I know all about envy. Too much.
I know the experience and act of envy—the way it feels in my mouth and under my fingernails. I know what it’s like to sit in a dark room at a school play and just burn over the lovely way my classmate delivers her lines. I know what it’s like to heartily, actively wish my fellow church member’s marriage wasn’t quite so good. I know what it’s like to turn conversations away from people who are too likeable for comfort, to offer compliments with little barbs in them, to imagine what it might take for a certain confidently spiritual person I know to wobble—just a bit—in his confidence.
Envy is a besetting sin of mine. As such, I’ve sought to analyze and confront it over the past few years, and I’ve come up with a private definition:
Envy is the hatred of someone else’s borrowed glory.
When I look at people, I see glory. I see little bits and shards of glory borrowed from the Father in whose image they are created (Ps. 8:5).
God’s glory is what we’ll be living in the presence and enjoyment of for eternity. It is all things weighty, all things meaningful, all things worthwhile, all things beautiful, all things that quicken the pulse with joy and the mind with sight. It compels all who see it to respond in either worship or loathing.
The glory of God is also bestowed on his creation, to a greater or lesser extent. He has especially bestowed glory on his crowning creation—humanity.
In a broken-mirror sort of way, humans reflect some of these glories. We possess beauty, knowledge, wealth, competence, community, creativity, humor, and love. These glories demand a response from those who encounter them.
Think about this: when you meet a beautiful woman on the street, you find it hard to ignore her, even if you’re another woman. When you talk to an expert in their field, and listen to them dressing down their subject with a perfect and sure hand, you stop and engage. When you watch a film or concert that tells its story with finesse, you laugh, cry, or fume. The response is demanded from you.
The borrowed glory is real. Sometimes, you worship it, which is bad (Rom. 1:25). Sometimes, you thank God for it, which is good (James 1:17). But sometimes, you do a strange thing—you first worship it, and then hate it because it’s not yours (Rom. 1:29). Eventually, envy may even motivate you to destroy it (Gen. 4:1–16; 1 Sam 18:6–12).
Here’s the problem: the glory isn’t equally distributed.
For anyone preoccupied with fairness, the inequality of the world is downright unbearable. How could the Lord of all creation say things like, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt. 13:11–12)?
If inequality abounds in the spiritual world, is it surprising there’d be inequality in the temporal world too? Look around you. It’s obvious. The glory is distributed like paint in textured, uneven swaths across God’s creation. One person has a huge dab of brains. Another has a great big fat stripe of beauty. Another has swirls of money, creative talent, and interpersonal skill.
The world isn’t fair. The glory isn’t handed out like ration packets.
And for me, the real travesty isn’t that somebody out there has been blessed with things I can’t even dream of. Oprah, Steve Jobs, Giselle—I don’t mind them so much. What really gets me is the glory I find in my own family, my own pew, my own backyard.
True envy usually flourishes among peers. The biologist cares most about the honors conferred on other biologists. The pretty woman is more likely to envy a great beauty than the plain woman is. The child cares more about his classmate’s height and strength than about his teacher’s.
And inequality is the awful fact that none of us who struggles with envy can get around. Inequality is there. The borrowed glory is real.
How Do We Fight?
This battle is something different than other sin battles I’ve been engaged in: it’s uniquely embarrassing. To confess it, you have to tell another person that you think they’re better than you are and that you have, to a greater or lesser degree, wished them harm.
Despite these extraordinary characteristics, ordinary tactics will do. Here are some that have helped me:
1. Love God.
The glory of God is the only thing that can bring the glory of man into right perspective. Cultivate your adoration of his attributes: his superior worth (Isa. 55), his eternal self-existence (Ps. 90:2–4, Acts 17:24– 25), his omniscience (Rom. 11:33-34), and his sovereignty (Dan. 4:35), as well as his goodness, love, and mercy (Pss. 136, 145; Titus 3:4–7). Read and listen to and sing things that make God big and man small. Read authors who are enamored with God and who favor sincerity over pithy quips (John Piper, J. I. Packer, C. H. Spurgeon, etc.). Memorize the passages cited above.
2. Love man.
Envy is a form of hatred, and only the Holy Spirit can produce its opposite. Love is precious and rare, a jewel to be cultivated and treasured. I understand now that love can’t be summoned with a snap of the fingers. At the same time, in love there’s an element of “fake it till you make it.” Act loving toward those whose success you so bitterly resent. Pray for them. Confess your envy to God, as many times as necessary. Depending on proximity, you may need to confess your sin to the individual. Praise them (with sincerity, not flattery). Speak well of them to others. Become a “fan.” Meditate on 1 Corinthians 13.
3. Enjoy the glory.
Worship the glorious one. Look from him to the glory of his creation, and thank him wherever you find it. Look on beauty and be grateful. Look on truth and be grateful. Look on talent and be grateful. Thank him openly that your friend has the thing or gift he has. Ask the Father to grant you the heart, eventually, to feel that thanks reflexively.
4. Have faith in future grace.
This old Piper wisdom is as useful here as it is with so many other sin struggles. Remember God hasn’t promised you the kind of glory you want now, in the quantity you currently want it. But he has promised to glorify you (2 Cor. 4:17; Rom. 8:30). Someday, you will be crowned with the glory that is right and fitting for you as an heir of God, and you will receive praise from the only lips that matter. Run for that praise. Rest in the work that’s already been done.
Fight the envy of borrowed glory by considering the glorious Lamb who laid himself on an altar of humility to redeem your grasping heart.
Editors' note: To read more about this often overlooked subject, check out some excerpts of the book project that Tilly and her husband are working on—Borrowed Glories: Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God.