Envy goes beyond mere desire to resentment. When I’m envious, I don’t just wish I had something that another person has. I wish that I had it and they didn’t.
According to Christian tradition – the received wisdom and experience of many centuries of Christian thought and practice – there are seven deadly, or especially destructive sins. Pride as we saw in the last program is the foremost among them. The remaining six could be divided into two groups. Three of them are sins of appetite or desire. These are anger, gluttony and lust. Think of them as the passionate, warm-blooded sins. The other three are cold-blooded and calculating, sins of the spirit: envy, sloth and greed.
Another difference between the two groups is that the passionate sins tend to be embarrassing. If a person is given to overindulgence of the flesh or to terrible fits of rage, everyone recognizes that as reprehensible. But the cold-hearted sins often disguise themselves as virtues. For pride poses as healthy self-esteem, sloth pretends to be humility or laid-back tolerance; greed presents itself to the world as enterprising productivity. And envy, our sin for today, pretends that it is simply a sincere desire for justice and equality.
WHAT ENVY IS
Let’s begin by asking what exactly is envy. I would define it this way. Envy is resentment of someone else’s good. The sin of envy is more than the simple desire to have what another person possesses. All of us have looked at somebody at one time or another and said, “Boy, I wish I was like that” or “I wish I could do that.” This feeling in and of itself is not envy; it’s simple desire. It may not be especially virtuous to feel that way but such normal comparisons do not constitute the sin of envy. No, envy goes beyond mere desire to resentment. When I am envious I don’t just wish I had something that another person has. I wish that I had it and they didn’t.
Dorothy Sayers, a very wise Christian writer of the last generation, describes it this way: “Envy,” she says,
“begins by asking plausibly, ‘Why should I not enjoy what others enjoy?’ And it ends by demanding, ‘Why should others enjoy what I may not?’ Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level things up, it will level them down, and the words constantly in its mouth are, my rights and my wrongs. At its best envy is a climber and a snob. At its worst it is a destroyer. Rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us miserable together.”
That’s envy according to Dorothy Sayers. And here’s a good example of it in a story from the Bible. Saul was the first king of Israel. David was the young man who became famous for killing the giant Goliath. Saul took David into his household, making him a military commander, and David began to serve Saul with great success. Then one day as they rode home from the wars together, the crowds came out to sing their praises. The Bible says that:
. . . the women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. 7 And the women sang to one another as they made merry,
“Saul has killed his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.”
8 Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?” 9 So Saul eyed David from that day on.
1 Samuel 18:6-9, NRSV
Notice Saul’s reaction to the fact that the people praised David more highly than him. He became angry, and, in the telling biblical phrase, he “began to eye David,” looking for an opportunity to eliminate him. Even though the whole kingdom, not least of all Saul himself, benefitted greatly from David’s military successes, Saul resented them bitterly because the worm of envy had entered his soul.
You see, there is nothing positive about envy, nothing constructive. The other deadly sins have at least this about them: they may bring some momentary pleasure. It’s a misleading pleasure and it soon turns to ashes in your mouth, but at least for a brief moment you get the taste of something enjoyable. But envy gives you nothing. It’s completely negative. All that envy wants is to destroy your neighbor’s happiness. You know the old saying, “Misery loves company.” Well, envy is that principle put into action. Envy is the attempt of the miserable to increase their company.
WHAT ENVY PRODUCES
The second thing to observe about envy is what it leads to. Listen to the sequel of the story of King Saul’s envy of young David.
10 The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; 11 and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.
Picture the scene. As David is playing music to soothe the brooding king, Saul grabs his javelin and jumps up twice to try to kill David. You see here the illustration of a basic principle: envy always prompts an attack upon its object. Envy is a destroyer. It seeks to kill, if not physically and literally, then at least to kill another’s reputation and happiness. Envy is a sin that always triggers cruelty. Notice how these deadly sins are so often intertwined, how one leads to another in a sequence of progressive devastation. Saul’s pride was punctured by the adulation David received. This wounded vanity in turn aroused anger and then triggered envy within him, and finally in a murderous rage he tries to kill him.
Envy is not a harmless sin. Its chief victim is ourselves. But it also leads to all sorts of destruction in relationships. Envy is toxic; it poisons its host and eats away at families and friendships. Recently someone told me the story of two brothers. One of them won millions of dollars in a state lottery. The sudden wealth ruined the man’s life, of course. It usually does that. He went on an orgy of buying, a riot of self-indulgence, and he ended up losing his friends and ruining his health. But what I found really interesting about this story is what happened to the other man, the brother of the lottery winner. This man became so envious of his brother’s wealth that he couldn’t stand to live near him any longer, so he sold everything he had and moved far away from all family and friends. Envy truly is destructive, and the first thing it destroys is our own happiness.
But it doesn’t stop there. Envy is the sin that lies behind much of the gossip and slander that blights human community. Have you noticed how, as soon as someone excels in any way, the verbal knives are brought out and sharpened to cut that person down to size? Envy can’t bear the thought that someone else might actually deserve respect or praise. When I am envious, I can’t stand to think that another person might actually be better than I am, and that’s why they’ve gotten ahead of me. So envy tears down reputations; envy sneers, scoffs, spreads dirt, tells tales, passes on rumors. Envy likes to chop people down to size. Envy – the cruel sin.
What a relief it is to turn away from envy for a few moments and consider its opposite, the virtue of contentment. For Christians, contentment is not simply getting to the point where you are so detached from life that you don’t really care about what anyone else has. Contentment is more even than just being satisfied with what you are and what you have. For believers, contentment has a more positive element. I think I would define Christian contentment this way: it is the ability to rejoice in the wisdom and goodness of God’s rule over our lives and God’s provision for us. Christians believe that for those who love God, all things work together for good (Romans 8:28). So if you and I love him, we have to believe that God will always be working for our best interests. In all the circumstances of our lives we will strive to be trusting and thankful instead of resentful and envious. I love this quote from the 19th century writer George Mac Donald, who despite a constant struggle with poverty managed to live a Christ-like life full of joy and peace:
“Let me, if I may, be ever welcomed to my room in winter by a glowing hearth, in summer by a vase of flowers; if I may not, let me think how nice they would be, and bury myself in my work. I do not think that the road to contentment lies in despising what we have not got. Let us acknowledge all good, all delight that the world holds, and still be content without it.”
Christian contentment is something we can practice and develop. It can be acquired as a spiritual discipline. The apostle Paul said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). So here are some practical lessons which can help us grow the virtue of contentment in our lives.
First, if you want to be content, then learn to hold your tongue. Criticizing others and complaining about one’s own circumstances – even about little things like the weather – will destroy the possibility of contentment. A person who complains is a person who is dissatisfied, and a person who is dissatisfied very quickly becomes one who is envious of others. So stop complaining! Learn to express praise and gratitude instead.
Second, stop fantasizing. We often enjoy daydreaming about a world in which everything goes our way and everyone looks up to us (a world, for instance, where I might be the most famous and admired Christian preacher in the country – just to take a random example!). When we compare that to the real world where things may not go our way and where we’re not always successful, we find it very easy to become resentful toward those who have found the success we desire. And again, envy grows and contentment shrivels. So stop fantasizing.
Third, stop comparing. The problem with envy is that it can’t accept what is God-given. It can’t recognize that we are not all equal, that God has given each of us different gifts and advantages, and that our lives are going to be both qualitatively and quantitatively different as a result. Envy is blind to these fundamental differences. Envy says, “I’m just as good-looking as she is. I’m just as smart and talented as he. The only reason they’re more successful is that they were luckier . . . or because they knew the right person . . . or because they cheated. It isn’t fair!” But contentment accepts the fact that God has made us different, and has given us different opportunities and responsibilities as well. What I must do is stop comparing myself to somebody else and concentrate instead upon where God has placed me and the opportunities and advantages God has given me.
Four negative things then: Stop criticizing. Stop complaining. Stop fantasizing. Stop comparing.
And then a positive: Start rejoicing in the goodness of God. Learn how to be glad. Practice thankfulness for all the things God has given you, all the things he has done for you. Instead of resenting the gifts he’s given to somebody else, why not give thanks for all the good things you have received? And then begin to develop those gifts. Use them for the benefit of others. That’s the way to contentment. You know, it’s interesting, humility requires us to look away from ourselves and concentrate on the need of others, in other words, to focus outward. Contentment demands that we not focus on the possessions and abilities of others but on our own gifts, to look inward – and upward, to the goodness of God to us.
So don’t let envy poison your spirit and destroy your peace. Practice contentment instead. Life will be a lot happier if we can learn that lesson.