It’s a modern fear apparently, fed by a constant awareness of what is happening in the lives of many others. It’s the anxiety that others elsewhere are having more rewarding experiences from which we are absent. It is often aroused by social media posts. So people may check their phones compulsively in case they miss what is going on. But there’s a deeper fear of missing out where people compare their boring lives to the carefully curated portraits they consume. They fear they are missing out on a better life altogether and they grudge others having it. Why? It’s Social Media Envy.
That answer may be a little shocking but there’s nothing new about it. Envy breeds discontent with the life and circumstances God has provided for us. We can be envious of very good and right things, even the best things. It’s something observed in Ecclesiastes 4:4 “I considered all travail, and every right work, that for this a man is envied of his neighbour. This is also vanity and vexation of spirit”. In this case it is just someone doing what is right and good. They are following the calling God has given them. They may do this by maximising their skills, raising a family and enjoying time with them, loving their wife etc. But these right works can be the cause of envy in others. Alexander Nisbet explains the meaning of this in more detail showing how this envy can get a hold in our hearts.
The word “travail” means the hard work in which men engage in things that are right and approved in God’s sight. He shows what reception this sort of work has in the world: “for this a man is envied”. The better a man’s actions are, the more he is hated by those who cannot do similarly. This may be even by his closest friend (this is what the word “neighbour” means here). This is vanity, sinful vanity on the part of the envious who are grieved at what they ought to rejoice in (others doing well). There is also vanity in the sense of disappointment on the part of the envied, who look for better reception for their right works. This can create anxiety. Since it may happen to us, as the envying or the envied, it is man’s wisdom to seek his happiness elsewhere.
1. Envy Can Affect the Best Actions
The best and most upright actions may not be approved and honoured by the wicked world. On the contrary, it may be expected, that they will the object of envy in those who are so greedy of vain glory for themselves. Those who care so little about God’s glory are grieved to see others made the means of glorifying Him (John 3:26-27). So for “every right work…a man is envied of his neighbour”.
2. Envy Can Affect the Closest Friends
Envy is so great an evil that it does not only make people grieved at the success of strangers and enemies. It vents itself mainly against someone’s own companions or equals when they get the approval that the envious are hunting for. For a “right work, a man is envied of his neighbour”. The word neighbour here means an equal, or close friend and companion.
3. We Will Be Disappointed if Seek Approval From Others
This envy for the good actions of others proves how far we are infected with the vanity that has resulted from the Fall. It is is also a just rebuke to those who look for the praise and approval of others as the great encouragement in their work. They will be disappointed in this and may experience the envy rather than the praise of others. The “vanity” of disappointment and frustration this verse speaks of relates to both the envious and the envied. The envied who expected the approval of others as their reward are disappointed. “This is also vanity”.
4. We Should Seek Approval From God Not Others
By nature we overvalue the praise and approval of others and strive very little to draw our encouragement from God’s approval. Thus, when we meet with envy instead of praise our spirits are easily eaten up with anxiety. When a “right work” is envied by others it produces not only “vanity” or a disappointed expectation but also “vexation of spirit”.
5. We Must Not Neglect Our Duty Because of Envy
Some may abandon the duties of the ordinary calling or spiritual duties due to the envy of others. The following verses (verse 5-6) go on to describe this temptation as folly. They fold their hands together in idleness and discouragement (see Proverbs 6:9-10; Hebrews 12:12). Those who desire peace of conscience and to have true contentment must keep going in their duty despite envy and oppression from the world. He who forsakes his duty because of fearing the envy of others is a fool in God’s esteem. The Lord’s approval and reward, is more than able to make up for all that the envy of others can bring on us.
The more God-centred we are in our attitudes and desires, the greater contentment we will have. We need not be paralysed by the fears of missing out and the insecurity that others have a better life than we do. The Apostle Paul speaks very often about being approved by God. The motive of pleasing God in doing our utmost for His glory by His grace takes away the disappointment and frustration of focussing on others. Whatever we do therefore (even in the smallest aspects of life) let us do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).