When Envy Rots the Soul

by Marilyn on July 31, 2013

Cairo, Mosque

We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.

We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.

“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”

The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.

“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.

She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.

But it didn’t. Not really.

Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity.

I have met the most gifted people in the world who are involved in life overseas. Men and women who have left much of the familiar and entered into countries where they are guests, forging their way in territory that is unfamiliar from language to food choices. The list of characteristics of what it takes is long and impressive. Adaptability, perseverance, compassion, adventurous spirit, capable of ambiguity, linguistic ability, great sense of humor, empathy — the list goes on and on. But take a group of people, all with the same goal and similar characteristics, insert jealousy and envy and unity is no more.

Because envy is insidious in its ability to destroy relationships. It loves to disguise itself in well-meaning jargon and light humor. It snakes its way into conversation and behavior. It is called the green-eyed monster for a reason.

I’m a definer – that means I like to start with definitions. Definitions have a way of clarifying things for me. And so in the case of jealousy and envy it has helped me to note the similarities and differences; Jealousy at its simplest is fear of losing something I value; envy is wanting something that someone else has. They have no redemptive value – they are vices. I realize I am envious of those most similar to me. In the case above it was someone who was living in Cairo, same stage of life, a mom with kids, who communicated in Arabic far better than I did.

There is nothing quite like envy that renders me ineffective. I am paralyzed on the outside while my insides have a monologue with God. A monologue that boils down to two questions:

Why her?

Why not me?

There are no simple answers but I’ve found a few things help:

1. Honesty and admission of sin. This is my first step in fighting this ongoing battle of envy. Honesty. For if I cannot be honest, this vice will rot my soul and slowly but steadily infect my body.

2. Confessing the sin. It is not enough to just admit my envy. I have to take this next step – confess this to the God who knows me and sees me raw, loving me anyway.

3. Recognize the ‘why’. In the case of language learning the ‘why’ was easy. I love talking and I wanted to talk with ease and fluency. I didn’t want to stumble over my words.  The ‘why’ was reasonable and commendable. The ‘why’ is not the sin, the envy resulting from the ‘why’ is the sin. Recognizing the ‘why’ is crucial in my journey from envy to peace.

4. Thank God for the person. I hate this one, but it works. Because in the course of giving thanks I am reminded that the person is loved by God, gifted by God for His purposes. As I thank God, I am ever so slowly able to accept and even rejoice at the ability or gifts of another. Rejoice that we are part of God’s redemptive plan, a plan far greater than any of us know.

5. Pray for acceptance of who I am and how I am gifted, or not. So much of my envy comes from insecurity and inability to accept who I am, how I’m wired, my strengths and my weaknesses.  As I work through accepting how God made me, the circumstances where he has placed me, envy is squashed. I learn more about trust and faith.

Would that envy could be erased once and for all, the answer an easy formula. At times I believe I will never be free of this vice, that it is so much a part of my journey in this broken world that I will struggle until I am face to face with the God who made me.

So I raise my prayer to the Master Designer who knit me together, who knows my comings and my goings, knows where I sit and where I stand. A God who knows my thoughts before they are voiced, knows when I am prone to envy, to insecurity. I raise my prayer and ask for a heart free of envy and full of peace, giving life to the body and health to the soul.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones~ Proverbs 14:30

Have you dealt with potential competition or envy with fellow workers who are overseas?  It’s a hard but important question!

*name has been changed!

Marilyn Gardner – grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
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  • Yes, I have dealt with envy and am sure will continue to do so. When I am envious I am focused on myself and not the things of the Lord. I am not being content with how He is using me or how He made me. If it is not confessed it can lead to bitterness and if you are part of a team working together it is bound to cause problems.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Well said. And yes – bitterness is that sour outcome of envy unconfessed. Thanks Debbie.

  • Mo


    Thank you so much for this post. I have had a lifelong problem with envy also. It is a terrible thing, but you helped me face it one more time. “Would that envy could be erased once and for all, the answer an easy formula. At times I believe I will never be free of this vice”–I echo your prayer on this. May I be more and more free from this each passing year. Thank you and God bless you in your own fight.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Mo – thanks so much for these words – I especially appreciated your last sentence as you nailed it – it is a fight! So much of this ends up being about contentment, being okay with who I am and where God has placed me. Thinking of you in this journey as well.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Marilyn I can so relate to this. I love your practical tips, especially the one you hate – about thanking God for that person. I also like your differentiation between jealousy and envy, that’s helpful and I have never really thought to clarify the difference.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thanks Rachel…yeah – I really do hate that one 🙂 Differentiating has helped me alot. I think the thing about overseas work is that it attracts people with similar gifts. Realizing that we rarely envy those who are far different from us has been helpful for me. I have no envy at all for Arabic scholars – instead I save my envy for something more attainable! I was struck as I wrote this that this could be blogging for me……yikes

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        I think our world now of numbers (likes/shares/comments/top posts/page views…) it all contributes. Not only giving us more things to compare, but actual data. Or what looks like data. Hard to compare joy or depth of interpersonal connections or…Another thought I had is that when I’m having fun (which doesn’t sound very spiritual does it?) but I mean enjoying myself and the people around me, there isn’t room/space/energy for jealousy or envy, even if they are succeeding. There is just joy. So maybe I need to have more fun.

  • Richelle Wright

    don’t you think if we are all honest, we’d have to say we each struggle with jealousy and envy! the nastiness they conjure up within isn’t very unifying, but the fact that we all fight that fight should help us identify with each other a bit more!

    i also rely on thanking God for the person to help change directions once i start down that road. i find gratitude to be an incredibly powerful offensive weapon for many of the spiritual battles i regularly fight. i most often recognize envy in myself when i realize that a particular individual intimidates me. when i talk to my husband about it, he’ll often laugh and wonder why… and tell me that he sees a lot alike between me and said person.

    another tool is one… and it is kind of the same thing – it comes from my background as a special educator, i think – is to look for the potential and to try to imagine what God sees when He looks at that person, to try and picture how God is using him/her to further His plan and then pray about how I can specifically encourage the person I’d found myself envying… and since that point in time, some of those folks i count among my dearest friends.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I do think it is a pretty universal struggle – but the operative word here is ‘honest’. I think it’s really difficult to be honest about this and so it can sit for a long time, slowly and underhandedly affecting teams and friendships. I love what your husband says – so much truth to that. We don’t tend to envy the mansion down the road, but the hut.
      Love the looking for potential. That moves the point farther forward. Thanks Richelle

  • Laura

    So true about the power of gratitude to stave off the vices of envy and jealousy. Vices disappear when the virtues are exercised. Many thanks for this very thoughtful piece, Marilyn!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love that phrase “Vices disappear when the virtues are exercised”. Exercised is a good word. Really points out the need for action here. Thanks Laura.

  • Wendy

    It’s your 5th point that I’ve found most helpful in my life. Seeing the root of all of this as my insecurity and turning my eyes again upon my creator who knew what he was doing when he made me. I’ve linked to your blog on my blog today. http://mmuser.blogspot.jp/2013/08/fighting-toxic-comparison.html

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Wendy – thanks so much. And I have to agree – it’s the ongoing walk of faith that looks up instead of across and trusts that God makes no mistakes.

  • Linda Funke

    Thank you Marilyn. What’s funny is we can envy those we have never even met too. My mom recommended that I read the book, “Kisses from Katie” about Katie Davis who started an organization and adopted 14 children all before she was 21. I grew envious. How is it that she discovered her purpose in life so young? How is it that she gets 14 children when I am older than her, and I desperately want one? Why can she start her own organization when I am called to live under another organization and must get approval for everything I do? It was time for a heart check. I discovered that my mom gave me the book because Katie reminded her of me, but all I could see were the differences. Green-eyed monster. I think that another thing it does is make us overlook where the other person is human, like us, and in need of encouragement. When we think someone else has it better, we neglect to see their struggles. It’s like I read recently “Never compare someone else’s highlight reel with your behind-the-scenes footage.”

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love, love your quote! So true. Do you also think it’s about how much our world, including our Christian world, creates idols? We have those people who are put on pedestals, and there’s a bit in all of us that wants to be right up there with them…..until they fall. Quietly and continually doing what we’re called to do can be a challenge in that environment. We talk about unsung heroes, but then we write books about them and they are no longer unsung and we want to be them. Lots to think about. Thanks for continuing the discussion.

  • Elaine Mingus

    I have known my calling my entire life. A writer. You’d think it was wonderful to always know your calling…but what if the fulfillment of that calling tarries? Like when I found out I was pregnant for the fifth time and realized that that dream would yet again be pushed aside for another (precious) child. It’s hard when dreams compete. I love my children desperately, but honestly I was just selfishly depressed. But amazingly, the Lord fulfilled my calling to write a novel during my fifth pregnancy. It was borne our of my struggle as a mom of five. A book about acceptance in the Lord’s timing. I wrote a poem (which I am an avid performance poet) about when a wonderful poet made it big (does poetry ever really make it big anymore?). He garnered over 3 million YouTube views in a single night. I was pea green! It’s easy to do things when you don’t have five little ones and a mortgage! (But weren’t these all things I wanted??) Our emotions are complicated, but God is not. He’s got it all under control. You can read my poem here: http://elainemingus.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/your-big-break/

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Elaine – thanks so much for sharing the poem. I related with so much of what you said, my fifth was a surprise and I remember thinking just days after delivering that I was ready for something new…In the mean time I had a friend from France who was appalled that I was having a fifth and exclaimed “The way you raise children, it will still be 18 years before you can do what you want” – I had nothing to say so I served her more tea. What’s the name of your novel? It sounds like a relevant read.

      • Elaine Mingus

        It’s unpublished (and in a revision). I will send you a copy when/if it gets published.

  • Little Gumnut

    I loved this Marilyn!!! I’ve been really working on cutting this out too. I am constantly astounded at how many times the source is in something I am lacking but needing and also out of fear! Sorry I tweeted and wanted to mention you in the tweet but didn’t get your twitter handle right!! doh!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Sophie – thanks so much and no worries at all about twitter handles 🙂 Thanks for affirming the work of the ongoing struggle. I sometimes think of that time when we are face to face with our creator and all of these human struggles are lost in His incredible love and our greater understanding of that love — the “see through a glass darkly but then face to face” piece.

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  • Oh, yes. The green eyed monster. I know it well. Between years 5 through 9 overseas envy was a reoccurring attack in my life. So many things you mention here would constantly catch me in my throat and I had a hard time getting through / around / over it. Mine was an envy of the people living the life I “might have had” if we had never gone to the mission field. The ones “back home” who seemed clueless and blissfully ignorant of all the reality of the world made me wish I could un-know what I knew and just enjoy a picket fence in Midwest suburbia.

    Now I see those fantasies as a deceitful illusion. Those imaginations of an “easier” life had to be confronted with the reality of humanity. All humans struggle. If we lived in suburbia there would always be some grass on the other side of that precious picket fence that would look just a few shades lusher than my own yard.

    The long process of grasping contentment came through honest talks with trusted people, sincere prayers, and a series on my blog processing through it by writing.

    Every once in a while I see that ugly monster rear it’s head and peek in my direction. It’s not so hard to return to reality now. I thank God that He has helped me to come through that. I am thankful that I can have compassion for people struggling with envy. I am also grateful that I can say with confidence that it can be conquered, too.

    Thanks for writing this piece, Marilyn. You are a valuable voice here at A Life Overseas.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love this comment Angie – I’m heading to your blog to find that series. There is so much wisdom throughout this comment and brings many more important points into the conversation. I love your words reminding me of the “reality of humanity” and “grasping contentment”. Thank you. thank you!

      • What a dear you are!
        You might have already found it but in case you didn’t you can find part one (and the links to the following four posts) here, it’s called “Green” : http://www.angiewashington.com/2008/10/green/

        • Marilyn Gardner

          Wow Angie – LOVED this series. This is full of poetic insight. Thank you.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    This is so good. Thank you.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you so much. Wish the green could be washed off with soap, but it’s so much harder.

  • J

    Thank you for this post. My husband and I just spent 2 years working together for a Christian human rights organization in India and jealousy/envy started in infect our relationship (mainly, it was infecting me because I was envious of the recognition he was getting). There were some hard conversations we had to have had and it took me awhile to become “ok” with the fact that he was being recognized as a leader and I wasn’t (especially since I was the one who had more traditional skills for human rights work and pushed us to leave a church where he was serving and join this organization). I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the “green monster” now that we’re back in the US but at least I now can confess it to him and others and give this weakness to the Lord.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I really relate with this comment. This happened in my marriage as well. It’s a whole different dynamic when it’s in a marriage and potentially even more troubling/damaging. I, too, found confession to be a huge step forward in addressing the monster. I also have watched both of us change, where he is much more able to affirm my gifts as well – a mutual affirmation that allows both of us to better work within our gifts. You’ll laugh though as recently I did this trip to India and unexpectedly he ended up in Turkey and Syria. Before I left (I went the week before him and we crossed in the air) I looked at him and said “I know how this is going to go – I’m going to get back from India and it will be all about Your trip…” we were able to talk about it ahead of time and work through some of the potential frustrations. Thanks for your honesty.

  • Harry Mann

    This may sound bizarre to many of you, and it is bizarre to experience, even when it’s for the 101st time and you feel you have gotten used to it by now, you’re intuition will always tell you it is socio-pathological: What I am talking about is when someone envies you, or they are jealous, or they are both envious and jealous at the same time, and what they state is, “We are white!”, yes, as blatant as that, and it’s meant to be exclusionary instead of inclusionary, which is the ruse. It is meant to be discriminatory in a underhanded and celebratory way and I have encountered this numerous times from people who are insecure and feeling inferior. It’s basically meant to “take me down a peg or two” and “put me in my place” which if I were to believe them is a rung or two below themselves, owing to relative melanin production. It’s akin to someone saying, “I’m white! I win!” And then they hope to close ranks against you or to hope that you buy the idea that everyone else is of the same mindset as them so that you segregate yourself or simply go away. And the reality is they feel that they cannot compete with you so they are out to throw dust in your eyes with comments that are meant to be divisive in an underhanded fashion. And it is something that is experienced fairly often overseas; there seems to be one in every crowd, every day of the week. And they often seem to have a need to feel that they have the crowd behind them, but the crowd typically finds their behavior not only personally offensive but also disturbing. A significant number of ex-pats have substance abuse issues, those are the types who tend to simmer in resentment and they are always in want of expressing their anger. The more you have you stuff together, the more their anger and hostility leak out of them. It really is something to witness, particularly considering the simple fact that in the whole scheme of things no one is much more than a speck of dust animated by a vital life force, like much of all life on the planet. So witnessing the disproportionate egos of these individuals is really something else!

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