By Matt Gordon
Recently, I had a conversation with a person struggling with drugs. This person had grown tired of rock bottom and was ready to live a better story. I asked how the person knew it was time to make a change. His answer came promptly: “I just can’t keep this up. It is destroying me.”
Those words are profound, yet there is a simplicity to the diagnostic. It was easy for the person to know these drugs were the root cause of ruin due to the physical component of the transaction—the drugs were taken from outside and put into the body. Decay followed.
I do not use drugs, yet destruction lurks all the same. Identification proves more difficult though, as my own emotional and spiritual decay comes not from without but resides firmly within. It is less of a fixed battle-line and more guerilla warfare. The enemy lies hidden, severing supply lines of goodness, of flourishing, cutting off their flow into my heart and mind. And I think this foe thrives within many of us. It typically goes unnamed, and, unlike drugs, it is perfectly legal and seldom discouraged. There aren’t elementary programs daring students to just say no. Mostly it isn’t talked about at all, as it goes about the business of quietly killing us.
This behavioral toxin is called envy.
We feel it when a sibling returns from an amazing vacation.
When a friend receives an inheritance.
When we have the worst car in the parking lot.
When a colleague is given an opportunity.
We feel it when the boasts of the world echo through social media filters. We feel it for people we don’t know, acquaintances, even loves. It divides families, makes enemies of friends, and severs any semblance of true unity.
And it festers and grows, while we do nothing. Unlike the brave person tired of addiction, we seldom find ourselves saying, “I just can’t keep this up. It is destroying me.”
But it is. Here are some symptoms of that destruction.
Envy is the enemy of joy. Joy is childlike—a simple happiness that enters at mere suggestion. A joke brings it forth, a giggle, a color, or word. It swings in sweetly and swiftly. And it comes when we count our blessings. In that counting, if we are honest, we find the number of ways we are blessed to be myriad. We are blessed with each breath—to have provision, perspective, love. Who are we to deserve such? Well, we are just that—loved. Beloved. In that we should content ourselves. Instead, we crave more of what is lesser. We are divinely cherished; yet we want a raise. We are beloved children of a beneficent God; yet we crave promotion. We are unconditionally accepted; yet we demand applause. More and more, our fickle attention turns to what we don’t have, rather than what we do have, and then we go a step further to find out who does possess our petty desire. Once we mark them out, we have a choice—imitate them or hate them. Both are damned paths.
Envy doesn’t just impact us. It impacts us through the relationships we split and sabotage. Probably most of us can think of someone we’ve lost connection with due to external success. We dislike or mistrust someone because of their organization’s growth or their successful event or their good fortune. And we have plenty of reasons: they’ve changed; they’ve grown too busy; they’ve become narrow or self-sighted. We, of course, don’t know any of these things with certitude. But these theories become nice camouflage to hide behind. We foist foibles onto another in order to avoid facing the truth that lies within: we have created disconnect out of a hatred for their success. Because we see their success as something that could have been—should have been—our own. It is a sickness that spreads. Paradoxically, envy is a feeling that is shared, yet at the same time it separates. It is the rare occasion where misery ends company. We and the person we envy share in a common malady—it takes two to tango—but envy secretly maligns the relationship; it brings a sneaky death to benevolence, which erodes trust and weaponizes vulnerability. The only thing it creates is bitterness and distance. Envy is a great disconnector.
The disconnect that occurs is sown and justified through discord. Namely, through gossip. We loathe a person for getting a promotion of some kind—oddly, whether we actually wanted that promotion or not. And then we decide to launch a grassroots campaign to demote the person through denigrating their character via passive aggressive gossip. We mask it all in concern or prayer request or our own heightened senses. We say the wrong thing the right way, concealing our hatred behind loquacious attempts to maintain our own piety. We can be quite subtle about our sabotage, so much so that the target is actually turned back in at ourselves without our knowledge. Each passing selfish remark is like another hit whose high will be replaced by an even deeper low.
Myths are wondrous tales meant to invoke power and grace, to use unhuman attributes or feats to express greater human expressions, to maximize truths through story. Envy, however, inverts myth. It takes the rise of our fellow human and darkens it. It denounces talent, besmirches blessing, and turns gift to grift. It is an isolating selfishness, impure, addictive, and demonic. It harms the object of our envy, but the truest destruction happens to the envious person.
To reach a point of change, then, one must make a decision. Much like the drug-user I referenced earlier, we must come to an awareness of a deeper problem that will dictate a deeper destruction. And we must act. Letting envy reside rent-free in our minds does not come without a cost. Here are three quick considerations to combat envy:
How are you thinking about others? How are you celebrating them and giving the benefit of the doubt? How are you replacing true hopes with faux-hopes? Becoming aware of these subtle soul delusions is a meaningful way to begin making progress toward replacing jealousy with gratitude and having a heart of contentment. The Bible speaks of taking thoughts captive to Christ, which, among other things, means operating with a paradigm that doesn’t bow to the idols of worldliness: prestige, pride, and power. But rather lives in the light of love, joy, and peace.
Can you prepare yourself for envy temptation? Of course you can. A good puritan would have called this “mortification of the flesh.” Sounds like a juicy horror flick. I’ll call it “desire mitigation” for our supple modern sensibilities. What I mean is that we are prone to wander, Lord I feel it . . . well, which way? I don’t often wander aimlessly—no, my drifting comes with a purpose. Say, for instance, you have a long list of material things for which you yearn: an ebike, a Peleton, a scooter—yes, you are a big fan of wheels apparently. Guess where envy might entice you? That’s right, at your friend who just got a new car. Or the person who just got a pay increase. Your heart staggers into materialism, so when someone else gets what you want (or even the possibility of it), that person becomes your sudden enemy. Rather than letting our desires control us, however, we can pray for focus to gain mastery over the desires. We can seek accountability. We can journal feelings and arm ourselves with Scripture. And in so doing, we can experience power. Without control over us, envy itself is bound and we are free to rejoice in the flourishing of another and refrain from turning friend to foe.
Certain people are like keys that unlock the sinister parts of us. When it comes to envy, it tends to be people who are similar to us in gifting or circumstance. Sometimes it can be based on birth order or upbringing. Sometimes it is inexplicable. But it is true whether we can puzzle it out or not—we are predisposed to be jealous of specific people in our lives. Who are they? Do you have a list in mind? Knowing who these people are allows us to pray for them and for our manner of seeing them. I’ve found that if I pray daily for the success of one of my would-be irritants, the grip of jealousy relents. Suddenly the good fortune of the person is neutral or even—gasp—a positive. I am free then to laugh with those who laugh and grieve with those who grieve, for successes and failures of others now come with no built-in bitterness or vindication. I free a person from the bondage of my envy, but even more, I liberate myself to love them in whatever circumstance brings them.
I hope, like my friend who is now seeking help, the seed of ruin you feel taking root deep within will not go unchecked. That you will trade out destruction for wholeness, for truth, and for love. Synthesizing our outer experience with an inward reality is a sweet daily congruence—a gift from above that makes a difference around. In our pursuits and our relationships, a freer life awaits.