Why Envy is Terrible and Counterproductive

Envy, that insidious serpent of spite, sneaks through humanity’s footsteps from time immemorial, leaving venomous trails of destruction and deceit. Biblical stories—pillars of moral teachings—exemplify the perils of envy. We see the perils in the accounts of Joseph’s ordeal and the parable of the tenants who murdered the vineyard owner’s son. These tales aren’t just past events and parables. They are vital lessons capturing a universal principle that has resonated through centuries: envy’s ugliness is destructive to the envied and the envious.

Joseph’s brothers were consumed by jealousy against their innocent younger brother Joseph, the dreamer (Genesis 37). The envious brothers sold him into slavery. The text reveals the intricate dynamics of envy within a family. It hits home to many today. Their story is a tragic map of envy’s malice—deception, betrayal, and the near extinguishing of an innocent life.

Similarly, the tenants in Jesus’ parable were blinded by their covetousness. One might be shocked by the tenants’ ingratitude to the owner for the vineyard they cultivated (Matthew 21:33-46). When the owner sent his servants, they murdered them. Eventually, they did not even spare the owner’s son—alluding to the death of Jesus in the hands of humanity, whose desire is to be without the Lord.

The above biblical stories I use as case studies in this reflection reveal the pain of envy (bitter want for what someone else has) and its accomplice, jealousy (fearing losing what one has to someone else). Both concepts share more in common, and hence, people interchange them.

Ancient and New

Envy was a cardinal vice among the ancients. It was considered one of the seven deadly sins by early Church thinkers. It rots the soul, compelling one to desire that which others possess, leading to resentment and hostility. Primeval in nature and nefarious in effect, envy was responsible for the first murder in the Bible—Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel (Genesis 4).

A biblical study of envy begins in the Book of Genesis. Genesis alone has four different extensive descriptions of the reality of envy and jealousy. They include Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16 and 21:8-21), Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:29-34; 27), and Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37; 39-45). Suppose envy wasn’t a severe vice to combat from the get-go. Why would the Bible’s first book devote at least four instances describing the vice’s reality in the story of the first documented human interactions in biblical history?

Also, the New Testament Gospels contain many instances depicting the vileness of envy. There is the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). The stories of the chief priests and the elders’ envy of Jesus (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10) and the senior brother of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) are examples, also. The multiple references to the actions of leaders and religious activists against the popularity of Jesus of Nazareth (e.g., Matthew 12:14, Mark 3:6, Luke 6:11, John 11:47-53) leave us with more accounts to ponder. There is also the rivalry of the apostles (Mark 10:35-45; Matthew 18:1-5; 20:20-28, and Luke 9:46-48;).

Its Ingratitude

In Jesus’ parable, the tenants’ covetousness is laid bare. They showed ingratitude—forgetting the providence of the vineyard’s lease, they sought not only the vineyard’s produce but blood. Their misplaced yearning for what they didn’t build or plant led to their undoing. One of the most painful things about envy is its lack of gratitude and its wish for the downfall of the persons who showed the envious much love and generosity.

The Vice of Envy on Daily Inspirations with Fr. Maurice

Dante‘s allegorical depiction of envy shows its ugly face as a creature with “eyes sewn shut,” blind to the beauty of others and the love shown them, and groping in the darkness of malice. For Dante, it is the worst vice against love and more dangerous than pride. As Esolen (2019) distinguishes: “The proud man wants to usurp the Lord’s rightful power. The envious man wants there to be no lord at all.” And here lies the terrible mistake: the envious can’t succeed because they tear down. Success is about building up. As Scripture alludes, when the Son of man is “lifted up,” grace, glory, triumph, winning is accomplished (John 12:32).

The Inner Workings of Envy

But what is envy, and where does it originate? Is it a byproduct of the societal structure, the economy of worth and valuation? Or is it the offspring of self-doubt, bitter resentment, the perennial comparison syndrome? It begins from a deep-seated wound of insecurity, and pride turned hateful or sore. Envy is the antithesis of contentment; it fosters resentment towards another’s success, happiness, or possessions. Not only is it a wish for someone’s failure or position with a hateful, unhealthy competitiveness, but in Aquinas’ view, it is also feeling happy when something wrong happens to the envied.

Envy is a thief of joy and a harbinger of division. The vice is rooted in the bitter resentment that wants to tear down everything that doesn’t go “our way.” The irony is that envy doesn’t stop even if it tears down what it imagines as its obstacle, for the problem isn’t the imagined obstacle but the insecurity of the envious.

Envy has a number, 0. No one is off limits of its target or its recruitment. The weak and the poor can be as disastrously envious as the wealthy. The weak, the poor, and the wealthy can also be the targets of the envious. Envy has no class or limits.

To comprehend the roots of envy, one must reflect deeply on human interaction conflicts—sibling rivalries, competitive friendships, or professional animosities. These provide the fertile soil for envy to take seeds in various ways, leading to the desiccation of tender relationships.


In the modern ethos, since the birth of magazines, television, film, and social technologies, envy has been commercialized. It has weaved its way through the perpetual engine of consumerism and social media race for attention. Acquisition-driven jealousy has psychological and spiritual implications, impacting behavior patterns and values. Envy is social, where endless, bitter competition shapes culture. Also, it is a situation where social media algorithms are an embodied ranking system in which numbers are the absolute measure for everything, and tearing people down is a win, a condition for going viral.


The resolution in the stories of Joseph and the tenants is not a mere story—it is instructive and calls for action. Joseph’s redemptive tale culminates in a profound reconciliation with his brothers. The tenants, sadly, were not offered the chance for reconciliation, and their fate serves as a grim cautionary narrative.

First, to build resilience against envy, we must acknowledge its presence, understand its allure, and resolve to rise above its treacherous undertow. Cultivating virtues such as humility, gratitude, and empathy are potent antidotes to envy’s poison.

The lives of biblical figures are not just accounts of what it takes to cultivate virtue. Instead, they guide us through the moral topography of life’s triumph. The passages invite reflection, introspection, and the summon to a life imbued with spiritual humility. Their axiom is that though humans are weak, renewal is the goal and possible.

Scripture offers an emollient of hope, grace, and love for a life free from envy. The Christian call is to rejoice in the blessings of others, to love the neighbor, and to understand there is enough for everybody. What each brings to the table is unique. It requires grateful living.

A Call to Love

Humanity constantly finds itself at a crossroads between the high road of grace and love and the low path of envy. However, redemption begins in constant self-reflection and by grace overcoming our envious nature. Each day offers the choice to be envious or to be empathetic, to tear down or to build up, to wither or to bloom.

It is incumbent upon every individual to transform envy’s lure into a collective consciousness that heals instead of harms and uplifts instead of undermines. In this transformation lies the true essence of a life well-lived, devoid of envy’s terrible weight.

The call to action then is one of purification and conciliation, which prime time Lent offers. May we, as individuals and a society, find the fortitude to rise above envy’s shadow. May we bask in the light of grace. Begin with that person you see as your most significant obstacle to success or peace. Could it be that you have imagined them as stumbling blocks when they are God’s case study for you to notice what you might do differently?

Fr. Maurice Emelu

Father Maurice Emelu, Ph.D., is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria and the Founder of Gratia Vobis Ministries. An assistant professor of communication (digital media) at John Carroll University, USA, Father Maurice is also a theologian, media strategist, and digital media academic whose numerous works appear on television networks such as EWTN. As he likes to describe himself; “I am an African priest passionately in love with Christ and his Church.”

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