Envy: Why We Want What Others Have

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Photo by Christina Snyder

The biblical word for it is coveting.  People often speak of envy.  Today we spiced up the vocabulary and prefer to call it ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’

I just finished reading a book that I found fascinating.  The book was Your Money and Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich by Jason Zweig.  It provided a lot of insight for one of the things I told you to expect from this blog “A behind the scenes look at our finances.  We’ll analyze the motivations, impulses, and the spiritual implications of our financial decisions.”  This book does an amazing job talking about motivations and impulses with money and now I get to chime in and tie up some loose ends by talking about the spiritual implications.

First a story/illustration/parable inspired by a section in Zweig’s book (pg. 202)

Over the weekend you join a group of friends to watch a new release at the movie theater.  After purchasing your ticket you enter the theater to the shouts of many.  “You have just won $100 for being the 1,000th customer to the theater.”  How do you feel?  Wow.  Awesome.  Sweet.

Then one of your friends walks in behind you and they start to shout again.  “You have just won $1,000 for being the 1001st customer to the theater.”  Now, how do you feel?  Disappointed.  Jealous.  If you are like most people, you would say to yourself, “If I had only come in after one more person I would have got $1,000.”

If you want to know exactly how this would feel read the Bible story in Matthew 20:1-16.  This well known story highlights the feelings of jealousy, covetousness, and disappointment the workers feel by living in comparison with others.  If each worker were blissfully unaware of the income of the others he would have been content with what he had and what he received.

This highlights something about human nature – what we have is always enjoyed in comparison to others.

Zweig writes:

How good your money makes you feel depends partly on how much money the people around you have.  To envy is human.

If you cannot control the ancient urge to measure your success against that of your peers, your happiness will always depend less on how much money you have than on how much money they have.

Honestly, we just need a reminder about these things because most of us already know it is true.  My four-year-old daughter learned this lesson from the Berenstain Bears.  I have recently been reading The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings to my daughter.

As Mama watched Sister skipping happily over the hill to Lizzy’s house, she sighed.  She knew exactly what was going to happen when Sister got home.  And it wasn’t just when she got home from Lizzy’s.  It was the same thing when she got home from Anna’s, or Queenie’s.

You see, when Sister went to her friends’ homes she came back feeling like her friends had everything while she had nothing.  Following the complaining, Mama Bear speaks and in all her wisdom says:

I’ve heard quite enough about what you don’t have.  It would be very nice if you would start appreciating the things you do have.  It’s called ‘counting your blessings.’

Now, just because something is human nature doesn’t mean Christians embrace those activities.  In fact, once we have recognized tendencies of the fleshly nature we need to move beyond them and pursue an attitude more pleasing to God.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24 NIV)

So what can we do if we find ourselves coveting and measuring ourselves against what other have:

  1. Count Your Blessings.  Spend your energy thanking God for the blessings you have received, not those you wish you had.
  2. Learn the Christian discipline of contentment.  Phil 4:11-12.
  3. Write a personal psalm.  When you read the Psalms, so many of them use God as the subject.  God acts, moves, wills, blesses, guides …  Remind yourself of all the ways God is at work in your life.
  4. Concern yourself with yourself.  Sometimes we ask questions we wish we never asked.  The less you know about someone else’s situation the less you will be tempted to covet what they have.
  5. Pray.  When things of the fleshly nature seek to overwhelm you, give yourself completely over to God.


  1. says

    I think fighting the battle of envy is a daily thing for me. We are surrounded and bombarded on a daily basis with marketing and advertising, not to mention on just a simple drive to work I will no doubt pass nicer houses, better cars etc.

    Thankfulness and contentment seem to be the biggest starting points for me. Treating & viewing the things I have as gifts. Also, when I put in perspective the ultimate gift God has given me in salvation thru Jesus it tends to lessen the importance of other “stuff”.
    .-= Jason @ Redeeming Riches´s last blog ..7 Things You Don’t Want to Be Caught Dead Without =-.

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