Four Truths About Envy


I’m eating lunch with my new neighbor, Rosa. As I sit in her apartment eating chicken-tinga tostadas, she shares her story. Five years ago, she left two daughters behind and traveled to a new country—my country—with the hope of earning enough money to care for their needs. The journey was horrible; some parts of it she cannot talk about. Now that she lives here in my neighborhood, she works longer hours than I have ever worked, doing harder labor than I have ever done, for less money than I have ever earned. Realistically, she does not expect to see her daughters again, but they talk on the phone and text pictures. Because of the money she sends back to them each month, they go to primary school. They live in a safer location and have enough food to eat.

It’s easy to skim past stories like these in a book. But take a moment to consider the reality. Imagine sitting at lunch with a mother who trusts you enough to share the pain she has lived through. Consider being that mother. I remember my own children at that age and try to imagine a scenario in which I must leave them behind and move not only into a new neighborhood but a new country, convinced this was the best way I could love and provide for them. In all the worst-case scenarios that run through my head, this has never, ever, come to my mind. It is unthinkable.

And yet, the unthinkable is reality for many of us. Each of our neighbors has a unique story, but they carry the same magnitude and weight. Each time we have the privilege to listen, our understanding of the world may be rocked a bit.

The response much of the country has to my neighbors—many of them immigrants or refugees— is not the sacrificial love God requires of Christians, but fear. Every day I hear accusations that “they” are “taking over” and “taking our jobs” and “taking our way of life.” All this “taking” language makes me wonder what we’re really afraid of. Do we suspect that God has not provided enough—or that God’s provision is running out? Are we peering into the unknowns of a future we can’t control, unsure if God is trustworthy? I feel all these fears myself, often and deeply. But our “taking” language reminds me of toddlers struggling to share their blocks and trucks, and frankly, it says a good deal more about our sinful hearts than it says about my neighbors.

Truth #1: Envy feeds on comparison in both directions, causing us to turn on those with more and those with less. 

Envy is the sin fueling these fears. When someone has more resources or better opportunities than we do, envy tells us we received the raw end of the deal. When someone has less than we do—or a terrifying life story we want to avoid—envy teaches us to lock our doors tightly lest “they” pose a threat to our own comfort. Neither leads to resting in God. Both lead to fearing our neighbors.

In his oft-quoted soliloquy on love, the apostle Paul taught the church at Corinth what it looks like to care for each other, including this little nugget: Love does not envy. Decades later, Clement of Rome wrote his own letter to the Corinthian church, imploring them once more to renounce envy, so this must have been an ongoing temptation for the Corinthians. These new Christians were a diverse crowd, grouping together slaves with powerful and wealthy city officials, and everyone in between. Endless tension ensued. The rich preferred to bring their own (better) food to shared meals and struggled to seek equal standing with brothers and sisters if that meant letting go of their own material resources and social status. And so, a stratification infiltrated the community intentionally formed in unity under Christ.

Sound familiar?

Truth #2: Envy is not a sin we are taught to recognize and carefully remove these days. 

If anything, envy is a way of life we are encouraged to pursue, the primary motivator of our society. How would our economy survive if we weren’t driven to buy the latest and greatest? Nevertheless, envy is deadly— especially for a Christian community.

It doesn’t take scientific research to see that practicing envy blocks our pursuit of love. We can’t afford to spend our life’s energy wanting what is not ours, wishing others would lose what they have, or terrified that those with less will threaten what we have. Envy festers into fear until everyone becomes a threat—especially those suffering or in poverty—rather than neighbors to know, love, and care for. To ease our discomfort, we avert our eyes and conclude something is wrong with “them”—they must be lazy, or criminal, or lacking morals and family values. Surely their suffering is not something that could happen to good people like us. They did something wrong, or we did something right.

Truth #3: Envy blocks the door to empathy. 

We are so afraid of losing our rights and comforts, but what we squander is the ability to mourn and rejoice with our neighbors.

If our hands are clenched, holding tightly to what we have, we will miss the better thing God offers. I can imagine Jesus’ voice affectionately saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”1 Jesus did not promise his followers wealth or comfort; after all, he was speaking to peasants in an occupied country. These hardworking folks had just as much (or more) trouble, suffering, and insecurity as the hardworking poor in our own nation. Yet it was to them—not to the wealthy and powerful—that Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid. Your Father has given you the Kingdom.”

If Jesus asked these folks not to focus on what they had or lacked but to live without fear, surely he asks it of us. Those who belong to Christ, Paul writes, have crucified passions like fear and envy; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are born in us instead. 

Love and envy are incompatible. Practicing envy powerfully dislodges the foundation of love we have built in Jesus’ name.

Truth #4: But—praise God—the opposite is also true: An active practice of servant-hearted love unravels the envy that tangles up our spirits.

Taken from Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies by Catherine McNiel. Copyright © 2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

 Catherine McNiel writes about the creative and redemptive work of God in our real, ordinary lives. She is the author of Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and EnemiesLong Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline, and All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World. Catherine studies theology while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Visit Catherine on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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