American writer Gore Vidal once said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Few things create as complex of an emotional response as seeing someone you care about succeed at your dream. Envy works its way into nearly everything we do and can often be a motivating factor in our decision making. This is something the book of Ecclesiastes tackles head on.
Ecclesiastes 4:4 brings up the root of the problem.
“Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.”
It’s easy for many to follow a plan just because it seems to be working for someone else. For every one person motivated to succeed in an area out of love for that field, ten people are following just to be like that one. So much effort comes from a desire to be like everyone else. Many head to college because it feels like “the right next step.” The normal path for “what comes next” can become a dominating factor in decision making.
When we think of envy, it’s easy to picture it in terms of physical wealth and envision people trying to climb the corporate ladder. Limiting envy this way misses the point. One temptation I’ve had to fight repeatedly in ministry is thinking that other people “have it figured out” and that I’ll only be successful if I am like them. Sometimes, what we really envy most is the identity others have built for themselves.
The great tragedy of envy is that it teaches us to believe God has picked favorites and we weren’t one of them. By propping up other people as the standard for success, we wind up taking our eyes off of God’s standard for success. This is especially dangerous when the things we envy aren’t flashy cars and huge houses, but good things like an ability to serve well or general stability in life. It’s good to want to teach well or serve effectively, but when we envy other people’s gifts we train ourselves to be unsatisfied with what God has already given us.
The Preacher now gives us two responses to this problem. The first is seen in verse 5.
“Fools fold their idle hands, leading them to ruin.”
The Preacher begins with the wrong response, giving up entirely. For many, envy-based effort has them so disillusioned that they think the right answer is to not try at all. It reminds me of handing in school projects and discussing with my friends who started working on their project the latest. No one wanted to be the person who tried the hardest. Not trying seemed like a badge of honor.
While laziness and envy do not initially seem related, laziness can come from the fear that envy creates. People often say they would rather not try than try and fail. This is not conquering envy, it’s being crippled by it. Fear of failure dominates so many people to the point where they no longer strive for success.
The stinging reminder of the verse is that our laziness will always hurt us the most. Many translations render the end of verse 5 with the lazy man “consuming his own flesh.” The only person we truly destroy through laziness is ourselves. By choosing not to try, we remove our talents and abilities from the table, robbing ourselves of the chance to grow in them and others of the chance to grow by them. Laziness is a common choice, but it’s not a helpful choice.
With the wrong response in view, the right response is given in verse 6.
And yet, “Better to have one handful with quietness than two handfuls with hard work and chasing the wind.”
The answer found here is to walk contently within our limits, not reach beyond your limits. This still requires effort, but it doesn’t spring up from a desire to be like someone else. Each one of us is unique in the skills and callings God has given us. Following others will not lead us to our “handful with quietness.” It will often just lead us to fight against who God made us to be. Finding our unique calling is what creates real freedom from envy.
The process of finding our lane can be difficult, but the questions that arise from these verses can help us do just that. First we must ask if we’re doing anything based on envy of someone’s position or ability. If we are, we need to reevaluate. God never leads His people to their calling through envy. Second we must ask if we’re not doing something because we’re afraid we won’t match up to someone else. That response is also envy in action and may prevent us from finding our lane. Lastly, we need to ask if we know what our handful with quietness looks like. Removing envy from the equation doesn’t mean we automatically know our call, but it provides a start. Clearing out the debris envy leaves behind creates the space for God to speak. If we can identify our call from God and learn to be satisfied in that, we’ll be able to live free from envy and confident in our purpose.