Why Envy is Unenviable (Proverbs 14:30)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Proverbs 14:30
When our children were younger, they often had the same response to someone else getting something that they themselves wanted. Their response was only one word. But the way they said it was just as important as the word itself. That one-word response was simply: “lucky”.
If someone got a toy they wanted: “lucky!” If someone got a treat they wanted: “lucky!” If someone got picked for something they wanted to do: “lucky!”
And even though I would regularly stress the difference between the false idea of being “lucky” and the truth about being blessed, it never seemed to make a dent in that routine response. What was driving such a response? A little something we call envy.
This morning, consider with me what God's word tells us about envy. If you are a follower of Jesus this morning, then this topic is very relevant. Why? Well, one explicit reason is exemplified by a passage like I Peter 2:1... So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.
But as we'll see this morning, there is an even more fundamental reason envy is a topic we must address. To get started, let's return together to the book of Proverbs, to the same chapter we looked at last week: Proverbs 14.
II. The Passage: "Envy Makes the Bones Rot" (14:30)
As we've talked about, Proverbs is a book about wisdom, a book that trains us in what we've called 'moral skillfulness'; a book through which God wants to teach us about navigating the challenging waters of real, everyday life. And one of those everyday issues is envy. Look with me at what God tells us through Solomon in 14:30...
A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot. (2x)
Let's take this verse bit by bit, and as we do that, use it as a launching pad to explore some other verses that touch on this topic of envy. Before we do that, let me mention something about the word translated “envy” here in our English Bibles. A generic translation of this Hebrew word would be “passion”. But depending on the context, this idea of passion can be even more specific. Sometimes the word is translated as “zeal”. More often than not, it's translated as “jealousy”. But it's important to note that this word is sometimes used to refer to God; that is, to God's zeal or to God being a jealous God in terms of his people's worship and devotion.
But in at least eight instances, that idea of jealously is better expressed as envy, that is, a resentful longing for something possessed or enjoyed by someone else.
Listen to how one writer explains the difference between these terms: "We are jealous of our own; we are envious of another man's possessions. Jealousy fears to lose what it has; envy is pained at seeing another have" (Crabb's English Synonyms) But re: envy, let me give you...
1. The Examples of Envy (v. 30b)
[...that we find in God's word, starting with the book of Proverbs]. When it comes to envy, Proverbs emphasizes the same point in four different verses:
Proverbs 3:31 — Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways...
Prov. 23:17 — Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day.
Proverbs 24:1 — Be not envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them...
Proverbs 24:19 — Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked...
For Solomon, the most dangerous kind of envy is not a resentful longing regarding your friends naturally curly hair or your brother's new job. That kind of envy is certainly wrong. But for Solomon, as he instructed his son, being envious of sinners was even more toxic.
Why would anyone be envious of sinners? Well, for some who are struggling with particular sins, the apparent ease with which unbelievers indulge could be strangely appealing. But in most cases we are tempted to envy sinners because of the fruit of their sin. Proverbs 12:12...
Whoever is wicked covets the spoil of evildoers, but the root of the righteous bears fruit.
To covet is not inherently wrong. It simply means desiring. The right or wrong of it is connected to the object of our desires. In Proverbs 12:12, that object is “the spoil of evildoers”. Solomon is telling his son, “Do not be envious of a man's wealth or position, especially when he lies, cheats, and steals to get such things.” In Psalm 73, Asaph confessed this exact struggle:
For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Is there a person, or maybe people, in your life today that you envy, because they have certain things, or have a particular kind of life? A particular kind of position? A particular kind of celebrity? A particular kind of comfort or success? And as you maximize what they have, are you also minimizing how they got it? Who they stepped on? Who or what they neglected? The parts of their soul they had to 'sell' to succeed? That isn't always the case, but in can be.
Envy. Other famous biblical examples of envy include two stories from the book of Genesis; stories, not about wicked or evil men, but about those closest to us: Genesis 30:1 tells us that Rachel envied her sister Leah, because her womb was barren while her sister gave birth to four sons. Genesis 37:11 describes how those four sons, along with their other brothers, were envious of Joseph and the special relationship he had with his father.
Envy is no respecter of persons. It is not bias. We can be envious of both the righteous and the unrighteous, of strangers and friends, of the rich and the poor, of those who love us and those who hate us. What are some examples of how you struggle with envy? But also consider...
2. The Effects of Envy (v. 30b)
Look again at Proverbs 14:30:
A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.
Notice how the whole verse lands on that word “rot”. For some, envy is useful. They believe it helps drive our economy and stimulate healthy competition. But true envy is never useful. It is never healthy. In fact, it's like rottenness in our bones.
Is Solomon talking about an actual medical condition here? I don't think so (even though our inner health can take a toll on our outer health). I think what Solomon is telling us here is that envy does not help, it only hurts. Real envy does not inspire us, it poisons us, deep within. And that inward heaviness and moral decay can eat us alive.
But you might be wondering, “What does he mean by the phrase 'true envy' or 'real envy'?” Well, envy does not simply mean wanting something someone else has. To understand 'real envy', let's do this. Let's think about..
3. The Enemy of Envy (v. 30a)
Did you notice the contrast we find in the first half of verse 30? While envy will make your bones rot, A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh...
A “tranquil” heart... literally, a “healthy” heart. A heart full of “healthiness”. But if the contrast here is with “envy”, what might Solomon have in mind when he talks about a “tranquil” or “healthy” heart? I think he means a heart that is grateful, content, and wide. Think about each of those for a moment and if these describe your heart:
Grateful: a thankful man or woman is not focused on what they do have, not what they do not have. Ultimately, thankfulness turns our attention to God.
Content: the man or woman who is content does not focus on needing something that belongs to someone else, because the man or woman who is content knows there needs have been met, or trusts that God will meet a need at the right time, in the right way.
Wide: the man or woman with a wide heart is not resentful about what others have. He or she is able to be happy for the person who has been blessed, or pray for the person who has prospered corruptly.
Grateful. Content. Wide. Is that how you would describe your heart? Is it healthy in that way, and thus “tranquil”? A person whose inner life is defined by these qualities is not a person who is struggling with envy. Why? Because these are the enemies of envy.
But without these qualities, how easy it is to be overcome with envy. When we take what we have for granted, when discontentment simmers inside us, telling us nothing is good enough, when are hearts are closed or narrowly focused on our own good, we are incredibly vulnerable to that old, old lie that always begins with the same two words: “If only...” “If only I had what she has...” “If only I was in his position...”
Envy can be extremely subtle, can't it? Sometimes we can feel resentful or simply dislike a person, and we don't even know why. It may be envy. Sometimes envy actually drives us toward a person, and we become fixated on them because we are really fixated on something they have. Search your heart. Friends, envy is not useful. It is poisonous.
III. What Do You Deserve
At the outset of this message, I talked about how the NT explicitly calls us to “put away... envy”. Lists of vices like we find Mark 7:21, 22 and Romans 1:29, 30 also speak explicitly about envy. But also mentioned to you that there is an even more fundamental reason we must address this topic.
Listen to this amazing passage. Turn over to Titus 3:3–7. Paul writes...
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
For Paul, those without Christ, those who have not trusted Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life, those now who live like we once did, envy is a defining characteristic. And that resentful longing for what others possess and we do not, can so often be driven by what we believe we deserve. “John doesn't deserve that promotion. I do.” “I know her. She doesn't deserve that new car. But I do.” “I've seen his stuff. He doesn't deserve to be in the spotlight. I do.”
But the grace that Paul mentions in Titus 3:7 is a reminder that God offers us what we do NOT deserve. What we deserve is the very things we need to be saved from: God's holy and just punishment of sin, and the bondage of that old life, the bondage that leads us to that place of eternal punishment. But as we see here, God's grace is incomparably generous. His Spirit has been poured out “richly” (v. 6). Because of his grace, those who believe have “become heirs” (v. 7). Think about those words. They point us to the spiritual wealth that is our because of Jesus.
You see, when we as followers of Jesus are struggling with envy, we are ultimately struggling to see and savor all that we've been given in Jesus. How will you address that envy this morning. Please know this: nothing helps us cultivate gratefulness, contentment, and 'wideness' of heart like the Good News of God's ever-generous grace in Christ. So confess those envious thoughts and longings, and ask God this morning for a fresh encounter with that grace and renewed mind to meditate on it, day by day.
And if you can't say with any certainty that you really know God through faith in Christ, then let your struggle with envy drive you to him. Along with so many other things, envy is an indication that we are ruled, not by God, but by sin and self. According to Jesus in Mark 7:21, 22, it points to the defiled and desperate condition of our hearts.
Interestingly, Matthew 27:18 and Mark 15:10 tell us that it was out envy that the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to death. But ironically, and wonderfully, only that death, only Jesus' death, can transform a heart riddled with envy. Will you trust him today in light of his sacrifice on the cross? Will you receive his ever-generous provision, and new heart of gratitude, contentment, and wideness? Let's pray!