The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build. –Margaret Thatcher
As a generation, we are obsessed with purpose. Our hope, and perhaps our expectation, is that the day after we graduate from college we will set out down the road of a clearly defined calling, using our gifts effectively and building on our passions.
Instead, we find that the road is neither straight nor clean, but is filled with obstacles and switchbacks that bring more questions than answers. Somewhere along the way, we glance to the runner on our left and toss a look to the sprinter down the road.
How did he get that job? I can do that as well as her. Why did that opportunity not come to me? I want to be the next _______________.
We find ourselves drifting into someone else’s story, wishing their calling or their success was ours.
What Envy Does
Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”
If we want to grasp the fullness of that statement, we need a little context. Bones were a reference to the whole body, the fullness of life. To say that envy rots the bones is to say that it breaks down and destroys the whole self. It tears life apart.
Beyond that, the word used for bones in this particular verse comes from the Hebrew word meaning “where the strength is.” Bones provide structure, stability, power. Envy infects and decays that strength like an infectious disease.
As with anything that opposes life, it is deceitful. It keeps us staring at others, resenting our apparent weaknesses, but meanwhile, it is literally boring a hole into our own strengths, ripping apart the meaningful stories we were created for.
What It Looks Like
Envy of Peers
When we look at the talents, titles, successes and influence of our peers with anything less than pride and support, trying to mold ourselves into their image, we choose to let envy drill away at our own God-given purposes.
We trade our stories and lay down our dreams in exchange for a cheap imitation. It’s as if we gave up the feast to beg for the carrot, which will never be anything more than a taunting symbol of someone else’s life, teasing us to chase after it. The cruelest part of the joke is that we won’t catch what it is we think we want, ending exhausted and defeated.
The details of their story cannot be replicated any more than the intricate nuances of your own story could be mimicked. Your life is as remarkable and meaningful as theirs, but it cannot grow deep if its days are spent in the shadows of another.
Envy of Leaders
There was a time when I only compared myself to the local leaders I knew personally. Then came Twitter. And blogs. And Facebook pages. The circle of those I wanted to emulate exploded into a sea that, at times, appears never-ending. But when admiration turns to anxious jealousy, there’s a problem.
Then I remembered that their story has been built over more years than mine. They earned the wisdom they have today.
We want the complete picture of a life well lived and we want it when we turn 21. Decades of experience, laugh lines, scars from wounds healed over, riveting stories of success, countries traveled to and exotic meals enjoyed, memories of friends huddled around a table—we are sometimes surprised at the length of time it takes to collect these pieces of a life.
Maybe we just want to know those things will happen. Maybe we want to have them all right now. But if they came to us today, in one clean package, or even if we were handed a timeline so we could comfortably anticipate their arrival, would we appreciate them they way we will after years of hard work and disappointment? Would we learn the same lessons along the way?
It isn’t the title that changes us. Age never make us mature. Patience and wisdom aren’t thrown on us as a reward for becoming an adult. It’s the time put in, the money saved, the difficult conversations had, the mistakes and the lows and the rises back up again—those are things that build a story; and we have to earn them, just like the leaders who went before us.
From Envy to Peace
If envy rots the bones and a heart at peace gives life, how can we move away from decay and into life? I’d like to suggest three places to start:
Faithfully Cultivate Your Gifts.
We’ve established that envy destroys, so it seems unlikely that we can build on the gifts we were given or dive into the purposes we were made for as long as we are choosing an attitude that breaks down. Build something new. Cultivate your talents and passions. Be faithful with what God has given you today, refusing to pour energy into comparing your walk to someone else’s.
Celebrate and Learn From the Triumphs of Others.
In the beam of another’s success, we can be jealous or we can get over our pride long enough to learn something. Their story is not your story, but you can be certain it has something to speak into yours. What messages might you receive if your focus was less on mirroring them and more on learning from them?
Gratitude is a choice, as is bitterness. Bitterness is easier to choose, though. It flows so naturally out of hearts that have been disappointed. Bitterness tells us, “it’s good, but it’s not great.” Gratitude says “thank you,” even when we don’t get everything we want. It acknowledges the overflow of gifts we wade in everyday and is humbled by how generous the Giver is.
Where envy spreads like a disease deep within the bones, breaking down life itself, our lungs fill with fresh air in the company of contentment, humility, gratitude and the celebration of others. From this place of secure peace, we launch into the stories we were made for and compliment each others gifts, as each one comes together for the purpose of a message far greater than any individual tale.