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Envy, Jealousy, or Covetousness: What Is the Difference?

Rev. Margaret Minnicks is an ordained Bible teacher. She writes many articles that are Bible lessons.

Words Used Interchangeably

Some words are so closely related to other words that sometimes people choose the wrong word to use. In the chart below are some popular words that people use incorrectly. After reading the definition of each word in the set, perhaps more people will begin to use the proper word to express what they really mean.

whats-the-difference-between-certain-words

Envy

According to the dictionary, envy is a feeling of discontent or resentful based on what someone else has. It is a strong desire to have the same things someone else has. The thing desired could be a quality, a possession, or an attribute that belongs to someone else, especially your enemies.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell said that envy is one of the most powerful causes of unhappiness, and it is two-fold.

  1. Envy makes a person unhappy.
  2. The envious person wishes the other person would be just as miserable.

Psychologists suggest that there may be two types of envy.

  1. Malicious envy is a negative emotion that wants someone to be ruined because of what he has. This type of envy wants the "hero" to suffer.
  2. Benign envy is the positive motivational force that wants to aspire to be as good and have as much as the "hero."

Envy, whether malicious or benign, is one of the seven deadly sins in Roman Catholicism. In the Book of Genesis envy is said to be the motivation behind Cain murdering his brother, Abel, as Cain envied Abel because God favored Abel's sacrifice over Cain's.

Envy was regarded by Paul of Tarsus to be a sin of the flesh. Envy is among the things that come from the heart, defiling a person. Envy ruins the body's health.

After William Shakespeare used the expression "green-eyed monster," the color green has been associated with jealousy and envy. "Green with envy" is a popular phrase.

Jealousy

Jealousy is an emotion that is brought on by feeling resentment against someone because of what another person's success, advantage, etc.

Jealousy often consists of one or more of emotions such as anger, resentment, inadequacy, helplessness or disgust.

Jealousy is different from envy even though the two terms are used interchangeably. Most of the time, people use jealousy when the correct word should be envy.

Jealousy can be either suspicious or reactive. That means a person can become jealous of another based on suspicions when there is no real reason to be jealous. A reactive jealousy is when the jealous person reacts to his jealousy. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Cain killed his own brother, Abel, because he was jealous of the attention he was getting from God.

In the New Testament, King Herod had all boy babies killed because he was jealous of Jesus who has come as the expected Messiah. Also, the Jewish chief priests and elders handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate to be crucified because they were jealous of his popularity.

whats-the-difference-between-certain-words

Envy and Jealous Compared

W. Gerrod Parrott is a professor of psychology at Georgetown University and is on the advisory board of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. has studied and now teaches about the nature of human emotions. He explains the distinction between envy and jealousy.

Parrot acknowledges that people can experience envy and jealousy at the same time. Feelings of envy about a rival can develop into jealousy. A positive thing that can come out of envy is a desire to improve one's self. That doesn't happen when a person is jealous.

JEALOUSYENVY

Fear of loss

Feelings of inferiority

Suspicion or anger about a perceived betrayal

Longing

Low self-esteem and sadness over perceived loss

Resentment of circumstances

Uncertainty and loneliness

Wanting bad things for envied person

Distrust

Disapproval of feelings and motivated to improve

Fear of losing something important to another

Desire to possess rival's qualities

Covetousness

According to the dictionary, to covet is to desire something wrongfully without any regards for the rights of others. To covet is to wish for another's property and possessions.

To covet is to go after something that is not in the will of God. That makes covetousness a sin. It is the tenth and last of the Ten Commandments. To covet something is not merely wishing for it, but going after it, lusting for it, and working to it at any cost. A person can covet not only what belongs to others but to covet what belongs to God. This happens when you are keeping a portion of His property.

Unlike the other commandments which focus on outward actions, this commandment focuses on the condition of the heart. The other nine commandments focus on doing a forbidden action while this one focuses on inward thoughts

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)

"Do not covet" is the hardest commandments to keep and the easiest one to be broken. Others cannot see when that commandment is broken because it is hidden in a person's heart where only God can see it.

When you covet what others have, you are telling God that we are not satisfied with what you have.

Covet only the things of God and the prayers of the saints for coveting anything else is sin and God will judge those who covet.

The Gospel of Luke describes Jesus' warning to guard one’s heart against covetousness.

"Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

The Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians regard the sin of covetousness as a kind of idolatry and list this sin along with sexual immorality and impurity which provokes the wrath of God.

The opposite of covetousness is contentment. The New Testament stresses thanksgiving and contentment as proper heart attitudes that contrast covetousness.

whats-the-difference-between-certain-words

Covetousness is a form of idolatry because it substitutes things for the living God (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5).

Desiring to have things is not evil in itself, but it leads to other things the Bible prohibits.

  • Covetousness is a root sin that leads to stealing, adultery, murder, and almost any other sin. (1 Timothy 6:10)
  • The sin of covetousness is a form of idolatry that puts the created thing in place of the Creator (Romans 1:23).
  • Covetousness stands opposite the great commandment of love. Covetousness is interested in getting. Love is interested in giving.
  • Covetousness is a sin against the one who covets. He will never be satisfied. The more a person gets, the more he wants.

What Is the Right Word to Use?

ENVYJEALOUSY COVETOUSNESS

ENVY says, "I like what you have. Show me how to get it too."

JEALOUSY says, "I want what you have, and until I have it, you shouldn't have it either.

COVETOUSNESS says, "I want what you have. In fact, I am more worthy of it than you."

Can be malicious and benign.

Jealousy is vengeful.

Do not covet is one of the Ten Commandments.

"Green with envy."

Fear of loss

The opposite of covetousness is contentment

Can develop into jealous

Can overlap with envy

A form of idolatry

Which Word?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which word is based on one of the Ten Commandments?
    • Envy
    • Jealousy
    • Covetousness
  2. Which word has a color associated with it?
    • Envy
    • Jealousy
    • Covetousness
  3. Which can be malicious or benign?
    • Envy
    • Jealousy
    • Covetousness
  4. Which one caused Cain to kill his brother?
    • Envy
    • Jealousy
    • Covetousness
  5. Which term does the Bible forbids against desiring to have your husband's wife, house, oxen, etc.?
    • Envy
    • Jealousy
    • Covetousness

Answer Key

  1. Covetousness
  2. Envy
  3. Envy
  4. Jealousy
  5. Covetousness

Reference

What Does Covet Mean?

Comments

Ist on January 04, 2020:

First commandment States I am a jealous god

Nancy on September 04, 2019:

Lovely....please talk about gossip

Jeff on July 24, 2019:

As Jeremy said previously; some of your definitions require tweeking: jealous in particular. I have taken particular interest in these words and have sought, mostly biblically, the correct definitions. This is what I have found.

Jealous: the desire to obtain or retain that which is righteously yours. Examples: Your spouse's romantic affection or someone giving them romantic affection. A person giving different-life-value advice to your children. Someone trying to start a coup against you in your business.

Envy: desiring generally (not necessarily specific) things that another person has that you cannot immediately righteously obtain without immoral action, hard work, etc.

Examples: Desiring a nice car like your neighbor and resenting him for having it and you not. Wanting a good romantic partner like your friends, and not understanding why you keep getting bad ones, and being unwilling to improve yourself to be more attractive. General resentfulness of the fruits of someones good fortune and/or hard work.

Covet: desiring a specific thing which you are unable to righteously obtain and intentionally seeking opportunity to take it; sometimes with intent on sabotage instead of taking it.

Examples: desiring romance with a married person then sewing discontent via gossip to a neighbor's spouse to create an opportunity to tempt them to cheat on their spouse. Exploitation or blackmailing someone into them giving you something valuable(car, etc).

Eunice on April 23, 2019:

What we were taught at our last Meeting (Women at the Threshing Floor)

Jeremy on February 23, 2019:

Thanks for your post. A few thoughts/comments.

Could not help but note that your reference to Matthew 22:33 is inaccurate -- not sure what passage of scripture you are referring to there.

I think jealousy has more to do with wanting to guard something that you have, i.e. a husband may be jealous for his wife's love/attention, which will motivate resentment towards one whom he perceives to be trying to steal that from him. In this regard, I don't think jealousy is appropriate to describe Cain's feelings towards Abel -- God's favour is not a commodity, Abel did not "steal" it from Cain, it is God's to give to whom he wishes (and he could have given equally to both). However, jealousy seems appropriate for what Herod felt about Jesus, as there was a sense of threat to his authority and kingship in the land, which he wanted to protect.

Based on your definition, covetous sounds pretty synonomous with greed.

I thought the following article was well written, and better distinguishes between envy and jealousy. In the end, however, both can rot one's heart if left unchecked, so best to deal with the emotions in a healthy way rather than quibbling over semantics:

https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wc/covetous-the...

Margaret Minnicks (author) from Richmond, VA on February 17, 2018:

Tim, as usual, thanks for reading and posting your inspirational comments. I'm encouraged by what you said.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on February 17, 2018:

Excellent article. I don't envy or am I jealous or wish to covet your beautiful use of language. I'm thankful you write such educational pieces. (lol)

I like the way you bring scripture into your articles, Reverend. Your work is a treasure to my heart and soul. Those three emotions have probably caused more pain (family conflicts, wars, and evil deeds) to mankind than we could ever imagine. Thanks for clarifying that for us. My grandmother used to say: call a demon out by its name and rebuke it in the name of Jesus and you have the victory. Those are definitely demonic destructive emotions.

Sincerely,

Tim

Margaret Minnicks (author) from Richmond, VA on February 14, 2018:

Thanks so much, MsDora. I will check out John Piper's writing about the Seven Deadly Sins. Also, thanks for mentioning my table. I like using that feature especially when there is a comparison.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 14, 2018:

Like your definitions. Almost wrote on something similar. John Piper also does a good job in Killjoys: The Seven Deadly Sins. Your table at the end is very helpful.