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Do you ever find that you’re comparing yourself to certain characters in the Bible and wondering how you could be more like them? Well, many of them didn’t have it all together and spent much of their time comparing themselves to each other.
I wanted to look at these specific instances in the Bible where envy and comparison led to a breakdown in relationships and also a sense of estrangement with God. This proved particularly destructive in most cases. There are many more than I’ve listed here, but these ones stood out to me in particular. I can identify with every single one of them. Hopefully you can too, and we can learn from their experiences and take lessons on how to avoid the same mistakes.
Also, if you haven’t read my post on 7 Biblical ways to avoid the comparison trap, then go and check it out now.
5 TIMES IN THE BIBLE WHEN ENVY AND COMPARISON KILLED RELATIONSHIPS
1. Cain and Abel – Genesis 4:1-16
We don’t know exactly why God was pleased with Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. Some commentators have speculated that Cain did not bring his first fruits to God but only gave his second best, but this is not evident in the text itself.
In his book The Seven Deadly Sins and How to Overcome Them, theologian Graham Tomlin observes that the fact that this is left ambiguous adds to the poignancy and immediacy of the story for us as modern readers. There isn’t always a clear reason why others may be better off or seem to have more favour from God. It’s not always the case that others are giving their best or are more deserving.
What we can see however is that resentment and envy began to build up. Cain began to compare his own efforts to that of his brother’s. Why was God blessing Abel and not Cain? Why did God deem Cain’s offerings more acceptable and pleasing than his own?
Cain began to resent God for blessing him in that way, and to despise his brother and all of his success. Tomlin points out that before he was angry at Abel, he was angry at God. He writes:
“This is always the way envy works. It never starts with the object of envy. It starts with a shake of the fist at the skies, a frustration with the gods, a deep feeling of injustice. Why has God not given me what I want, I need, I deserve? Only then is Cain’s anger directed at Abel, a more tangible and visible target for his fury.”
This eventually led Cain to murder his brother. As punishment, he was doomed to be a restless wanderer for the remainder of his life.
Even if Cain did give his best, the fact that his heart was eventually not right meant that his offerings would have been less pleasing to God. He would’ve ended up doing things out of a sense of ingratitude and bitterness. Perhaps even a sense of cynicism. This would surely have affected his own faith. And without faith, it is impossible to please God as Hebrews tells us.
Have you ever felt this way? I know I certainly have. What may start off as legitimate offerings to God may end up becoming resentful efforts on my part as I wonder why God is blessing others rather than myself.
It’s not surprising that Jesus himself talked about offerings and having something against your own brother in Matthew 5:23-24.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
Perhaps he had Cain and Abel in mind.
In Genesis 4:6-7, God says to Cain:
“Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Tomlin notes that at this point, Cain hasn’t done anything wrong yet. However, he’s faced with a choice. He can either turn away from God and resent him, allowing bitterness to build, or he can turn back to God to try to engage in conversation, struggle to understand and to trust. Cain chooses not to engage with God but to wallow in his own anger and then direct it at Abel. Turning back to God is the first step in overcoming envy.
Like Cain, this is the same choice we face when presented with a situation where we’re comparing ourselves to others and allowing envy to build.
What will we choose?
2. Jacob and Esau – Genesis 25:19-34, 27:1-45
Esau and Jacob were both twins, but were born into rivalry. Even before they were born, God had already prophesied of Rebecca, their mother, that
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.” (NIV)
Both were born into a dysfunctional family. Isaac favoured Esau who was a hunter, but Rebecca preferred Jacob, who was quieter and liked to stay at home.
From an early stage, the two twins wanted what the other had. Jacob saw his opportunity when Esau came in from hunting one day and was hungry. Jacob took advantage of the situation and his brother’s impulsiveness by demanding Esau’s rights as first-born son in exchange for a bowl of soup that he was cooking. Esau, not thinking about the situation properly and driven by his stomach, agreed, little realising that this would come back to haunt him later on.
Each boy wanted the blessing of the other parent but instead both parents effectively pitted the other against each other. Jacob desperately craved his father’s blessing and would try to gain it by any means necessary.
When Isaac was old, Rebecca devised an elaborate plan for Jacob to receive the blessing instead of Esau. By deceiving Isaac, who was nearly blind, into thinking that Jacob was Esau, Jacob received the blessing that was rightfully his brother’s. When Esau finally came in and discovered the ruse, he cried out bitterly “Bless me—me too, my father!” (Genesis 27:34).
Isaac could not revoke his blessing he had already given to Jacob, so he had to bestow upon Esau a lesser blessing. In 27:41 we’re told that Esau bore a grudge against Jacob and planned to kill him. Rebecca, hearing of this plan, sent Jacob away and never saw him again.
Do you seek someone else’s blessing in your own life? Perhaps you feel that someone else is always favoured and that anything you do never seems to gain the blessing you seek. This can easily lead you into the comparison trap.
Jacob’s inner emptiness left him open to seeking to fill that void with romantic love as we’ll see in the next section, or to find his fulfilment in his children. It’s easy to try to fill our emptiness and search for blessing with other things.
Jacob was only healed when he was “wounded” by God – when he wrestled with him at Peniel in Genesis 32:22-32. God gave him a new identity, renaming him “Israel”. If you’re seeking blessing elsewhere, perhaps it’s time to also wrestle with God and find healing in the struggle.
3. Leah and Rachel – Genesis 29:15-35, 30:1-24
In the example of Leah and Rachel, both sets of sisters compared themselves to each other and ended up filled with envy.
On the one hand, Leah was fertile while Rachel wasn’t. Rachel was desperate to have children and couldn’t understand why God blessed her sister in this area while she remained barren.
On the other hand, Jacob loved Rachel with all of his heart. Leah was never the sister he intended to marry. The only reason she became his wife at all was because of trickery from her father Laban who switched the brides at the last minute. Leah could give Jacob children but craved the love and affection her sister received. Rachel was the beautiful sister of the family and heaped attention on her. Leah, by contrast, had “weak eyes”, suggesting that she was plainer.
Tim Keller points out in his book Counterfeit gods that Leah had become bitter about the whole thing. Every time she produced another son, she reasoned “Maybe now my husband will finally love me. Maybe now he will finally see me.” As such, she named each son accordingly. See Genesis 29: 32-34.
In effect, she had begun to make an idol out of being loved and accepted by her husband. On the other hand, Rachel made an idol out of being able to have children. For both of these sisters, these two things had begun to define and determine their identities. As both compared what the other had and what they each lacked, they began to resent each other more and to even grow bitter towards God.
It was only once Leah began to find her identity in God that her attitude changed. Leah’s last child was Judah, who headed up the tribe through whom the Messiah would be born. When Judah arrived, her attitude was now one of thankfulness and praise rather than bitterness. “This time I will praise the Lord.” (Genesis 29:35).
We’re told here that it was then she stopped bearing children.
Although Rachel did eventually give birth to two children, Joseph and Benjamin, she eventually died in labour. It’s never clear whether her attitude changed and if she had begun to find her identity in God rather than in whether she could have children or not.
Can you identify with these two sets of sisters? Perhaps you feel that someone else you know gets all the attention and praise because of their looks and popularity. They seem to have it all together, and naturally people seem to shower them with love. They don’t have to do much to even find a partner.
But perhaps these people also compare themselves to you as well. They’re not so happy on the inside. Maybe they are unable to have children or are barren in another area of their lives in which you seem to be thriving.
Don’t allow these things to become idols that consume you and also determine your identity and happiness. Look at the example of Leah and how she eventually began praising God and choosing to be thankful. This changed her whole outlook on things and God did something beautiful in her by producing the Messianic line from which Jesus would eventually come.
4. Saul and David – 1 Samuel 15 – 31
The Israelites ask for a king to be like the other nations, and God chooses Saul for them in 1 Samuel 8-11. However, in 1 Samuel 13-15, God rejects Saul for his direct disobedience. 1 Samuel 15:35 tells us that “the LORD regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.”
In Saul’s place, God appoints David to be king. Their relationship started out on good terms when David defeated Goliath and brought the Israelites to victory. But once Saul felt his own authority slipping from his grasp, and that God’s favour had shifted, he began to grow jealous of David.
Saul constantly compared his own situation to David’s. He saw what he once had and how he had lost it. He also saw how David had grown in popularity and was the one whom God seemed to be blessing. Once Saul had been in the spotlight. Now it was David’s turn to shine.
Saul began to feel threatened. This increased his possessiveness over the throne and what he assumed belonged to him. David was, at the time, not interested in the throne but was simply waiting for God’s timing. However, Saul sought to hold onto his kingdom even more tightly and began to persecute David. Eventually he would lash out at David, throwing his spear at him, inciting others to slander David’s character, and then later hunting him down to kill him.
In his book Quality Friendship, Gary Inrig examines the relationship between Saul and David as an example of how friendships can be destroyed. He talks about both jealousy and envy on Saul’s part.
“At its heart, jealousy is the passion to protect what I have, an attitude that comes from an inward fear that ‘it isn’t really mine after all.’… Jealousy is the attitude that makes me grasp what I have. Envy is the drive that makes me reach for what others have. At that stage, David was no longer a person to Saul. He was a competitor, and Saul was deeply envious of him.”
We can easily fall into the same trap as Saul. Perhaps we feel that God once blessed us and shone His favour upon us. But then, for whatever reason, it seems to have stopped. Maybe it’s through our own sin and wrongdoing. But perhaps it is also because God is wanting to highlight the fact that we have become too dependent on His blessings and the gifts we receive. Perhaps we are making these into idols and are seeking these more earnestly than God Himself.
But instead of responding to God in the appropriate way, we might seek to hold on even more tightly to what we feel is slipping away from us. Like Saul, we might see someone else taking our place and receiving the praise that we once had. In times like these, we can become very envious of their success and abilities.
As Inrig writes.
“It is possible for us to feel very self-righteous as we watch Saul pursuing his vengeful course. We of course, would never go that far. Or would we? According to the Lord, the feeling that another person deserves the title of ‘fool’ or ‘moron’ is to commit the moral equivalent of murder (Matthew 5:22). To have contempt for another’s ability or person is to be as guilty as Saul in God’s sight.”
Instead of being like Saul, we should follow his son Jonathan’s example. He had every reason to compare himself to David. He was rightfully the heir to the throne. But he trusted in God, celebrated his friend’s success and tried to build David up at every opportunity he had.
Will we be more like Saul or Jonathan?
5. The older brother and the prodigal son – Luke 15:11-32
The older brother is out in the field when he hears the sounds of celebration. He is angry to find that his father has killed the fatted calf for this ungrateful brother of his who has wasted all of his father’s money. However, he has never done something similar for him. Yet the father reassures his son that everything he has is his. But they must celebrate because his son was dead but is now alive.
In his book The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Tim Keller observes that the older son was just as lost and estranged as the younger son, even though he was living in close proximity to his father. Keller suggests that we should refer to the story as the parable of the Two Lost Sons.
Commentators sometimes see that Jesus is drawing an analogy between the older brother and the Pharisees, while the prodigal son represents those whom the Pharisees would not have considered righteous. The prodigals were those who had been lost but were coming into the kingdom.
We can sometimes assume a similar stance to the older brother. We may have been Christians for a long time and feel that we have been serving God and giving our best to him. Then suddenly a new Christian appears who is young in their faith. Perhaps they previously led a life of sin and waywardness. But now the church receives them with open arms and everyone makes a big song and dance about it. It’s easy in those times to wonder why they’re receiving so much attention and celebration of their new-found faith, or why they are also moving ahead in certain areas compared to us.
I know I have experienced this myself. It’s easy to wonder why new Christians are suddenly promoted into leadership positions or treated as if they are so wise in their faith. Perhaps they themselves even begin to think more highly of themselves to you because of their position.
I’m not saying that it is necessarily a wise decision to promote these people so quickly. But that is really another discussion entirely. What I want to concentrate on here is our response to that and how we feel when we begin to compare our own Christian walk with others. We need to avoid being like the older brother with his more Pharisaical response.
When we see what God is doing in their lives we can begin to resent them. In turn, we may also end up resenting God for how He seems to overlook us in favour of someone else, just like the older brother did with his father when he killed the fatted calf for the younger son.
How can we avoid comparing ourselves like these characters in the Bible? Check out my post on 7 Biblical ways to avoid the comparison trap for a more detailed look.
Which character above do you most identify with and why? Or are there others in the Bible I haven’t listed here that resonate with you instead?
Leave me a comment below.
Finally, I’ve put together a set of 48 Bible verses on comparison, envy and identity which you can print out and remind yourself of God’s truth. You can download this by entering your email below.
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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.