I looked up to Cindy*. She was older, wiser, and a trailblazer ahead of me in a business world previously dominated by men. So when I joined her as the second woman—and a fellow Christian—on a company retreat, I assumed she’d welcome my presence.
But to my surprise she seemed to resent it. Even though she said she disliked being the “token woman,” she actually seemed to relish her role as the lone female. She resisted making room at the table for me.
Some years later at a Synergy conference, I heard Lauren Winner speak of this dynamic—about women who blaze trails resenting the intrusion when other women came along behind them. In a moment of astonishing vulnerability Winner confided how she herself realized she resented younger, sometimes cuter, smart women who forced a shift in her self-labeling as “remarkable lone woman” or some such title.
Let’s call it what it is: Envy.
Anne Lamott captured envy brilliantly in Bird by Bird, her book on writing: “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.“
Envy is as old as Eden, and it made the list of Seven Deadly Sins before the fifth century. Unlike jealousy, which wants to hold on to what we have (“I feel jealous when she calls my husband…”) envy focuses on what others have that we lack—or perceive we lack. Their smarts. Their writing ability. Their voices. Their youth. Their upward mobility. Their growing esteem in the eyes of our peers.
An ancient Hebrew proverb says, “A tranquil spirit revives the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones” (Prov. 14:30). Envy sees the piece of forbidden fruit rather than the entire orchard full of produce, and that perspective destroys us from within. So how do we keep envy from penetrating to the marrow?
First, like Winner, we must acknowledge envy in ourselves. We begin with self-examination. Ask “with whom am I unable to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’?’ And “why?” Is it her bigger house, better reputation, prettier face, better body, more interesting work? What makes us secretly happy when others face misfortune? Are we disappointed about how our lives are turning out? Why?
Repent. Call envy what it is: evil, vice, and sin. At its core it is completely self-focused, seeking good only for self at the exclusion of others. Envy looks at Yahweh Yireh, the Lord our provider, and says, “Sure, You provided, but not enough.”
Replace envy with gratitude. Having cast off envy, we need to put something in its place: thankfulness. Count your blessings. Literally. Count them. If you have difficulty seeing God’s goodness in your life, volunteer to work with those who have lost limbs, homes, and/or families. Take a short-term trip to Haiti. I believe one of the reasons for the enormous success of Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, is that it resonated with our struggle to see all the goodness in our lives.
Mourn the true losses. Often in the West, we emphasize the need to see the glass as “half full.” But truth be told, a glass half full actually is also half empty. Each of us lives with unfulfilled longings. Ask yourself what you’re mourning and allow yourself true grief. All creation groans; the planet is broken. While we live on earth, we deal with tears and sickness and death. This is not what God created us to endure.
When my husband and I went through infertility and pregnancy loss, we decided to make friends with people who had no kids. It wasn’t that we envied our friends with children; we didn’t want their children. But their kids were grief triggers for us, reminding us of the hole in our lives where longing resided. So we mourned. But we still had to trust God with our longings and keep those empty places from blinding us to our true blessings.
Replace envy with love. The ultimate ethic is to love God and love our neighbor. And to love one’s neighbor is to do to him or her what we would want done to us. We want others to rejoice when we succeed. We want others to mourn (not celebrate!) with us when devastation comes. We want others to open doors of opportunity for us and rejoice when we get to walk through those doors.
Be proactive. Ask yourself if what you envy is in an area of God-given gifts you could develop. If you envy someone’s voice, could you benefit from vocal training? If you envy her career, could you go back to school or apply for a promotion? If not, recognize that you still have some agency when it comes to your thoughts and attitudes.
Also, consider the influence you already have. If you lead a ministry, do you have a succession plan? If you’re in the academic world, do you offer internships? If you speak at retreats, do you sometimes take a younger woman with you who can give a testimony or offer a bonus session? If you write books, can you sometimes add a coauthor to your by-line? The woman who leads in a Christlike way gives away power and opens doors for those coming behind her. She is conscious that her days on earth are limited, so she seeks ways to assure that the work continues. The fields are white; there’s plenty of space at the table for everybody. Let's scoot over and make some room.
*Not her real name