The Reformer Martin Luther said that God concluded the Ten Commandments with “Thou shalt not covet” (envy) because if we kept that command, we would keep all the others. The reason people lie, steal, commit adultery and even kill is usually because of envy.
In Numbers 11, the children of Israel were about a year out from being delivered from slavery. They were passing through a wilderness, where God led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night and every morning provided manna for them to eat. Yet despite his miraculous provision, the Israelites still complained about their circumstances, and their complaining is a direct result of envy.
Recognizing the three root causes of envy in Numbers 11 will allow us to pull up envy by its roots in our own lives.
1. Envy forgets God’s goodness poured out in the past.
Most of us tend to miss the important timing of Numbers 11. At this point, the Israelites were less than 13 months removed from being oppressed slaves. And yet they were complaining openly before the Lord about hardship, imagining that life was better back in Egypt (Numbers 11:5). They seemed totally oblivious to where they would be had God not, in an act of sheer compassion, intervened.
Furthermore, they seemed oblivious to the fact that a God who saved them like that in the past would surely provide for them in their present!
Envy stays unaware of what it actually deserves and acts like God owes us much more than we have received.
When you’re having a bad day, remind yourself of where you were—and where you should be—under judgment, in hell. Then look at where you actually are—a child of God with his Spirit inside of you and a promised inheritance that cannot be taken away. Reflect on the incredible kindness of God in saving you and giving you the assurance that the God who delivered us didn’t do so only to let us perish. Clearly, he has our good in mind.
2. Envy overlooks God’s goodness provided in the present.
The Israelites said, “If all we have is this manna, we are going to shrivel up and die!” We know the end of the story, and shriveling wasn’t it. In fact, according to Deuteronomy 8, Moses says that during the whole 40 years in the wilderness, their feet didn’t swell, which was a sign of malnutrition. The manna didn’t just fill their bellies; it provided them the sustenance they needed. It really was enough.
Envy always assumes, “If all I have is what God gives me, if I rely solely on him, it won’t be enough. My soul is going to dry up!” That is an old lie, but it is still a lie. And, tragically, it will keep you from enjoying what God has given to you for your enjoyment.
Envy was a key element at work in the Garden of Eden. God said that Adam and Eve could eat of every tree in the Garden except one, which made them think, “Well, then, I bet that is the best one!”
Think about that. Even in paradise, envy made Adam and Eve think that something was wrong. If envy can do that in paradise, how much more can it wreak havoc in our lives today. This is why some people are critical about everything, even when things are going well. That critical spirit comes from a deep dissatisfaction that arises from envy. And envy doesn’t care how much good God has given us; it only cares what God hasn’t given us.
To envy, the happy life always seems like it is right over there, in that “one tree” God has not let you have yet. But it’s a lie! Go read the book of Ecclesiastes, and then come back and tell me if getting everything your heart desires actually leads to happiness (spoiler: It doesn’t).
The happy life is finding satisfaction in what God has provided for you today—because it is always enough.
3. Envy ignores God’s goodness promised for the future.
In the wilderness, the Israelites seemed to forget that their situation was temporary, that God was sending them to a literal Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (or as we would say today, “abundant in bloomin’ onions and cheesecake”).
In your life, there may be some good things you want that you miss out on for a few years. I know those years feel like an eternity, but before God, those deprivations are only temporary. Perhaps that is material wealth. Or a meaningful job. A spouse. A child. God does not delight in your suffering; he hurts when you hurt. But he also sees a bigger picture, and he knows just how short your years are. As the Apostle Paul put it, the worst deprivations on earth can only be called “light and momentary” when compared to the weight of glory that God has in store for his saints (2 Corinthians 4:17).
On that final day, it won’t matter if we were married, single, rich, poor or anything else. In Christ, none of us will feel like we are missing anything: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).
Because of the knowledge of what is coming, we can be content with the impartial blessings we have now, because these small blessings point to something far greater we will soon receive in a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.