How Not to Envy Your Neighbor’s Competence
When I was a girl, I had a friend who was very serious.
She knew how things were supposed to be done, and she was happy to do them herself, quietly. She wasn’t afraid of work, and she wasn’t particularly shy. She was neither dramatic nor impersonal, but she was definitely a doer, and she was efficient.
Our families fell out of touch, and there were many formative years during which we never saw one another. Later we came back into contact. I found her to be a more productive, more mature version of her childhood self. She was not cold, but she was methodical. She was not frenzied, but she was busy. She’d been governed by principle, and the things she believed in, she appeared to have acted on. Now she was reaping the fruit of good, solid relationships; a good, solid job; and a good, solid heart.
I, in the meantime, had wasted many of those years. Those were years of open rebellion for me—when thought reaping action reaping habit reaping character had produced chaos and despair in my own life. The comparison between us became only more painful after my conversion, perhaps as I began to long for the virtue of faithfulness and to see how hard it was going to be for me to learn.
A few years after we became friends again, I noticed one day that I was daydreaming about having a conversation with her in which I told her a few specific things:
You can’t explain why your life is so smooth, I would begin. Then I would walk her through all the blessings she’d been given—her genes, her training, her natural personality, her opportunities, and her unexpected connections—and I wanted her to admit that in each of these categories God could have chosen to give her a different lot. She could have been a mess instead of a clean, quietly humming machine, meeting deadlines and planning her meals a week in advance.
She could have been (and let’s be honest, this is what I really wanted her to know) like me.
This daydream awoke me to the fact that I was in serious spiritual trouble. The name of my spiritual malady only came months later: envy.
Antidotes to the Envy of Competence
Envy is a feeling of bitterness that God has given something good to somebody else. It is a destructive feeling, a shameful feeling. It arises out of feelings of inferiority, and demands that inequalities be done away with. Envy is a feeling of bitterness that God has given something good to somebody else. Click To Tweet
The antidote to envy in general is like the antidote to so many sins—worship and expectation. For the envious person, anticipation of a new age is especially important, because it’s inequality in this present age that we are grinding our teeth over. We have to get our eyes off of whatever we think we’ve been deprived of and onto the day when deprivation will be done away with, the day that fellowship with God will be enjoyed forever.
This is the essential answer to the heart’s question of “Why not me, why not now?” The answer for the Christian is, “God is your true portion and he will fill your cup to overflow on the day of his coming” (Lam. 3:24, Ps. 16:5 Ps. 23:5).
But when the good thing that God gave somebody else is competence—is, in fact, hard work and obedience—there are other antidotes as well. It may sound obvious, but perhaps the next thing for you to do is to put your own hand to the plow.
Hoeing Your Row to Fight Envy
The first murder on record was committed over a case of envy not unlike mine.
“Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” God asked Cain. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 3:6-7).
Envy is one of those sins that gets an extra sting from laziness. Proverbs observes that a man who is skillful in his work will stand before kings (22:29). When you know that you have thrown yourself into your work with your whole heart, as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23), it’s not as painful to see that others are more naturally gifted than you are.
Perhaps your co-worker is capable of running circles around your productivity, and the boss loves him. Perhaps another mom at church is always one step ahead of you with the potlucking, the Bible-study planning, and the homeschooling. But here’s the wonderful thing about God’s expectations: they are calibrated according to the frame that he has given you, and not the frame that he gave somebody else.
Your job is to do your job, great or small, and do it to the best of your God-given ability. It’s not to check out your neighbor’s assignment. It’s certainly not to burn inwardly because somebody you know is accomplishing more in his sphere than you are in yours.
Remember the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20. God has put you in the vineyard in a certain row and made agreements with you about the terms of your employment. Looking over into the next row is never going to do anybody any good. Keep to your task. Do it with all your might.
He has completed the work (the cross) that allows you to work with joy and freedom rather than envy and spite. Keep your eye on him as you labor, and know that whatever you’re able to get done is also a gift from him. You’re working, not as someone who despairs and self-deprecates, but as one who expects and longs for another land.
A Different Conversation
I never had that conversation with my friend. Instead, I had a very different one, one in which I sat her down to explain the one thing an envious person never wants to explain to anybody. I thought you were better than me. I hated the feeling of knowing you were better than me. I wished for you to fail.
Confession of envy is never pleasant—embarrassing, shameful, painful to the prideful heart that produces envy in the first place—but it is crucial to restoring relationships that have been altered by it. I had to name the envy, or the envy would continue to hide under the guise of half-complements and ignored texts.
In the end, I had to swallow the pill of inequality and then learn to turn my heart towards the creator in worship for what he had done. Because after all, he is the one who builds inequality into his world. He’s the one who loves a varied place with varied glories, each mirroring some aspect of himself.
And do you know what? The envy, when it was routed by confession, diligence, and worship, gave way to the most glorious alternative. Love flooded my heart over the course of a few months. I thought of her and smiled instead of grimacing. I spoke to her and rejoiced at new reports of jobs and moves. I commented on her posts and praised her to her mother. A friendship was re-formed.
This is one of the great joys of the Christian walk. It’s the joy of catching the things you thought were central to your personality, crying over them, and then watching them be transformed by Christ. He died to save you, and now he lives to see you changed.