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The Upside of Envy

How to turn the "green-eyed monster" into a force for good.

I listen as my friend Melissa sings special music for our congregation, her powerful vocals resonating throughout the sanctuary. People smile and nod, obviously moved. Meanwhile, I squirm in my seat, an uncomfortable longing rising in my heart—one that makes me feel shamefully sinful.

I wish I could sing like Melissa.

This would be fine if I simply admired her talent. But I actually covet it for my own, envying her almost to the point of resentment.

It seems I've forgotten I, too, have been gifted with a good singing voice, along with many other God-given talents. Unfortunately, this isn't the only time the green monster of envy has attacked. Another twinge struck when a colleague received a writing award. (Wish it were me.) Yet another hit at the beach as a woman with a toned, tanned body strode past, her head held high, while mine lowered to glance at the dimpled flesh on my out-of-shape thighs.

You could blame it on the media, with its images of perfect faces and lives. You even could blame the world's carnal influence. But envy was around long before high-definition television or People magazine. Left unchecked, it ruins friendships, marriages, even lives. But used as a motivational force, envy has the power to prompt positive change. It's our opportunity to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

"Envy by definition is sin. It says, 'I want what you have,'" says psychologist Ginger Gabriel, PhD, author of Being a Woman of God. "But it can become a motivator when you say, What do I have to do to get where she is?"

Envy becomes motivational when you ask, "What do I have to do to get to where she is?"

Sometimes we envy things that aren't biblical or healthy for us, or things that we never could attain even with our best effort. In those cases we need to turn to God for correction or comfort. But many times envy can show us things we wouldn't have imagined or thought were possible. "I may not even know I want that or could have that unless I see you doing or having it," Dr. Gabriel says.

Such was the case for Cindy Taylor, 49, a mother of three who envied others' happiness. "It seemed as though God was working in their lives and not mine," Cindy says. "I felt lost and didn't know what I was doing wrong. I kept going to church, but I was sad."

Cindy confessed her envy to God, and he revealed that her sorrow sprang from worry and anxiety. The happiness she longed for only could be found through trust in him. Today Cindy experiences a God-given joy because she traveled the path from envy to positive change. You can too, using the following action steps.

Acknowledge the emotion. We can't hide anything from God, but it's amazing how much we try to withhold from our conscience. It never works for long, because the fruit of these thoughts and emotions eventually emerges. "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it" (James 4:1-2).

What you resist, persists. So stop playing tug-of-war with the devil and acknowledge your envious thoughts. God already knows about them anyway. He's waiting to forgive and cleanse you (1 John 1:9), and he's ready to show you the way out of these covetous feelings (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Ask God to reveal the lesson. Once you've acknowledged your envy, ask God what he wants to teach you through this emotion. During a bout with envy, Jill Brett, 33, became aware of beliefs that inhibited her ability to minister to others. Jill was friends with a wealthy woman who owned a luxurious home in an upscale neighborhood. "I wasn't starving. I could pay my bills and God had always been good to us," Jill says. "But I was mad every time my friend talked about her ski trips to Vail."

Jill confessed her envy to God, but didn't get to the heart of the issue until her husband suggested she had a problem with rich people. "He was right," she says. "I couldn't minister to them because I was upset I couldn't do what they did. The Lord helped me realize all people are hurting, even the rich." Envy became Jill's motivator to right her attitudes and to open up a channel of ministry that had been clogged by sin.

My envy of Melissa's voice, a colleague's writing, and a stranger's body all stemmed from the same problem: I'd failed to develop my own God-given gifts. He showed me how I'd been given so much, but had allowed fear and strife to sideline me. He'd given me a good singing voice and an ability to play guitar, yet I hadn't used these gifts to minister to others in more than a year. The Lord gave me a gift for words and journalism training, yet I hadn't stretched beyond my comfort zone to compose the books and articles he'd shown me were possible. And the body he's blessed me with had become flabby from my failure to exercise it.

Believe you can change. Faith is a major part of our Christian walk, providing the hope, strength, and vision we need to make the changes God calls us to make. Harness faith by reminding yourself of biblical truths: You're no longer a slave to sin (Romans 6:14); in Christ you're a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17); and you can be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2).

"It all starts with what you believe," says James Kaufman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology for Cal State University in San Bernardino, California. "Do you believe you can or cannot change? If you believe you're capable of doing something, then you're more likely to do it. If you believe it's possible, you're in a better frame of mind to get it done."

Cindy Taylor confesses it was difficult to believe she could change, but she held on to promises she found in God's Word. "I read that Scripture about how if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains," she says. "A mustard seed, I thought? Yeah, I think I can believe that much."

Take action. Once God reveals the needed changes, act on that guidance (James 2:26). Jill Brett asked God to change her heart and then focused more on her friend's needs than on her wealth. "I began to pay more attention to her instead of her house and furniture. I really started to care about her," Jill says. "She then was more open to sharing about her marriage struggles." By faithfully taking action on the guidance God gave her, Jill was able to move from envy to more effective ministry.

Cindy memorized Scripture and started depending on God for all her needs. "I started praying about my fears and concerns instead of worrying about them," she said.

I started playing guitar again and pursued new writing opportunities. And while I haven't started a formal exercise plan, I do take walks, stretch, and practice karate with my husband (I can feel my thighs shaping up!).

If you're not clear about which action steps to take, seek advice. Have coffee with the person you envy and ask how she got to where she's at, suggests Ginger Gabriel. "Whether it's a person's career, the neighborhood she lives in, or even the kind of husband she has, if I just envy it, I'll go around in sin and coveting," Dr. Gabriel says. "But if I ask, What do I have to do to have that?, then it becomes motivation to make positive steps toward the career, husband, or marriage I want."

Trust God to work in you. It's your responsibility to move from envy to positive change, but you don't travel alone. God is with you. He promised to complete his work in you (Philippians 1:6), and to never leave or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).

"I noticed a difference when I started relying on God," Cindy says. "Now when difficult things happen, as long as I'm in God's will, I know it's going to be OK. I've found that happiness I saw in others at church."

God continues to work faithfully to shape me into the woman he designed me to be. I can now honestly compliment Melissa on her voice, because I find joy in sharing my God-given talents. The feeling of lack that gave birth to envy is gone.

Ironically, God can use envy as a powerful evangelistic tool. If we let other people see what a godly life looks like, it can create in them a thirst for the good things of God. "But instead of them envying and coveting what we have, as Christians we can help them to live a godly life, too," Dr. Gabriel says.

Not only is it a healthy Christian testimony, but also a powerful lesson in how God causes all things—even envy—to work for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28).

Koren Wetmore is a freelance writer who lives in California.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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