"The Spirit Lusteth to Envy"


     The title of our study, "The Spirit Lusteth to Envy" is taken from James 4: 5, the King James rendering of James 4: 5. The entire verse reads, "5: Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?" I doubt if there is a Greek scholar who would disagree with the statement that "…the spirit lusteth to envy" poses some of the most exegetical and translation challenges of any verse in James. Some of this challenge lies in two common theological tenets, what is called "original sin" and the direct, "bodily" indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There is admitted difficulty in the translation of the Greek itself. For the most part, I believe most of the difficulty comes from the influence of the two mentioned views. Some Calvinists (hereditary total depravity advocates) demand that the verse be translated as it is in the King James, "…the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?" They demand this due to their insistence that the verse affirms what they call the continued presence of original sin (the inheritance or passing down of Adam’s original sin, sinful nature, as they word it). The proponents of the direct "bodily" indwelling of the Spirit are just as adamant, some are also motivated being against the Calvinist position, that the verse must not be rendered in any way that suggests the Holy Spirit is not meant.

     A consideration of the key words. When one consults the seventy-five common English translations, they find that scholarship appears divided about fifty/fifty, some believing the Holy Spirit is meant; some are of the persuasion that the spirit of man is meant. Even some among those believing the Holy Spirit is meant have different views as to what James is saying (see addendum 1).

     The Greek word pneuma ("spirit") does not decisively contribute to the dilemma. Translations that want to, in some way, convey that the Holy Spirit is meant will capitalize "Spirit." (See addendum 2.) Context determines if the Holy Spirit or human spirit is meant in a given occurrence (the oldest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament contain only capitals). Those who believe "spirit" is man’s spirit point to verses one through four to accent the potential depravity of man and they say verse six is contextually stating that in cases of great need (sin), God supplies sufficient grace to overcome. Those of the persuasion that the Holy Spirit is meant in James 4: 5 point to the context and maintain that "spirit" (pneuma) is "Spirit" because He wants the Christian for Himself. Hence, they insist that instead of "envy" it should be "jealously" or "jealousy."

     Those who support the understanding that "spirit" is the human spirit and that, "…the spirit lusteth to envy" view the verse as stating how universally and potentially corrupt man is. They contend that "lusteth" always involves sin; hence, "spirit" must be man’s spirit. The Greek word epipotheo ("lusteth") is found nine times in the Greek New Testament and just basically suggests a strong desire (see addendum 3). This fact, however, does not necessarily provide incontrovertible support for the "Spirit" advocates, as epipotheo is a morally indifferent word, just meaning a strong desire.

     The most weighty argument that "spirit" in James 4: 5 is referring to the human spirit is seen in the object of the strong desire: envy. Phthonos ("envy") is used nine times in the Greek New Testament and always, unless James 4: 5 is the exception, phthonos is used in a sense to describe strong desire that is evil. Moreover, this word, phthonos, does not appear to be capable of meaning simply strong desire that is without sin. Consider some comments on phthonos from expositor W. E. Vine:

     "'envy,' is the feeling of displeasure produced by witnessing or hearing of the advantage or prosperity of others; this evil sense always attaches to this word, Matt. 2718; Mark 15: 10; Rom. 1: 29; Gal. 5: 21; Phili. 1: 15; I Tim. 6: 4; Tit. 3: 3; I Pet. 2: 1…."

     Hence, I do not believe such translations as follow can be correct because they actually have the Holy Spirit Himself engaging in "envy."

     "The Spirit that dwelt in you yearns to envy?" (Marshall, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament).

     I say the foregoing due to the apparent always bad use of phthonos, unless we attach the meaning that Vines goes on to provide to "…spirit lusteth to envy" in James 4: 5:

     "…so in James 4: 5, where the question is rhetorical and strongly remonstrative, signifying that the Spirit (or spirit) which God made to dwell in us was certainly not so bestowed that we should be guilty of ‘envy.’"

     Notice, though, that Vine is not entirely convinced that "spirit" is the Holy Spirit in our study verse.

     May I offer a suggestion? When there are multiple tenable understandings of a verse, the one that appears the most natural and involving the least amount of linguistic maneuvering is probably the correct view. Since I do not subscribe to the direct personal and "bodily" indwelling of the Spirit position (see addendum 4) and I do not view understanding James 4: 5 as an allusion to total depravity as a problem (see addendum 5), I take the verse to simply "ask" if there is familiarity with the scripture, probably Genesis 6: 5, as to the fact that man has the propensity to have a strong desire that involves covetousness, to the point of hate and often effecting harm on others ("envy"). Even though such explains verses one through four of James 4, still, there is ample grace to overcome envy (v. 6). Let us now return to the practical meaning of envy as used in the scriptures:

     As stated, envy is not simple covetousness, but it is emotion that resents and even hates, even often to the point of doing harm to one who has something that we want, something, I might add, to which we have no inherent or moral right. Some preachers in the First Century church, for instance, were motivated out of envy against Paul and wished him ill (Phili. 1: 15).

     Envy (phthonos) and Jealousy (zelos…) are not the same. I say this especially in view of some wanting to translate phthonos "jealousy" in James 4: 5 (God is a "jealous" God, wanting what is His, but he is not a God of "envy," cp. 2 Cor. 11: 2). Consider the following distinction between "jealousy" and "envy":

     "…en'-vi (qin'ah; zelos, phthonos): ‘Envy,’ from Latin in, ‘against,’ and video, ‘to look,’ ‘to look with ill-will,’ etc., toward another, is an evil strongly condemned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is to be distinguished from jealousy. ‘We are jealous of our own; we are envious of another man's possessions. Jealousy fears to lose what it has; envy is pained at seeing another have’" (Crabb's English Synonyms, quoted in the International Standard Bible Encyclopadia).

     "Envy" (phthonos) in the other eight occurrences of the word is always used not simply with the meaning of "strong desire," but with the idea of hurt and harm. Envy is associated with "hate," "malice," "hateful" (Tit. 3: 3). Peter used "envy" along with "guile," "hypocrisies," and "evil speakings" (I Pet. 2: 1). "Envy" is what prompted the Jews to demand Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt. 27: 18). "Envy," as seen, caused some of the preachers in the early church to desire harm to Paul (Phili. 1: 15-17). One commentator wrote thus of "envy" in James 4: 5:

     "…The idea is, that there is in man a strong inclination to look with dissatisfaction on the superior happiness and prosperity of others; to desire to make what they possess our own; or at any rate to deprive them of it by detraction, by fraud, or by robbery. It is this feeling which leads to calumny, to contentions, to wars, and to that strong worldly ambition which makes us anxious to surpass all others, and which is so hostile to the humble and contented spirit of religion. He who could trace all wars and contentions and worldly plans to their source--all the schemes and purposes of even professed Christians, that do so much to mar their religion and to make them worldly-minded, to their real origins would be surprised to find how much is to be attributed to envy. We are pained that others are more prosperous than we are; we desire to possess what others have, though we have no right to it; and this leads to the various guilty methods which are pursued to lessen their enjoyment of it, or to obtain it ourselves, or to show that they do not possess as much as they are commonly supposed to…." (Albert Barnes on James 4: 5).

     It is, indeed, hard to imagine this word, phthonos, that is so strongly used in the New Testament not just of sinful action, but action that is so harmful toward others as being a word and action that is ascribed to the Holy Spirit.

     In conclusion, I consider "…the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy" as meaning that man can be basically disposed to evil and that without the help of God, he will likely possess and manifest such evil as to hate and want to harm others whom he views as superior, either in material possessions or in talents as the most natural and plausible understanding of James 4: 5. Such sinful strong emotion (phthonos) will also include a list of other sins; hence, the reason why phthonos is presented as associated with so many terrible acts and conditions. I am convinced that what we call "envy" is behind too much of common motivation. Envy is frequently the reason we think, say, and act out much of what we do. Envy is so deep rooted that it is said to be, "…the rottenness of the bones" (Prov. 14: 30, I view this statement as in many ways tantamount to James 4: 5). Envy when compared to anger and wrath is so terrible that the question is raised, "…who is able to stand before envy?" (Prov. 27: 4). Notwithstanding how common and terrible envy is, envy can and must be controlled (I Pet. 2: 1). God’s grace can and will lift us out of this sinful slime and will produce us free of such degrading and harmful sins. It is only when we are free of envy that we are able to, "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep" (Rom. 12: 15 cp. I Cor. 13: 4). (Due to the circumstance of misunderstanding points made in the foregoing article, I shall include a question and answer section, see below the addendums.)

     Addendum 1: "Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain" is not of much help. This is because while the singular "scripture" usually means in the vocabulary of the Bible a specific verse, in this case there is not a single verse that says, "…the spirit that dwells in us lusteth to envy." (Some believe Genesis 6: 5 is meant, which would agree with the proponents of the human spirit is meant.)

     Addendum 2: Some translations that attempt to convey the view that the Holy Spirit is meant provide a translation similar to the following: New King James Version – "Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, "The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously"? Notice the upper case "S" for spirit and "jealously" for "envy.

     Addendum 3: Many translators follow the rule that if a word meaning strong desire is used in what they view as a sinful circumstance, they render the word "lust." Still, there remains some concern that if James wanted to refer to the human spirit, why did he not use a Greek word such as epithumia ("lust")? This word is used 38 times and in all but three instances, means strong desire in a bad and sinful sense (context so determines). In fact, in James chapter one, epithumia is used twice in clearly referencing strong desire that is sinful. Such is not conclusive proof, though, for or against the strong desire (epipotheo) in James 4: 5 being either sinful or good.

     Addendum 4: The view of the Spirit simultaneously and bodily indwelling all Christians is more a product of Pantheism than the scriptures. The Spirit exerts His influence through and in the word and thus potentially the same on all (Eph. 5: 18, cp. Col. 3: 16).

     Addendum 5: The scriptures absolutely teach the possibility and, in some cases, the reality of total depravity. For instance, one can "live in envy" (Tit. 3: 3) and be "full of envy" (Rom. 1: 29). The question, though, is when does this depravity begin? The Calvinistic view of inheriting Adam’s sinful nature, etc. is not taught in the scriptures (cp. Matt. 18: 3-6). On a simple level, there is a serious difference between "hereditary total depravity" and potential "total depravity."

     Addendum 6: Some have tried to explain phthonos in James 4: 5 as to assign to it its bad meaning by insisting that James 4: 5 be translated: "The Spirit that dwells in us longs against envy." However, there is no authority whatsoever for rendering pros ("to," "to envy") "against." Others have sought to provide different meaning, a positive meaning, to James 4: 5 by insisting that the statement is only rhetorical and that James is saying, "Do you think that the Holy Spirit in you lusts to envy?," the understood answer being, "no." (This appears to have been the understanding of Marshall in the Interlinear Greek-English New Testament.) While this explanation has some tenability, it does seem to require more effort to harmonize than the view that "spirit" in James 4: 5 is the human spirit and that "envy" is just that, a strong desire that is essentially contrary to love of others (cp. Rom. 12: 13).

Questions and Answers


     Question:  Do you think that the view "The Holy Spirit is meant and that the attendant question is simply ‘do you think the Spirit is prompting such sinful actions on your part?’ is an impossible or contrary to what is in general taught in the Bible?

     Answer: No, I do not consider the view as "impossible" or incongruous with what is elsewhere taught. As mention, though, I do consider the view set forth in my conclusion as the one having fewer problems.

     Question: Do you think that the spirit God placed in man at creation was corrupt; hence, the lusting to envy?

     Answer: Man’s spirit or soul is, indeed, from God (Eccl. 12: 7). Man remains "created in the image and likeness of God" (Gen. 1: 26). Hence, at birth one enters into the world in a state of purity (cp. Matt. 18: 3). There are certain impossibilities with God; one is tempting man with evil (Jas. 1: 13). It would be totally ridiculous to imagine God placing in man a spirit designed and programmed to do evil and then holding man responsible for his actions.

     Question: How can you harmonize your belief that the spirit God placed in man was and is pure and yet "lusts to envy"?

     Answer: The spirit of man is at birth pure and innocent, but at some point it (man) "goes astray" (Ps. 58: 3). Psalms 58: 3 mentions that they go astray "as soon as they are born, speaking lies." It is obvious that while the verse is meant to be understood as stressing that in the considered case there was early departure from God, there is also the element of hyperbole (I say this because those departing are described as "speaking").

     Question: In view of your "born innocent" view, just how do you explain "spirit lusts to envy" view?

     Answer: Rather than sin being inherited, it is committed (cp. I John 3: 8-10, Ezek. 18: 10). This commission of sin is a responsible choice that one makes, one who possesses the basic understanding of right and wrong (cp. Isa. 7: 15, 16). When one thus chooses evil, one is "walking in the flesh" (Rom. 8: 4-11; Gal. 5: 16-21). It is in this circumstance of "living in the flesh" that the spirit of man becomes corrupt and "lusteth to envy" (see the described activity of James 4: 1-4 leading up to and prompting the statement in verse 5).

     Question: The two views that you mentioned as influencing how some understand James 4: 5, do you view them as implausible?

     Answer: While there may not be the total one hundred percent certainty as to the exact meaning of "spirit lusteth to envy" in James 4: 5, I do believe the doctrines of hereditary total depravity and the bodily indwelling of the Spirit in all Christians as implausible, to say the least.

     Question: Since you have the understanding of "spirit lusteth to envy" that you do, do you then believe that all people go around envying and attempting to harm others?

     Answer: In the first place, we are discussing people who have rejected God’s influence. I do believe, to be plain, that most people who have chosen a life of sin are inclined to envy. Hence, rather that appreciating relative quality in others, they resent it. If my understanding of James 4: 5 is correct, then this would be the application of James 4: 5. Such a view can help us to understand people’s actions toward others and, even, toward us at times.

     Question: Since you mentioned Philippians 1: 15-18 as an example of envy, do you really think that there are preachers in the church who "walk after the flesh"?

     Answer: Again, allow me to be plain. First, one way to test a position is by applying it and determining if the consistent and even requisite applications are congruous with truth. Hence, the question is valid and a good one. My answer is, yes, I do believe that preachers in the church today who are motivated out of envy are walking in the flesh. In fact, some of the most debased descriptions found in the New testament are regarding preachers in the church, corrupt men, I might add (cp. 2 Pet. 2; Jude).

     Question: Would you make it a matter of fellowship or exclude those who believe "lusteth to envy" is simply asking the question if they, James’ readers, believed that the Holy Spirit prompted them to envy?

     Answer: As mentioned, I do considered the just mentioned view as possibly what James is saying. Such a view is certainly presented in general elsewhere in scripture (cp. Eph. 4: 20, 22).

     Question: If you can thus tolerate others who differ with you over perceived New Testament teaching in the matter of the immediately preceding question, why cannot you exercise tolerance in other matters?

     Answer: I believe I do exercise tolerance in matters such as being discussed relative to plausible views of the meaning of "spirit lusteth to envy." Again, we are not discussing views that are absolutely contradictory to scripture (compare 2 John 9-11).

     Question: Do you consider translations that render James 4: 5 in a way to favor other views that differ from your view to be spurious or flawed and not useable in general?

     Answer: An absolutely flawless translation does not exist. However, James 4: 5 is an instance where honest and capable translators can be wrong without having any prejudice or intention to mislead.