The Envy of Cain

When God accepted Abel's sacrifice and rejected Cain's, Cain had several responses he could have chosen. He could have celebrated the success of his brother. He could have asked his brother (or God for that matter) what about his offering wasn't acceptable and learned from his mistake. He could have stolen Abel's flocks and offered that up as a sacrifice. He could have just left the whole family and tribe altogether.  He didn't have to kill his brother. It didn't gain him anything. Such is the power of envy.

We tend to use the words jealousy, envy, and coveting interchangeably.  While that’s not necessarily a huge deal, it is important to understand the variations of the sin of envy.

When you are jealous, you are afraid of someone taking what you already have. A common expression of jealousy is what we feel when a friend or spouse gives attention that’s normally reserved for us to someone else. The etymology for ‘jealous’ comes from the French word for possessive. Jealously implies your ownership (or at least your perception of ownership.) So when we say we are ‘jealous’ or someone’s awesome vacation, we are using the word incorrectly.

Another word we often hear the Bible use is coveting.  This is tied to one of the Ten Commandments- “Thou shalt not covet.” To covet means to lust after or desire something that someone else has. To crave or obsess over it. It’s important to note that it is not wrong to be inspired by someone else’s success. If you see that someone has a great marriage or a healthy financial life and aspire towards the same thing, that’s fine and healthy. Admiration is a good thing. It becomes coveting when you want their wife or their money. So while jealousy is being afraid of losing something you have, coveting is wanting something someone else has.

Envy is slightly different than jealousy and coveting. With envy, we aren’t worried about losing something (jealousy.) We aren’t focused on taking something (coveting.) Envy is even more insidious. Envy is wishing that the other person lose their qualities or possessions or popularity so that you can feel better about yourself. It seeks the destruction of the other. What did Cain gain from the destruction of his brother?

Envy is toxic because it not only seeks the destruction of the other but it also eats away at your own soul. Solomon writes: “A heart at peace gives life to the body. But envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30) We become envious when we fall into the comparison trap. Someone is more successful, wealthier, more popular, more attractive.  We compare and feel inferior and build resentment. As Teddy Roosevelt notes:

"Comparison is the thief of joy."

Externally, While me might not literally murder people in the way that Cain did, we murder them with our words. Envy leads us to all sorts of destructive behaviors, and we need to be on guard for its ruinous effect in our lives.We gossip. We slander. We dismiss or reduce or explain away someone else's accomplishments and don't give them adequate honor or credit. We talk about how we could have the same success if we weren't committed to some other self-righteous pursuit.

Envy can be destructive and obstructive. Perhaps we don't go out of our way to tear someone down, but we also don't put forth any energy in helping them succeed. Either way, it is harmful. So how do we combat envy?

When looking at the seven deadly sins, the corresponding virtue to the vice of envy is kindness. While envy seeks to destroy and take away, kindness means to intentionally build up. So give someone authentic and sincere praise. Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere— not ironic or an act. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight— if you get the chance— correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” 

We have to learn to "rejoice with those who rejoice" (Romans 12:15), to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of others. Choose humility and curiosity rather than hostility. Admiration rather than comparison.

Envy is deceptive and it is poisonous. If you aren't aware of when it's happening inside of you, it can eat way at your joy and erode your relationships. Pay attention to your thoughts.