On your morning run, you see a couple sitting on a park bench and staring into each other’s eyes. Your stomach feels like it’s about to cramp, but not from the exercise.
While driving home, you call your friend who attends the same university as your boyfriend. She recounts how he led their team to win Capture The Flag at a retreat last weekend. You’re glad she’s telling you, but you can’t help wishing you were there instead.
Then, as you open the door to your apartment, your roommate leaps off the couch, flashing a huge grin and an equally enormous diamond. Congratulating her, you count back the months and realize she’s known her boyfriend for half as long as you’ve been dating yours.
The sinful emotion threatening to burst into each of these poignant situations is envy. You may not face these experiences all in one day, but if you’ve been dating your long-distance boyfriend long enough, you’ve probably battled envy more than once.
The Source of Envy
At least, I know I did. But while I knew envy was the wrong response to missing my boyfriend, I didn’t really understand where envy comes from or what to do with it.
That’s why I love Tilly Dillehay’s book Seeing Green: Don’t Let Envy Color Your Joy, which recently won a 2019 Christian Book Award.
Tilly frames envy as a result of the Fall, pointing to God’s glory and his choice to create humans with “borrowed glory” to bear his image. It’s because of our separation from God that we chase after snippets of glory in other humans. Here’s a quote from page 31 of her book:
“We have all been cut off from the source of the glory (although Christians live under this separation in a different way). Glory is now a commodity, scarce. Scarcity inflates the value of the glory…Without access to the source of real glory, we go nuts over any little thing that reminds us of it.”
These “glories” can feel especially scarce when you’re apart from your boyfriend, so I asked Tilly to apply some of the wisdom from her book specifically to long-distance dating relationships.
Below are her responses to my questions.
An Interview with Tilly Dillehay
How are romantic relationships glimpses of God’s glory? How does the sin of envy twist that?
Relationship is one of the most glorious things God gives to us. It is a stunning image of the intimacy enjoyed by the Trinity. I think that’s why it’s such a powerful form of human glory.
When we see people in close relationship — parents and children, husband and wife, best friends — we are blown away by the power and beauty of it. For instance, when we see a friend’s marriage and know it to be a healthy and happy one, we look at that marriage from the outside and are incredibly drawn. Couldn’t we be in a marriage like that, Lord? we think. And it’s possible that we respond to this glory of relationship in sin — by envying the individuals enjoying God’s gift of marriage.
Envy is being angry that God chose to give something to someone else that he hasn’t yet given to us (and may never give).
Are feelings of envy or jealousy ever justified in a dating relationship? How can you tell the difference between the two?
It’s important to recognize the difference between envy and jealousy. Jealousy is a protective instinct when you feel that something you have is being threatened. It’s often relational — so you’re jealous for your best friend, or jealous for your husband.
If you’re protecting something that ought to be protected, it is a righteous emotion. That’s why you see God being jealous in Scripture. He’s jealous for his people, who belong to him by right. If you were jealous for your husband’s love and fidelity, this would be a righteous emotion.
And to a degree, being jealous for your boyfriend or girlfriend could be righteous, if you are simply desiring that they keep promises to you (by not cheating, for instance). But to demand total fidelity from someone who doesn’t belong to you in that way — say a boyfriend, or a female friend — could be unrighteous jealousy.
Envy, on the other hand, is never righteous. It is a feeling of unhappiness over the good things that God gives to other people. It’s fixated on what someone else has, not what you have. And it would prefer to see no one happy than to see someone else happy when you aren’t.
How can we learn to recognize and respond to envy in long-distance relationships?
When you realize that you are envious of someone you know (such as friends of yours who live in the same city as their girlfriend/boyfriend and gets lots of time together, or of couples who are getting married and engaged sooner), one question to ask is, “What am I demanding from God right now, and what has he chosen to give me instead?”
We make demands of God when we decide that a relationship with him is not enough, and the satisfaction of walking in obedience and love is not satisfying because we have made an idol of something else. You must confess this sin to God himself and ask for help in accepting the timelines he has placed into your life.
The next question has to do with the relationship you have with the person you envy. Have you lost intimacy with them because of your bitterness? It may be that you’ll have to confess the sin of envy to them in order to clear the air and move forward in loving him or her well as a sister in Christ.
If we’re talking about jealousy — as when maybe you have feelings for a guy friend and he’s dating someone else — I don’t think telling him about it would be helpful or appropriate. It seems like talking to a trusted mentor would be a better idea.
If someone recognizes a pattern of envy in her life, what are healthy ways to process that sin and seek accountability?
I have several chapters on this at the end of my book — it’s so important to get into the habit of calling this sin out in your heart and confessing it actively as it crops up.
I am one of those people who seem prone to envy, so after I have dealt with a specific case in a specific relationship, I’ve had it crop up a few years later in another relationship. So I have to just pay attention and be vigilant.
And there are certain specific glories that I have to know are more powerful to me personally, that I’m more likely to envy in somebody. So that’s another way of watching out — thinking about the personal glories people possess and which ones are particularly attractive to you, or that you particularly wish you possessed in greater amounts. That’s where envy tends to crop up.
Then you just get into a habit of thanking God, asking him what his assignment is for you — the best thing for you to be throwing your heart and soul into right now — what does obedience look like for you in this season? And then doing it.
When you’re putting your energy into obedience, and into growing your intimacy with Christ and other people in his church, envy loses a lot of its fuel. Confession and accountability are helpful too, but you have to be discerning about who you talk to and how. This is also something I talk about in the book.