You know the type: the woman who effortlessly sews her own window treatments, makes her own candles, or prepares gourmet meals "to die for." I call these women the "Martha Stewarts," and I actually have some friends who fall into this category. One friend put in the plumbing when she and her husband remodeled their home. Another's such an outstanding gardener, I'm convinced she makes her own dirt!
One friend of mine, Ted, married a Martha Stewart. Not only can Cindy, his wife, mother four young children, create a fabulous home, sew everybody little matching outfits, and cook like Julia Child, but she's loving, generous, fun, and pretty. In short, she used to make me sick!
I noticed that when Ted and Cindy first got married, I felt depressed whenever I left their home. That's because in the domestic arena—cooking, decorating, gardening, and crafts—I feel somewhat insecure.
But as the years have gone by, I've recognized my sadness and my tendency to use sarcasm when I was with Ted and Cindy as masks for envy.
ACCORDING TO THE dictionary, envy's defined as: "desire for something possessed by another." Envy occurs when you compare yourself with someone else, and in the comparison, feel deprived or lacking.
Unfortunately, it's an all-too-human tendency to look over our shoulder to see who gets the office with the window, who has a new sweater on, who has the most gifted children, or who gets to go to the Caribbean while we freeze in Chicago. Too many of us live in a perpetual state of discontent, whimperingly wondering, Why you and not me?
While envy is a normal—and unavoidable—emotion, that doesn't mean God treats it casually. The reality is, he's so set against it that he prohibited it: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exod. 20:17).
Most of us don't spend our energy envying other people's oxen, but we do envy their hair, car, income, personality, achievements, lifestyle—even spiritual gifts.
Although the sin of envy doesn't get as much press as adultery, murder, or stealing, its effects can be disastrous. Envy devalues our self-worth and the uniqueness of God's creation, gradually distancing us from him and others.
If you've been seeing green lately, here are some practical suggestions on how to change the way you look at things.
Call a spade a spade. Admit to your feelings, but remember, envy has many disguises—constructive criticism, self-pity, even fake praise.
How do you know if what you're really feeling is envy? Ask yourself:
- Do you get upset when acquaintances advance professionally or socially?
- Do you belittle the accomplishments, talents, or appearance of others?
- Do you feel tempted to sabotage a person to whom you feel inferior?
- Do you feel secretly pleased when a friend, even a loved one, suffers a setback?
Examine yourself carefully. If what's really going on is envy, say it out loud: "I'm feeling envious."
Once you own up to envy, you can receive God's forgiveness for it and the strength to change.
Stop hiding, start talking. If possible, talk to the person you envy. Bring your secret out into the light, and see if you can work together to dispel it. Chances are, you'll even discover that person envies something about you!
This inevitably happens when women talk about hair. Those of us with straight hair envy curly hair. Those with short hair envy long hair. With men, it's really simple: They all just want hair!
Do you know what else you'll learn when you get up close to the people you envy? Often you'll discover their lives aren't as wonderful as they appear. You'll find they struggle with things about which you had no idea.
Get off the comparison track. I run laps at my local Y.M.C.A., and its track has three lanes: the inside for walkers, the outside for speed demons, and the middle for the rest of us. Sometimes I notice that when a fast person comes along, I become competitive. I'm not going to let her beat me, I think, so I begin running faster and faster. The trouble is, I run too fast for my own pace, and by the end of my run, I'm completely out of steam.
I'm learning I don't have to compare myself with the really fast runners—or the slower ones, either. I just need to run my race. If you're a Christ follower as I am, we're running a race to build God's kingdom in our hearts and in the world. But runners who look over their shoulders take the risk of stumbling or falling before they make it to the finish line.
Tap into the positive. The destructive side of envy is self-hatred, resentment, and covetousness. But if you can convert your envy into something positive, such as admiration, you can become motivated to emulate instead of envy someone else.
For example, my college roommate, Laura, inspired me to begin exercising. Laura was a runner, and at first I envied her consistency. But when I transferred my negative feelings into emulation, I decided to follow Laura's example.
Reevaluate what you want in life. If what you envy is attainable, such as a firmer, fitter body, start working out! But if what you want is unattainable—all the voice lessons in the world won't make me a singer—learn to accept your limitations. Keep in mind you don't have to be good at everything.
Savor your uniqueness. The truth is, our Creator longs for us to be content with how he made us and with what he chooses to give us.
When I envy the Martha Stewarts of the world, I waste precious energy focusing on what I can't do instead of celebrating what I can do, such as lead and encourage others in my church.
It's impossible to have a grateful attitude when you're envious; you're too busy feeling deprived. But God designed us each as "one of a kind"--and no other human being exactly like you and I will ever walk the face of this earth again.
Crank up the celebration. Have you ever noticed how it's easier to mourn with those who mourn than rejoice with those who rejoice? That's because envy is divisive, spoiling our ability to enjoy others. Single people envy marrieds; married envy singles. Those who don't have children envy those who do. Sometimes I'm tempted to envy the freedom and solitude of my friends who don't have young children—until I remember how at peace I am with my choice to have a family.
Remember that a friend's victories are your victories. So when she receives a promotion, a new car, or diamond earrings, learn to say, "I'm so happy for you" without gritting your teeth. Don't let the stab of envy rob you of the joy of shared celebration.
Discover the crux of true contentment. In Psalm 73, the psalmist laments how much the godless people around him had. He was disillusioned until he met God and realized that what he had was far more important. Verses 23-28 describe a heart that wrestled with envy yet ultimately arrived at peace and contentment: "Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into your glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."
Our culture drives us to seek significance in all the wrong places, so for most of us, it's a lifelong battle to keep returning to the simplicity of desiring only God. But God longs for you and me to have hearts at peace. He knows how deadly envy is, and he asks us to get rid of it for our sake, the sake of our relationship to him, and the sake of our relationships with others.
I'm making progress with my "Martha Stewart" envy. I visited Ted and Cindy recently, and had a wonderful time. I deeply appreciated Cindy's hospitality, her beautiful home, and outstanding meal. Gradually I'm accepting with joy who I am—and who I'm not.
Don't let envy color your world. If you've been seeing green, admit it to God. He'll help you find contentment.
NANCY BEACH is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and serves as the executive vice president for the Arts at the Willow Creek Association. She and her family live in the Chicago area.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine. Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.