believing that He in some way is indebted to you to give you all your temporal desires. You have misunderstood the nature of grace. In that circumstance, remember to fear the Lord and trust Him.
Charles Bridges comments, “judge not the Lord hastily, by sense and feeling. Hold fast by God’s word. Give time to his providence to explain itself. Pronounce nothing upon an unfinished work. Wait, and ‘see the end of the Lord.'”
When tempted with envy, confess the sin of not being satisfied with God, and renew your worship of Him.