Why Envy Made the List

August 26, 2018
James 3:13-18
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

I was recently scrolling through the web looking for a reference when, as so often happens, an article about something entirely different caught my eye.  I don’t now remember what my original search was about because I abandoned it and instead read the article which was titled, “Can Envy Be Good for You?” 1   Envy, of course, is one of vices that we learn as Christians is among the seven deadly sins so I was intrigued to see what arguments a person might make on its behalf.  The author of the article, Maria Konnikova, is a science and psychology writer for the New Yorker and in this particular column, she looked at recent research psychologists have been doing on the effects of envy and their conclusion that envy is not as bad for us as we thought. In fact, she reported, some psychologists now say that envy can be downright good for you when taken in the right situations and at the correct dosage.  Think for a second about the kinds of things that normally cause you envy: maybe you are out huffing and puffing feeling virtuous about forcing yourself to jog a mile before work when a lean college student races by leaving you in their dust without breaking a sweat.  You envy their youth and fitness.   Or you hear about a fellow colleague receiving accolades for an amazing breakthrough in her research while you struggle to get published.   You envy her success.  Or you finally master “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on your mandolin only to come to church and hear a 6th grader burn up her violin with a stunning rendition of a Bach Concerto (not mentioning any names).  Now, some of you listening to that sixth grader on the violin or watching that college student race down the road might feel not envy, but admiration because you yourself don’t play an instrument or you have no desire to run anywhere other than to the ice cream truck.  Admiration and envy are not the same thing and should not be confused.  We admire successful talented people who are successful and talented in areas to which do not aspire but we envy those who excel in a skill or have success in an area we desire for ourselves.  We wish for their level of mastery and feel keenly aware of our mediocrity compared to their excellence, and so we envy them because we desire to stand side by side with them, or even to surpass them.  We might admire a nobel laureate whose brain power is beyond our imagination but we envy the success of our colleagues or our peers because it is easy for us to conceive of ourselves in their place.  

The psychologists who studied envy said that it is exactly this ability to imagine ourselves experiencing the success someone else has experienced that ultimately can make envy a useful feeling. Envy, they said, can clarify your thinking, spur competition, drive you, inspire you, and motivate you, and thus increase your own chances for success and happiness.  So, stop feeling guilty about that green-eyed monster devouring your heart in envy; let it eat you up because it’ll ultimately make you a better person!

OK, I’m overstating the researchers’ claims a bit because they do admit that malicious envy can be destructive; nevertheless, they clearly argue that envy has its good side and that we should consider rehabilitating envy and accept a dose of it as beneficial to our pursuit of a better life.  

Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about this article since I read it, because its conclusion leaves me uncomfortable.  I wasn’t sure I was ready to hop on board with the new reformed view of envy and it felt like the psychologists were missing something that needed to be considered before we all added envy to our daily motivational mantras.  

What do you think about envy?  What causes you envy or has caused you to feel envy at some point in your life and what was the result of your envy?  What did the envy do or what is it doing right now to your sense of your self, to your relationships, to your outlook on life?  Do you think that in the end, envy has been a positive force in your life or has it more often been corrosive and something you would be better off eradicating from your heart?  If envy can be a good thing, why has it our faith been so clear in denouncing it?

While I enjoy “The New Yorker,” I don’t consider it a spiritual authority, so I decided to begin my investigation into envy by looking at why it is considered by the church to be one of the seven deadly sins.  I grew up in a progressive American Baptist church during the seventies which I call the “I’m OK, you’re OK” decade so I didn’t hear much about sin at all from our pulpit when I was growing up let alone the enumeration of seven particularly deadly sins, so for this sermon, I had to turn to Catholic sources to learn the history of envy’s place on the list of the seven deadly sins. 

The list of seven deadly sins is not found in the Bible; it was constructed by the early church as a way of flagging behaviors that were especially dangerous to the believer.  These deadly sins, the church said, were pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, and were different from ordinary sins because they are what you might call “gateway” sins; sins that open the door to other sins making it more likely that the sinner engaging in them will spiral into complete moral depravity.  Although the church began enumerating the worst and deadliest sins for its parishioners as early as the 300s, envy was actually late to the party.  Envy didn’t appear on the list of mortal sins until 590 when Pope Gregory I finalized the list at seven and included envy.  The delay in designating envy as a mortal sin indicates that like today’s psychologists, some church leaders may have wondered if envy was always bad for you or if it could really be considered as dangerous as, say, pride which seemed to be on the list from the start. Nevertheless, envy made the final cut because no matter what our ambivalent feelings may be toward it, the Bible is replete with examples of the dangers of envy.  We aren’t even out of the book of Genesis before we see Cain murder Abel because of Cain’s envy over the praise Abel receives for his offering, and Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers because they are envious of his multi-colored coat and the favor of their father Jacob.  And remember what happened when David envied Uriah’s wife Bathsheba?  David sent Uriah to the front lines of a war to ensure his death so that David could have Bathsheba for himself, a sin that cost not only Uriah’s life but ultimately the life of David’s own son.  And then there is the story of poor Naboth.  King Ahab envied Naboth’s vineyards, and his envy devoured his heart to such a degree that the king couldn’t even work or eat but lay in his bedroom sulking.  Queen Jezebel, fed up with her husband’s morose mood, arranged for Naboth’s murder so that Ahab could claim the vineyard for himself.  In spite of the arguments of today’s psychologists, the Bible warns us that envy never results in anything good.  And maybe its because the Bible is more realistic about our inability as human beings to use our envy for the improvement of ourselves instead of the destruction of others.  The book of James warns that where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind, because envy, James says, is unwilling to yield oneself to others.  Envy turns the world into a pyramid to be climbed in which each successive level can hold fewer and fewer people and the only way for you to reach the top is to push other people off.  As the quote in the bulletin says, “Envy is a littleness of soul, which cannot see beyond a certain point, and if it does not occupy the whole space, feels itself excluded.” 2   The psychologists, of course, are right:  envy doesn’t have to view the world in that way.  Envy of another person’s success could lead us only to push ourselves harder instead of pushing the others out of the way, but the Bible is skeptical about our ability to maintain harmony and peace with others even while we compete to get what they have and become who they are.  The Bible records over 4000 years of human history showing that it is the rare human heart that can be so magnanimous.

Sam Polk knows first hand the dangers of envy.  In his book, For the Love of Money, he recounts his days as a hedge fund manager on Wall Street.  As a 22 year old, he said, he was enamored with the lifestyle of the wealthy and thrilled to receive a $40,000 bonus his first year of work.  By the time he was 30, he was receiving annual bonuses in the millions, but his satisfaction with the bonuses had dwindled.  After a mere 8 years, those million dollar bonuses didn’t feel like enough to him because there was always someone else making more to incite his envy.  He writes, “[As I began to come face to face with my own addiction to money,] I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.

“I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did;” Polk writes, “[but] now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted….. [Years ago, my girlfriend had told me] ‘I don’t like who you’ve become.’ She was right then, and she was still right. Only now, I didn’t like who I’d become either….”  Polk eventually quit his job on Wall Street, and began a nonprofit called Groceryships to help poor families struggling with obesity and food addiction.  “I am much happier, he says, “ [and finally] I feel as if I’m making a real contribution.”3

Psychologists may claim that envy can push us to be better people but the Bible, and our own experience tells us that envy will more likely push us only to be someone we are not meant to be.  God created each of us in love, gave each of us a calling, and bestowed upon each of us gifts unique to ourselves.  When we look at other people in envy, we are denying that gift; suggesting that somehow God was wrong to make us as we are because clearly, our envy says, I’m supposed to be that other person.  Envy causes us to discount the importance of the work that God has given uniquely to us to do, suggesting instead that God was wrong because what we are doing isn’t nearly as important as the work that other person is doing over there.  Envy corrupts our sense of our own self worth and in doing so rejects the gift of God who was the one who created us and whose love for this creation went all the way to the cross for us.  Envy is ultimately an act of deep ingratitude as it turns away from all God has invested in us by saying, “I will only be worthwhile if I become what that other person is and have what that other person has.”

Bonita Friedman, a writer who struggled with her own envy over the success of other writers, said, “The antidote to envy is one’s own work, always one’s own work.  Not the thinking about it, not assessing of it, but the doing of it.  The answers you want can only come from the work itself.  It drives the spooks away.”  4

For the Christian, the antidote to envy is recognizing that the work that God has given each of us uniquely to do.  The antidote to envy is accepting the contribution to the world that God has asked from you, and you alone.  The antidote to envy is worrying not about whether others are loved more than you but concentrating on showing the gracious love of Christ to others in your own life as only you can do.  

So I think, after weighing the findings of the psychologists over the Biblical testimony, I will courteously decline their suggestion to allow a little envy to take root in my heart because I don’t know about you, but I’m don’t believe that I am strong enough to ensure that that envy doesn’t turn my eyes away from the gifts God has given me and the blessings God has bestowed on, nor distract me from the work God has called me to do.  We are each a gift created by our loving God who would not have us be any other person that who God created us to be, so if God is happy with who we are, why shouldn’t we be as well? 

Footnotes:

  1.  https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/can-envy-be-good-for-you; August 10, 2015
  2. William Hazlitt
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/opinion/sunday/for-the-love-of-money.html
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/26/books/envy-the-writer-s-disease.html