Envy has been called the nastiest, ugliest, meanest, most grim of the seven deadly sins. Have you ever know a person to confess envy? We talk about our pride, our laziness, our anger, even our lust, greed, and gluttony, but who is willing to admit they are envious?
While envy may be the sin no one confesses, it is the sin of which most of us are guilty. Let’s test it at an elementary level: making comparisons. Comparing ourselves to others and desiring what they have or wanting to be who they are is the heart of envy. How many of us do this:
Oh, I wish I were as smart as she.
Why can’t I be as athletic as he?
If only I had her connections.
He’s had all the lucky breaks!
What else can we add to the list? These verbalizations are common and seem so innocent. But we only have to scratch a bit beneath the surface to identify the symptom of a larger problem.
Maybe this will help: What is the purpose of comparison? What are we really doing when we compare ourselves with others? If we are gathering interesting information, that’s one thing. But if the real issue is comparing ourselves to others because we question our own inadequacy, then we have located the real problem.
The built-in punishment of envy is that there is no gratification in it. Envy’s appetites never cease. One of my favorite unorthodox clergy authors, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way: Envy is the consuming desire to have everybody as unsuccessful as you are. It always sees and desires what it doesn’t have. Its punishment is that it will never have what it sees and desires because there will always be more to see than to possess.
What about the phrase the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? The connection is there in plain sight. What is out there, or over there, or beyond what we have is what we want. We envy it.
There are some common symptoms of envy that will help us identify its presence. Malice is one. Envy chips away at the reputation of another by innuendo and half-truth. In one breath praising, in another damning, always underscoring the defects of another by veiling it with a compliment. “He’s a marvelous speaker, charming, loves the limelight, would be wonderful to have a conversation with if he didn’t talk all the time.”
Another symptom of envy is jealousy. Most commonly, envy is a sin among equals. Doctors are more likely to be jealous of a surgeon than a poet. An auto mechanic isn’t actually jealous of a carpenter. A clear example of jealousy in the Bible, and there are many, is the Old Testament story of King Saul. Here is a part of the story:
David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army. And all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved.
As they were coming home, when David returned from killing the Philistine, 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. And the women sang to one another as they made merry,
‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.’
Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him. He said, ‘They have ascribed to David tens of thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?’ So Saul eyed David from that day on (I Samuel 18:5-9).
So Saul eyed David from that day on. Isn’t that a telling sentence? He wasn’t jealous of the many gifts of David, but because of David’s accomplishments as a warrior. This is where Saul was threatened. Saul’s envy grew, his eye became so evil, he sought to kill David.
Another symptom of envy is defection. Basically envy is sorrow for another’s good. But it can also cause us to be sorrowful over our own lack of good: The blessing and popularity of a friend may cause us to be depressed. The good looks, intellect, or athletic ability of a brother or sister may bring dejection is us. The brilliance and success of a colleague may cause us to question ourselves and produce in us a sense of failure.
Hypocrisy is another symptom. We pretend happiness and joy when good things happen to others and don’t happen to us, but it is only a pretension.
The final symptom, perhaps an accumulation of all the rest, is lovelessness. Though envy begins with self-love, wanting something for self, the envious person ends up not loving themselves. This lack of loving oneself goes beyond dejection to self-contempt. When we are burdened with self-contempt, we have no desire or energy to love another person.
I’m sure most have seen The Wizard of Oz. The wicked witch of the West gets crushed by Dorothy’s house and so Dorothy ends up with the ruby slippers. Remember who wants the ruby slippers and what happens?
At the root of envy is a terrible sense of inadequacy and inferiority; otherwise known as a damaged self-esteem. Rather than take personal responsibility for our lives and the opportunities we have for healing and wholeness, we would rather blame others and allow envy to fester and grow.
Jesus tells a story:
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last’ (Matthew 20:1-16).
This is an unsettling story. It certainly doesn’t make economic sense and it violates a common sense of fairness. Jesus didn’t stutter, nor was he hesitant in confronting the grumblers with their sin. His question was a probing one: Are you envious because I am generous?
Envy is calculating; love and mercy aren’t. No injustice was done. Everyone was paid what they were promised.
Envy refuses to recognize God’s goodness to us. The landowner was good to the workers and paid them well for their labor. Yet, when they saw the good fortune of those who received as much for working less, their envy blinded them.
I think there are two powerful antidotes to envy. First, acknowledge God’s love, grace, and goodness for us. God will always do God’s part. God will always be loving, gracious, accepting, and forgiving.
We must do our part: check our attitude! If we think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, it is probably because we are not properly caring for the grass on our own side! If we care for and appreciate the possibilities in what we have, we cease to envy what others have.
We all know that things aren’t always what they seem. What on the surface appears to be very desirable may actually be something that brings great suffering and anguish. Conversely, circumstances that initially seem to be difficult or unfavorable may prove to be very rewarding. Stumbling blocks or stepping stones. Obstacles or opportunities.
Two men looking out of their prison cells; one saw bars, the other saw stars.
May we look beyond the piercing, confining, deadly bars of envy and see the gracious, freeing hope of God’s love, grace, and acceptance for who we are!