Do you know why fishermen can put a bunch of crabs in a bucket and not worry about them climbing out? It’s not because the crabs can’t climb out. It’s because the moment one starts to climb out, the others pull him back in.
This is what envy does to us: It starts with discontentment with what we have and turns quickly into resentment toward others who have the thing that we want. Not only do we wish we had what they have, but we also hate them for having it. We become clawing crabs.
The Bible tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, but envy does the opposite. Envy seethes over those who are rejoicing and exults over those who are weeping. There is a great German word for this, Schadenfreude, which literally means, “harm-joy.” It’s when someone else’s harm brings you joy.
Envy starts with discontentment with what we have and turns quickly into resentment toward others who have the thing that we want.
Envy thrives off of comparison—comparing your situation with someone else’s. Pastor Craig Groeschel puts comparison in three major categories:
1. Material Comparison
Todd posts a picture of his truck on social media, and you used to like the car you had, but now you are mad because you want that truck. Or Bonnie posts a picture of the brownies she just made. But you’re not really looking at her brownies; you’re looking beyond her brownies, at her kitchen—at her countertops and her cabinet pull knobs, with the inspirational quote on the chalkboard and not a thing out of place in her perfect little kitchen, and you think, “I have always hated Bonnie’s brownies.”
Or maybe one of your friends posted that perfect family picture from the beach again, for the second time this month, and you can’t even afford to go to the lake on a holiday weekend. You can’t help but compare how much less you have in your life, right?
2. Relational Comparison
You see a post of all your friends at the fair, but you weren’t invited. Again. Or, maybe you’re not married, and it seems like every other person you know is married, and you start to think thoughts like, “I’m more attractive than her” or “I’m a better person than him.” Why, you wonder, does marriage seem to happen to everyone else but me?
Or—just wait a month—you start getting one of those Christmas cards. You know the ones. Their family just looks so perfect. Everybody, including the dog, is wearing the same shirt and posing in front of a quaint little barn. Your family doesn’t seem like that. In fact, if you were going to send out a Christmas card, it would be of everyone in the family strangling each other by the neck. There might be a barn involved, but it would probably be on fire. And all of a sudden, you find yourself envious of someone else’s relationships.
3. Circumstantial Comparison
Sociologists say that envy seems to be a bigger problem for our generation that any before us, because social media seems designed to play on it. We forget that when we look at other people’s lives on social media, we are seeing a filtered image. We see the best of their best, and we know the worst of our worst. We’re comparing our behind-the-scenes footage with other people’s highlight reels.
And never before, in the history of the world, could we so quantifiably measure our popularity compared to someone else’s. When I was a kid, you just had to kind of randomly guess that you weren’t popular. Now, you can measure it. “I’ve only got 312 followers, and she’s got 624! That means she’s literally twice as popular as me!” Social media pours such fuel on envy that I sometimes think we ought to rename Instagram as “Envygram,” or Facebook as “In-Your-Face-book.”
The Way Out of Envy
Envy surrounds us—and most of us don’t realize the deadly poison it is. We think of envy as a kind of petty jealousy that just comes from wanting a little more. But the Bible treats it as far more serious.
Numbers 11:6 describes the people of God succumbing to envy. Literally in Hebrew, the verse is, “Our souls are dried up.” And the word “soul” in Hebrew means life force. Comparison and envy dried up the Israelites’ soul force on their trek through the wilderness. Like Proverbs says, “Jealousy is rottenness to the bones” (Proverbs 14:30).
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends; Tolkien even helped Lewis to faith in Christ at Oxford. But Lewis was (reluctantly) famous, even during his life, whereas Tolkien wasn’t. So as Lewis wrote novel after novel—to greater and greater acclaim—Tolkien became incredibly jealous. After all, he was spending all of his free time working on one book, but he wasn’t even sure it would get done. He got so frustrated with his writer’s block that for over a year he stopped writing the book altogether.
Then Tolkien had a dream that he made into a story called “Leaf by Niggle,” about an artist (named Niggle) who was commissioned to paint a mural in his town. By the time he died, Niggle had only completed a leaf. But on the train to paradise, Niggle finally saw the finished mural—not just a completed tree, but an entire forest at the foot of an expansive mountain range.
Tolkien realized this was a picture of his life. And ours. All of us get to taste only a little bit of the world to come. It just looks like a leaf. But that leaf is a promise of more to come.
When we let envy and comparison take root in our lives, they rot us down to the bones, destroying our appetites and our ability to remember what we have to look forward to in the future or to enjoy anything good God has given us in the present.
So, when we are tempted to compare ourselves to others and feel like all we have is a leaf, we need to look toward heaven and think about the day we’ll have the full forest!
By the way, realizing this helped free Tolkien of his writer’s block. When he was freed of the pressure of feeling like everything had to be perfect, his “appetite came back,” so to speak, and he finished The Lord of the Rings, inglorious orcs and all.