The Apostle Paul had spent much time warning the Galatian Christians regarding the dangers of falling away from grace in Christ through accepting a false gospel (Galatians 1:1-5:16); he now wanted to make sure they did not become disinherited from the Kingdom of God by participating in the “works of the flesh,” and instead wanted them to display the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17-24). He listed these “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Many of the first “works of the flesh” centered on challenges and temptations which would prove especially acute for Christians who had recently come out of the Greco-Roman pagan milieu: sexual temptations like sexually deviant behavior, uncleanness, and lasciviousness; idolatry; and sorcery. Paul has now turned to discuss “works of the flesh” which prove especially pernicious in relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath, rivalries, divisions, and sects. The last “relational” work of the flesh listed is envy (“envyings” as in ASV above).
The word here translated as “envy” is the Greek word phthonos, defined by Thayer as, “envy; for envy, i.e. prompted by envy.” But what is envy? Webster defines the English term:
1. To feel uneasiness, mortification or discontent, at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness enjoyed by another; to repine at another’s prosperity; to fret or grieve one’s self at the real or supposed superiority of another, and to hate him on that account.
2. To grudge; to withhold maliciously.
n. Pain, uneasiness, mortification or discontent excited by the sight of another’s superiority or success, accompanied with some degree of hatred or malignity, and often or usually with a desire or an effort to depreciate the person, and with pleasure in seeing him depressed. Envy springs from pride, ambition or love, mortified that another has obtained what one has a strong desire to possess.
Therefore, we see that the term refers to the negative feelings produced when another has something which we desire. The term is closely related to jealousy, as we have seen in Works of the Flesh: Jealousy. We may use an example to explain the difference. Let us say that you own a precious diamond, and you fear that your friend or your co-worker desires your diamond, even if they truly do not. That is jealousy. But if your friend or your co-worker owned the diamond, and you desired it greatly, to the point of desiring malice or misfortune to the person so that you could in some way acquire that diamond, then you are envious of that person.
In the New Testament, Pilate perceived that envy was a strong motivator for why the Jewish authorities delivered Jesus to him: the people were listening to Him more than they (Matthew 27:18, Mark 15:10). Paul established that some preached Christ out of envy in Philippians 1:15: they thought it would increase Paul’s danger and distress, but he rejoiced inasmuch Christ was preached. Envy is a characteristic which marked Gentiles, false teachers, and even Christians in their former lives (Romans 1:29, 1 Timothy 6:4, Titus 3:3). James warned early Christians against worldliness in their faith, asking if the spirit God made in us longs to envy (James 4:5; cf. James 4:1-5); thus Peter would have Christians put envy away in 1 Peter 2:1.
Envy, therefore, can certainly refer to strongly desiring things which your neighbor might own, but can also refer to strongly desiring more intangible qualities of your neighbor: his standing, his reputation, his influence. Envy might be provoked when a person has gone without what the neighbor has, but as we can see with the religious authorities, envy is also provoked when one’s neighbor begins to obtain the standing, reputation, influence, or goods a person already maintains, especially if the neighbor’s success might well come at the person’s expense: we see this exemplified by the Jewish religious authorities who perceived Jesus to be a strong threat to their standing and the status quo, and thus had Him killed. Envy can be a personal, individual matter, with one person proving envious of another person; yet envy can also exist among groups of people, with one group becoming envious of what another group enjoys. Indeed, fear of loss of power, standing, or privilege powerfully motivates to ugly and unjust behaviors; it could be said that hell hath no fury like a dominant group whose power and dominance is threatened.
We can thus perceive how envy remains a major challenge for humanity even in a prosperous age. Those who may be more poor materially must always be on guard against envy, yet those who have some wealth are not exempt, as can be demonstrated from the example of King Ahab of Israel. As king of Israel he enjoyed the best of the land and influence and standing among the people. It came to pass that he yearned for the vineyard of Naboth since it was near to his own property, and would have paid him handsomely for it; but Naboth would not give up his ancestral lands (1 Kings 21:1-3). Ahab responded like a petulant child, laying in bed and refusing to eat (1 Kings 21:4). His wife Jezebel would conspire against Naboth, leading to Naboth’s unjust death (1 Kings 21:5-15). Thus Ahab was encouraged to arise and seize the land of Naboth for himself (1 Kings 21:15-16). It was for this great sin that Ahab and Jezebel were condemned and the promise of the extirpation of their lineage established (1 Kings 21:17-24).
No one, therefore, is exempt from the temptation toward envy. Any time we desire something another might have to the point of wishing that person ill fate or harm, we prove envious. What we might envy as a poor person might change if we become wealthy; what we envy while healthy may be different than when afflicted with illness; that on which we might feast our eyes at 20 may change significantly by the time we become 80.
We can thus understand how difficult it would be to maintain healthy relationships with those whom we envy. Envy corrodes relationships: it is very hard to desire the best for those who have things we greatly desire. Even if we prove strong enough to be civil and even kindly affectionate toward those who have things we desire, could we really suffer loss for their advantage and benefit without experiencing bitterness and resentment? Hardly! If we envy, we cannot love as God has loved us in Christ.
To this end, as Christians, we do well to emphasize, focus on, and prioritize the antidote to envy: contentment (1 Timothy 6:6-8). We have brought nothing into this world; we have not deserved a single moment, experience, object, or relationship we have ever enjoyed, but have gained them all through the grace and provision of God. If God has blessed others, may we prove thankful for His beneficence toward them; when we are tempted to desire more than what we have, to regain what we have lost, or to reinforce and protect what others might obtain, let us remember how utterly dependent we are on God, pray in thankfulness, and reorient ourselves toward the appreciation of what God has given us. Then we can truly love others, even if they have things we might like, for it is no longer really about us, but glorifying God in Christ. May we prove content in all circumstances, prove thankful to God, and obtain eternal life in the Lord Jesus Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry