Envy, Jealousy, or Covetousness: Which Is the Right Word to Use?
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.
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.
- Envy makes a person unhappy.
- The envious person wishes the other person would be just as miserable.
Psychologists suggest that there may be two types of envy.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.
Fear of loss
Feelings of inferiority
Suspicion or anger about a perceived betrayal
Low self-esteem and sadness over perceived loss
Resentment of circumstances
Uncertainty and loneliness
Wanting bad things for envied person
Disapproval of feelings and motivated to improve
Fear of losing something important to another
Desire to possess rival's qualities
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. (Matthew 22:33).
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.
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?
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