By Peter Amsterdam
January 24, 2017
In the previous article we looked at how “putting on” contentment is an important part of gratitude. Now we focus on three gratitude “killers” we’ll want to jettison from our lives to increase gratitude. These killers are envy, covetousness, and greed. Let’s start with envy.
Definitions of envy variously express it as wanting what somebody else has; the resentful or unhappy feeling of wanting somebody else’s success, good fortune, qualities, or possessions; a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another’s advantages and possessions; the feeling of the presence of something good in another person but lacking in oneself; a state where you experience yourself as lacking something that will lead you to be admired as much as you admire the person who has the desired attribute or possession you envy.
Envy is included in various lists of sins throughout the New Testament,1 including Jesus’ list:
From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.2
The apostle Peter wrote:
Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.3
In the Old Testament we see envy in the hatred which Joseph’s brothers had for him because their father loved him most,4 as well as in Rachel envying her sister Leah, because she had children and Rachel didn’t.5 King Saul was full of envy because David was admired for the victories he had won.6
Envy begins with desire. Of course, not all desire is wrong. Certainly we all want things—more finances, better health, for our children to do well, safety and security, etc. The problem arises when we see others with things we desire and we feel resentment, anger, or sadness. Envy doesn’t only focus on material things; it can also arise when someone achieves something that we want to accomplish, or has reached a certain status or position that we desire. Envy arises when we become aware that someone has some advantage or blessing that we want for ourselves; and sadly, it often expands into making us wish for the other person to lose whatever it is that we are envious of. Sometimes it even leads us to do things in an attempt to cause that to happen.
When we are envious of others, their success causes us to feel bad about ourselves; it makes us feel like failures. It causes us to feel that we are competing with others and that when they do better than us or get what we want, we are losing. This outlook can cause us to resent God because we feel that He is giving us less than we deserve or He loves others more than He loves us.
When we allow envy to influence us, we become increasingly unable to enjoy our blessings, because we see what we have or what we are only in comparison to what others have and are. We develop attitudes along the lines of, I’m not doing well financially because I have less than she has, or I’m not valued because he makes more money than I do. When we follow this line of thinking, we develop the mistaken attitude that our happiness depends on others having less than we do.
Being filled with envy makes it very difficult to be content or grateful. Rather than thanking God for our blessings, who we are, and what we have, we become resentful that we don’t have more. Even if God gives us more, envy causes us to still compare with others whom we see as being even more blessed. It becomes a never-ending cycle of discontent, dissatisfaction, and ungratefulness. We’re never satisfied, and any gratitude we may have is short-lived, as we’ll always notice that someone is better off than we are.
Envy kills gratitude and contentment, robs us of our joy, makes us feel animosity toward God, and causes us to draw away from Him. Gratitude and contentment, on the other hand, cause us to be appreciative of what we have, to thank the Lord for His care and supply, no matter what our situation. They are based on our love for and trust in God, who provides for, loves, and cares for us. In 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter, we read that Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast.7 If we want to have a grateful spirit, we must overcome envy by loving others, rejoicing with them in their blessings and successes, thanking the Lord that He has blessed them, and responding to their improved circumstances as we would want them to respond to ours.
The key to overcoming envy is loving and trusting God. When we understand that we are His children, and that He deeply loves us, we can have faith that whatever our circumstances, He will always do what is best for us—even if it doesn’t seem so to us at the moment. When we trust Him, we are putting our confidence in who He is, in His character, knowing that He is good and loving, and therefore we can be content in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Coveting is an inordinate desire to possess what belongs to someone else. It is specifically forbidden in the last of the Ten Commandments:
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.8
Covetousness is also understood to be an excessive desire for material gain, for the possession of worldly things. Jesus said:
Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.9
The apostle Paul wrote:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you … covetousness, which is idolatry.10
Covetousness must not even be named among you…11
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is … covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.12
Clearly the desire to want what belongs to others or an excessive desire for material gain is considered wrong and sinful in Scripture. If we develop the attitude that the accumulation of wealth and possessions is necessary to our happiness, and it becomes our focus, we begin to give our material goods first place in our lives instead of God, who rightly deserves it. Paul called covetousness idolatry, because it takes the place in our heart that belongs to God alone.
Money and possessions are not evil in themselves. The eighth commandment, you shall not steal,13 and the tenth, which tells us not to covet what belongs to our neighbor,14 both indicate that private property is sanctioned. However, when we place undue importance on material things, we become covetous. When our desire for possessions and money becomes our priority, we find ourselves serving mammon, which Jesus clearly condemned.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.15
Having a wrong attitude toward material goods is dangerous and to be avoided:
Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things.16
When our possessions or the inordinate desire for more occupy first place in our heart, when our happiness hinges on this, then we are plagued with covetousness. If we’ve allowed ourselves to become this way, we need to ask God’s help to reverse course, to focus on what He has blessed us with, rather than on what others have and we don’t. We must ask Him to help us be grateful for the blessings we have and content with what He has supplied for us, and to deliver us from the addiction of feeling that our joy comes from the accumulation of wealth and possessions.
Being aware of our blessings, grateful for them, and content in them—whether they are many or few—is key to fighting covetousness. We may want to ask ourselves, “Have I set my mind on earthly instead of heavenly things? Do I trust in finances for security instead of God’s love? Do I have an inordinate desire for money and material things? Have I set a ceiling on my lifestyle in order to avoid an overabundance of possessions, so that if God blesses me with abundance, I will not exceed that ceiling?”
Greed is an overwhelming desire to have more of something; the disordered love of riches, built on the mistaken judgment that one’s well-being is tied to the sum of one’s possessions. In a sense it works in two ways. It tells us, “You need to have that,” so that we pursue things; while at the same time saying, “You must grip tightly to this,” so that we desperately hold on to what we have, causing us to act in a selfish and stingy manner. Greed isn’t limited to those with wealth; it can affect those in need as well, because greed isn’t focused on what we have but on what we want.
While the desire to have things isn’t necessarily wrong, it becomes wrong when this desire becomes our focal point. Desire turns to greed when attaining what we want becomes the center of our thoughts; we want it to the point that we’re willing to compromise our values or integrity to get it. In many cases, people are willing to go deeply into debt because they crave things so badly but don’t have the money to pay for them. (This type of debt is different from home loans, business loans, etc., which can be seen as wise investments.)
Greed isn’t only about desiring money and what it can buy; it can grip any desire we have. We can be greedy about our achievements, so that we’re willing to sacrifice our marriage, family, children, or health in order to achieve more, be more successful, and receive praise and admiration from others. We can manifest greed in our relationships, to where we demand more and more of our loved ones’ time and attention. When we yield to greed, our natural desires can turn into an uncontrollable drive to attain more, with little or no regard for what is best for ourselves or others.
We can recognize the symptoms of greed in ourselves when we realize that we have an unrelenting desire or yearning for something we don’t have, to where it becomes the focus of our thoughts and attaining it becomes so important that it replaces our priorities in life. We can also see that we are yielding to greed if, when we achieve the goals we were striving for or acquire the things we wanted, instead of being satisfied and grateful that we’ve met our goal, we find ourselves discontented and wanting more, focusing once again on what we don’t have. Another symptom is wanting instant gratification, so that rather than patiently pursuing our goal, we look for shortcuts to get it as soon as possible at any cost, including being willing to act unethically to do so.
One way to combat greed is to understand that everything we have ultimately belongs to God and is His gift to us, and that He is generous. God blesses us in so many ways, yet when we’re greedy, we’re essentially saying that He doesn’t give us enough, He doesn’t care for us. One book gave this example of what greed is like in relationship to God:
Greed slaps God in the face and says, “You won’t have enough for me, so I will hoard for myself.” Slapping God in the face may sound harsh, but think about how you would feel if your child were to say something like this to you: “You might not give me enough food for dinner tonight, so I’m just saving this bread from lunch, and I’m sneaking some of Johnny’s lunch too. I got some cans out of the cupboard, and I have them hidden away in my sock drawer—you know … just in case you don’t come through for me.” That would be like a slap in the face, wouldn’t it? Well, that’s what I feel I am doing to God when I forget about his habitual generosity and start hoarding what he’s given me or grasping for more than I need.17
Greed is the feeling of entitlement, the belief that we deserve to have something and that God or the world owes it to us. We manifest greed when we’re selfish and self-centered, thinking only of our own desires, showing little compassion as we consider our own needs as more important than the needs of others. When we depend on self-effort instead of trusting in God, instead of waiting on His timing and supply. We manifest greed when we snatch what we want and hoard what we have. It’s as if we adhere to the motto that “he who dies with the most toys wins,” without taking into account that he who dies with the most toys still dies, and must give account of his life to God. Greed breeds anxiety, as we are always in pursuit of something more. When we harbor greed, we are never content.
If we want to counteract the grip of greed, one key action is to develop generosity and the habit of sharing. (More on generosity in the following article.) By cultivating generosity, we focus on storing up treasure in heaven.18 It also helps to remember that life is short and at death we leave behind all of our possessions, status, titles, and wealth, and therefore they shouldn’t take preeminence in life. Another thing to take into account is that Scripture gives many warnings of the danger of riches and the effect they can have in our lives. Neither our material possessions nor our status will ever fully satisfy us, as true satisfaction is found only in God. Jesus, when promised the kingdoms of the world and all of its wealth, rejected the offer, as He had no intention of turning away from what was most valuable—loving and serving His Father.19
If we desire to be more like Jesus, then we need to have the right attitude toward material possessions, status, and money, which starts with recognizing that everything we have belongs to God, and we are only entrusted as stewards to care for and manage them in accordance with His instructions. Scripture teaches that what God has given us should be used in a manner that glorifies Him; so we take care of the needs of our families and loved ones, give back to Him through our tithes and charitable giving, and help those in need whom He brings across our path. We are called to be grateful to God in whatever state we find ourselves, and to express our gratitude to God for taking care of us. In acknowledging His love and care for us, in learning to be content, in expressing our gratefulness to Him for His supply of our needs, and in believing and living the principles of stewardship, we will be able to overcome envy, covetousness, and greed, and live in contentment. This is part of our path to becoming more like Jesus.
(More on Gratitude in Part Four)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Romans 1:29–31; Galatians 5:19–21; 1 Timothy 6:3–6; Titus 3:3.
2 Mark 7:21–23.
3 1 Peter 2:1.
4 Genesis 37.
5 Genesis 30:1.
6 1 Samuel 18.
7 1 Corinthians 13:4.
8 Exodus 20:17.
9 Luke 12:15.
10 Colossians 3:5.
11 Ephesians 5:3.
12 Ephesians 5:5.
13 Exodus 20:15; Leviticus 19:11.
14 Exodus 20:17.
15 Matthew 6:19–21, 24.
16 1 Timothy 6:9–11.
17 Katie Brazelton and Shelley Leith, Character Makeover (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 254.
18 Luke 18:22.
19 Matthew 4:8–10.