The Sin of Envy
Job 5:2; Ps. 73:103; Prov. 27:4; Ro. 1:29;
Gal. 5:19-21, 26; Titus 3:3;James 3:14-16; I Peter 2:1.
Because of envy, the greatest crime in all of history was committed. There was a man who was good, very good. But there were some religious leaders who didn’t like goodness. So a plan was carefully laid to do away with this good person. And on Good Friday he was crucified. Read Matt. 27;18 and Mark 15:10. “Pilate knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.”
Envy was one of the precipitating causes of that great sin. But why were they envious? “He taught with authority, and not as the scribes,” “The common people heard him gladly.” Or as Dorothy Sayers says, taking a line from Shakespeare, “He had a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly.” What does she mean? See a group of girls sitting down together, and then a beautiful woman enters the room, and suddenly all the them feel rather ordinary. We see it on a school campus: the students think themselves quite smart; then along comes a student who is brilliant, and he shows us for what we are, rather ordinary. On the racquetball court, I used to feel rather good about my game because I played with men in my own league. Then one day I played a stranger, who beats me 21 to 2, and his excellence shows me to be a very poor player.
The scribes and Pharisees suffered that problem. His daily beauty made them ugly, and envy retaliated and killed the Son of God.
But that was not the first time that envy had arisen. Eve envied God his knowledge. Cain envied Abel his offering. Joseph’s brothers envied him the preferential treatment by his father. Sarah envied Hagar, Rachel envied Leah, Aaron & Miriam envied Moses. Saul envied David who had killed his 10,000’s. Haman envied Mordecai. And envy led in each of these cases to violence. And all the way through sacred and secular history, the monster envy has left its mark. And it is a killer (Job 5:2. Proverbs 14:30)
What does envy look like? “In the arena Chapel in Padua the pioneer of fresco painting, Giotto, has painted the 7 deadly sins. Envy is a person who has long wide ears to catch every breath of rumour that may hurt a neighbour’s reputation. Out of the mouth issues a serpent’s tongue, swift to poison all things good. But the serpent coils back on itself and stings the eye of the envious one to blindness; and the figure stands in flames, representing the fierce fire that consumes the heart that takes pleasure in other’s injuries and is made bitter by their prosperity.”
When Dante writes of Purgatory’s 2nd ledge, he wrote of those there who had been stained with envy. They were seated around the walls leaning on each other; they were all blind, with their eyelids closed with wire sutures. They in life had been blind to virtue and cared only to see the failures in others. Now they were blind until they were cleansed of envy. When Dante speaks to one of them, the man confesses “I was far more glad of other’s harm than of my own good fortunes.”
Edmund Spencer tells the story of 2 men who dwelt in a certain city–one very envious, and the other very covetous. The ruler of the city sent for them, promised them that whatever they desired would be given to them, on the condition that he who asked first should have what he asked, and the other should have the same, doubled. The envious man would not ask first because he did not want anyone to have what he could not have. The covetous man would not because he wanted more than the other. But finally the envious man conceded to go first. He desired that one of his eyes might be plucked out, so that his companion might lose both of his.
– Envy will cut off its own nose to spite its face.
– Envy will allow no one to be more highly thought of than himself.
– When people covet they want what their neighbour has. But when people envy they do not want what their neighbour has, so much as they do not want the neighbour to have it. We see that in young children who see another child with a toy. They will try their utmost to get the toy, and once having it, they don’t want it. But they cannot bear to see someone else with something they don’t have.
If I can’t have it, no one can have it.
Envy Rejoices with those who grieve, and grieves over those who rejoice. Who are the offspring of envy? Backbiting, slander, smirking, false accusation, and spitefulness.
Envy in Our World
Note our attitude towards famous people. We read of their great exploits or achievements. We listen, and then we say “Yes… but…” The “Yes… But…” syndrome is prevalent in our world. We love to discover some scandal about great people. That happens in politics continually.
There are those who make it their life long task to peddle smut about people. They are the debunkers. Dorothy L. Sayers says, “Great artists are debunked by disclosures of their private weakness, great statesmen are debunked by attributing wrong motives to them, or presuming the real work was done by others under them.” Patriotism is debunked as jingoism; learning is debunked by saying “Ivory Tower.” Age is debunked by youth by epithets like “senile”, “decrepit”, and “over the hill”, while youth is debunked by age as “naive”, “immature”, or “time will tell.”
We are living in an age where there can be no more heroes allowed us. Every world leader, every institution, and every activity is weighed and found wanting. It bothers me to read some writers on John Wesley, for instance. Here was a man who was a great renewer of the church. He left behind him in his wake great good. He was a genius. But he cannot be allowed to go through our midst unscathed. We hunt through his life until we find that his wife and he had constant marital strife. That juicy morsel is leaped upon with relish and published for the world to know. Wesley wasn’t so great. He was just like us.
We love to tell of Calvin’s mistreatment of Servetus, or Spurgeon with his apparent gluttony, or Martin Luther and his coarse language, and then conclude that they are no better than we are. We all have our Achilles’ heel, we cry with unholy glee! But what kind of myopia is it that looks only to see the flaws?
Go with me to an art gallery with a person of envy. We see a great artist’s work displayed. We move past scene after scene. We leave with a sense of renewed love for beauty. We ask the envious one what he thought. “It was very good…but did you notice that one canvas…” and then the rest of the conversation is consumed with detailed autopsy of the one painting that may have had a flaw.
Or go to a symphony. and the evening is filled with majestic sound. You leave with heart expanded. You ask your companion for her reaction. “Very good…but did you hear that cello in the 3rd Movement….” Envy cannot stand success, and if he cannot be the best, then no one is allowed to be considered good.
Envy in the Church
As I have said already, these 7 sins were seen most clearly in the monastery. And that was particularly true of envy.
One Monk might be envious of another’s goodness and presume that it was only apparent goodness. Or if that monk was that good it was for false reasons. Other monks were envious of another’s preference. When a brother was made abbot, envy made its rounds of the cells. Other monks were envious of another’s giftedness in art or study, and found themselves wearing the green instead of the brown.
But it is also true that envy has found lodging within the church of our own day. We see it in denominational realms. We see a growing movement like the Pentecostals, and we have to concede it’s true, but…”they work on the emotions of people”, or “they are sheep stealers”, and we debunk them and refuse to learn from their strengths. We have hid behind our sacred walls and discount their growth by insisting we would rather have quality than quantity.
It also takes place between local churches within the same denomination. One congregation can say about another rapidly growing church, “yes…but they are in a great location. It would be a miracle if they didn’t grow.” Or “sure they are growing, but anyone can increase numbers with that kind of appeal.” If we cannot accuse the growing church of any specific wrong doing or weakness, we can leave behind us suspicions as to a problem they might be having or we forecast an end to that growth ahead “sure they are growing…but time will tell if it is healthy growth.”
Envy also lies in individuals within the local church. The layman who is an obvious leader in his local church is accused of “bulldozing business through” or “there is a clique in the church that gets its own way”, when the truth is that these are the ones willing to do the work of the church. Or the pastor sees a young person who may be a possible ministerial candidate, and so spends considerable time with the young man, and he gets the reputation of “playing favourites!”
Envy can creep into any church, any heart, and cause great damage. When the cause of Christ was just getting off the ground, the religious leaders of Judaism tried to stir envy in John the Baptist (John 3:25-30). His gracious response was “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Had John yielded to the temptations to envy, the Kingdom of God would have greatly suffered. Envy is a sin that kills more of us than we dream. Envy divides the body against itself.
The cause & the Cure of envy
Sometimes the roots of envy lie in our psychological development. Like anger, it rises to the defence of a wounded ego. When I suffer from a low self-image, I presume that when others succeed, it makes me look even more inadequate. The envious person is always comparing oneself with others, coming out the loser each time.
But sometimes the stimulation of envy lies in our sociological development Our culture often reinforces our temptation to envy. From early childhood we are encouraged to play competitive sports, reinforcing an “us versus-them” mindset. As we enter vocational life we see advertised “the teacher / employee of the month”, we watch beauty pageants with one person rated more beautiful than the others, and see annual rounds of acting and music awards, we watch daily versions of “Jeopardy”, we also watch reality TV where people compete against each other, and we identify with our sports team and dis the other teams. The “best” makes the rest of us look average or less than average. Besides all of those competitions
the ads on TV keep on insisting we are “not good enough” so try our product, whiten your teeth, lose weight, buy our car, and you too can be among the best, and then we will approve of you. All of this reinforces our succumbing to the temptations to avarice, anger and envy.
So where does the cure for envy lie?
When we are loved, even by a single person, that can do remarkable things for any of us. We know ourselves as loved, not merely as an act of charity, but loved because we are actually loveable. Someone sees great value in me! They want to spend time with me! I am cherished! That was the jubilance of the writer of the fourth gospel. He describes himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – not as the disciple who loved Jesus.
It is said of Oliver Cromwell who was about to be painted by Sir Peter Lely, court painter to British monarchs, “Paint me as I am, warts and all!” It is wonderful to be loved by someone, who may be aware of our failings, but is not blind to our virtues.
And if truth be told, when we are told that “God loves us”, “our family loves us”, and “the church loves us”, if we think for a moment that it is because they are commanded to love everyone, or they feel sorry for us and have compassion for us, it will makes us feel even worse about ourselves: “A face that only a mother could love!” But if we understand and accept that they actually love us, actually like us, and actually enjoy our presence, then we are on the way to defeating the envy that would consume us.
Shakespeare calls envy “The green sickness” but if it is an illness, then there is a cure for it. And if all sins are in part a sicknesses of the soul, then God offers not only forgiveness for the crime but a cure for the illness that causes us such self-loathing. More about this in the final chapter.