QUESTION:  What are your suggestions about combating envy and learning to be content with the blessings God has given us?  I struggle often with envy of married women/mothers. Not that I am specifically coveting their husbands or their children, but I desperately want/lust after/idolize a family of my own. The really sad part about it is, I know that I have a lot to be extremely thankful to God for (basically, everything else in my life). But it's not enough! I have read some good advice on cultivating contentment, but my little garden of peace and joy is not growing. Just when I think I have learned to be content with God's plan for my life, something pops up out of nowhere to arouse my envy again... as they say, "the green-eyed monster" rears its ugly head.
 
ANSWER:  This problem is worst when I am alone (which unfortunately as a single, is a lot of the time). When I am actually in the moment, looking at someone's wedding pictures or holding their baby, I am usually able to be genuinely happy for them. But later I find myself thinking, why not me? I know that God's economy is different from that of this world, and that somehow all this suffering is going to be redeemed someday, but I just can't shake this sense of “wrong-ness,” that this isn't how things should be.

A: Envy is a difficult sin to wrestle. It’s like trying to pin Jello. As soon as you think you have it under control, it squirts in the opposite direction, refusing to be contained. But it is a serious sin, according to Scripture, so it should not be swept away to be consigned to the “that’s just the way it is” department.

Before we begin, though, I would like to start with the evidences of grace in your letter. I think it’s important for you to recognize what the Holy Spirit has already revealed to you. You have sought out materials to study for cultivating contentment. You are aware the strong desires you have are dominating you in many ways, so you are correct in viewing them in the biblical category of idolatry. And you are able to rejoice with those who rejoice and not withdraw in bitterness. These are great reasons to stop and thank God for the character He is building in you! I believe seeing the hand of God in your life will also strengthen your faith that He will complete the good work He has already begun in you (Philippians 1:6).

With that in mind, let’s look at what the Bible says about envy. Envy and covetousness are closely related, but as I study the Word I see a subtle but important difference. Covetousness desires what someone else has. Envy resents them for having it. When you covet something, you want that item. When you envy, you not only want that item or status, you resent the one who possesses it. I think it’s rare not to experience both, though, which is why these sins are often connected.

Why does this matter? Unless you act on these attitudes, how could they be called sin? To start, covetousness is listed among the Ten Commandments. It is number ten (Exodus 20:17): “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's” (emphasis added). Though there is no Old Testament death penalty for this sin, the New Testament is clear about how envy is a work of the flesh — meaning, something that leads to death and not to eternal life.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Galatians 5:19-21, emphasis added).

Romans 1:28-32 is even more sobering. Envy is listed as one of the sins of the unrighteous who suppress the truth and have been given over to a debased mind.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (emphasis added).

It is startling to see envy and covetousness listed in these passages, isn’t it? What hope do we have when confronted by the ugliness of our hearts? Two bright passages are found in Titus and 1 Peter. They echo these “vice lists” but give us immediate perspective on how to change.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7, emphasis added).

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for

“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you. So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 1:22, emphasis added).

As the apostle Paul writes in Titus, we were once enslaved to sins like envy. But then the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared! We were saved, not only from this miserable, sin-filled existence, but from the righteous wrath of God. And not only were we spared, we were made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Heirs! We live as those who will one day inherit everything! So why do we resent when someone else receives some earthly trinket? (I am making an argument here, but I am not by extension calling marriage and family mere trinkets.) Knowing this, we are then freed to love one another earnestly. We don’t have to covet, envy, and resent what happens to us in this life. We have been set free from these passions because we have been born again of imperishable seed.

Knowing this, the apostle Peter tells us that we can put away envy. But I believe the analogy he employs here also reveals this is not a one-time action. It’s not like we can take off envy, put it in a drawer, and slam it shut — never to see it again. I believe this requires a process of maturity. We “grow up to salvation” by imbibing pure spiritual milk and realizing that we’ve tasted the Lord’s goodness in doing so. We have been born again (what theologians call justification) but we need to grow up to Christ-like maturity (sanctification).

This is the journey you’ve described in your question. I would encourage you, therefore, to press on. Continue to study these passages and let them settle into your soul — both the seriousness of envy and intense delight of being saved because of the loving kindness of the Lord. Seek not to graze at the tables that have been spread for others, but feed yourself spiritual milk, reminding yourself how much of the Lord’s goodness you have already tasted.

This will not only cultivate contentment as a single woman, it will serve you well in the future should the Lord bring you a husband and children. For even then, the flesh finds much to covet and envy in what others have in their husbands and children. Envy and covetousness are never satisfied with what we can possess in this life, for this life is passing away even as we gaze upon it. But, thanks be to God, we are heirs of the imperishable!


Carolyn McCulley is the author of  "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred" (Crossway) and a contributor to  "Sex and the Supremacy of Christ" (edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor).  She also blogs at http://solofemininity.blogs.com, when she’s not working for  Sovereign Grace Ministries. I f you have any questions or  comments, email Carolyn at info@carolynmcculley.com.

Your questions answered!  Carolyn will periodically answer Crosswalk.com reader questions in her Singles Q&A columns.  While we can't guarantee that each question will be answered, we do hope to hear from you!  Please send your questions regarding singleness and related topics to Carolyn at
 info@carolynmcculley.com