Andrea * was surprised to hear her neighbor’s name announced from the pulpit in sacrament meeting. When she heard the title of “Relief Society president” attached to the name, she immediately felt hurt and left out, but she did not realize why. She didn’t recognize that the feeling in her heart was due to envy.
Most of us will experience envy at one time or another. The danger comes when we remain unaware of our envy or don’t handle it appropriately; then it has the potential to harm us and may cause us to think or act badly toward others. As James stated, “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (James 3:16). But by eliminating envy, we can improve our relationships with others and our view of ourselves. When we realize we are not competing with others, we can then rejoice in their accomplishments.
The Root of Envy
The practice of comparing ourselves to others is usually at the root of envy. It causes us to feel that we aren’t good enough and that in order to be acceptable we have to achieve more, acquire more, or in other ways appear to be “better” than others. It occurs when we do not value ourselves sufficiently as children of God and consequently feel we have to prove our worth by “doing” or “having.”
Envy is a form of pride, as President Ezra Taft Benson pointed out in his April 1989 general conference talk (see “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 5). Pride creates enmity, or hatred, which separates us from our fellowmen. President Benson quoted C. S. Lewis, who wrote, “It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone” (Ensign, May 1989, 4).
Part of the reason envy can be so difficult to recognize in ourselves is that it often disguises itself in other feelings and behaviors. One disguise envy wears is the tendency to criticize. Another is the desire to act in a way that will provoke envy in others. The good news is, once we unmask envy and begin to eliminate it, we can begin to feel much better about ourselves and others around us.
The Accumulation of Envy
Like layers of accumulated paint, envy covers our true worth, making it difficult to see ourselves accurately and change our beliefs so that we can feel better about ourselves.
There are at least five reasons why we need to be concerned about envy in ourselves: (1) it blocks us from growing spiritually, (2) it keeps us from having pure motives, (3) it creates an “us against them” mentality, (4) it can make us feel negative toward others, and (5) a desire to be envied can cause others to feel negative toward us.
In the examples below, note how envy seems to begin with one’s feelings about oneself and eventually moves outward to one’s feelings about others. In the process, envy can subtly influence thoughts and behaviors.
Low self-worth. Brother Barnes promises himself as he goes into Gospel Doctrine class to listen more and talk less. But once the lesson gets going, he can’t seem to curb his habit of interrupting to share his thoughts and opinions about the scriptures. He wants to stand as an equal to the more mature or more articulate members, but he feels anxious and inferior as he listens to them talk. Others in the class are distracted by his numerous comments, but he can’t seem to control his impulse to speak.
When we grow up feeling that we are not loved for who we are and instead are criticized or are valued for how we compare to others, we can develop the habit of looking outside ourselves to feel good. In this example, Brother Barnes tries to boost his self-worth by gaining the admiration of others for his thoughts or knowledge. Such practices may indicate a lack of understanding of our worth and our true relationship to God. But as children of our Heavenly Father, each of us has inherent worth and has been endowed with divine potential. “We are the children of God,” the Apostle Paul declared, “and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16–17).
Competing with others. Sister Harris frequently envies the successes of members of her ward. It seems that for her to feel good, her children’s achievements must exceed those of others. She wants others to give her admiration, respect, and honor for being a successful parent.
As she sees a friend coming down the hall after church, one of the first thoughts to enter her mind is the top award her son won at the regional track meet the day before. When her friend says hello, Sister Harris immediately tells of her son’s award, giving the whole story of how he came to win and how her efforts helped him. Subtly Sister Harris tries to evoke envy in her friend, who feels uneasy as a result.
Betsy Cohen, in her book The Snow White Syndrome: All about Envy (1986), notes that many of us “have inner standards of excellence and perfection that are hard or impossible to meet” (39), often causing emotional pain. We may have a hard time admitting mistakes and living with imperfections. If not careful, says the author, we can end up envious of those who seem to achieve more or who seem more comfortable being imperfect.
In Alma 5:29 it reads, “Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared.” We need to be stripped of envy and other weaknesses to be prepared to “stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body” (Alma 5:15).
If we have an old dresser that has passed from one owner to another, acquiring many layers of paint, it will be quite a job to get it stripped down to the bare wood. However, if we are confident that beneath the chipped and discolored layers of paint is a beautiful and valuable antique, we likely are willing to take on the project. Similarly, to strip envy from our lives, we need to be willing to go through the long process of refinishing.
Seeing the need to refinish. Paradoxically, Andrea, mentioned in the opening of this article, began to deal with her envy when she realized on another occasion that somebody was envying her. She became uncomfortable when she sensed this person’s feelings, and she wondered if her own jealousy had led others to be ill at ease around her as well. As she examined her life for the presence of envy, she learned that she needed to stop comparing herself to others and to focus less on external things.
Committing ourselves to complete the job. Andrea read the scriptures listed in the Topical Guide under “envy.” As she did so, a clear definition of the word materialized. She recalled the feelings she had experienced that day in sacrament meeting as her neighbor had received a new leadership calling. She realized that because of envy, she had been unable to be happy for her neighbor.
Although this discovery was unpleasant, she remained determined to do something about it. As she prayed for guidance, there came solutions, and the promptings of the Holy Ghost told her what she needed to do.
Removing built-up layers. Once Andrea’s eyes were opened to the truth, she found herself making spiritual progress. Eventually she realized that at times she had shared her achievements with others in an effort to create envy. When she became aware of this, she no longer felt compelled to share all of her accomplishments and was able to enjoy the accomplishments of others. She no longer had to seek others’ praise.
As she searched the scriptures, she read what Mormon had said concerning charity, which echoed the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and … seeketh not her own, … thinketh no evil” (Moro. 7:45; see also 1 Cor. 13:4–5). She noted Mormon’s counsel to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moro. 7:48).
Andrea decided to act upon Mormon’s words. As she prayed for charity and heeded the inspiration she received, her love for others increased and she began to better understand our Heavenly Father’s love for and acceptance of all His children.
4. Fine finishing. As Andrea began to eliminate envy, and as she saw the bare wood of her life, her heart became contrite. Through her repentance she learned that her spiritual growth was dependent upon her willingness to humble herself and diligently seek the will of the Lord.
Many of us have been in an unfinished-furniture shop and smelled the aromas, felt the smooth surfaces, and observed the beautiful grains of unfinished wood. When we repent of a weakness such as envy, part of us becomes new and unblemished, like new wood. As we grow in self-understanding through the Spirit, we become refined as children of our Heavenly Father. It is through Him that we can be stripped of envy and pride and have our “being” refinished.
When we repent we become willing to submit to the will of the Lord and allow Him to refinish us in accordance with His will. Thus, as we become free of envy or jealousy or any other weakness, we are much more enabled to acknowledge who and what we are. In the process of being “stripped of envy,” though we may experience the pain of being sanded and refined, we also receive the gift of being restored to an awareness of our worth as beautiful, unique children of God.