Tuesday, November 05, 2013


Listening to Nicki Gumbel on one of the Alpha series videos, he breezed by a list of common sins, and the word envy was in the middle of it. I have a fairly automatic response when I run across a topic that has been big in Christian history, but I don’t recall hearing much about lately: I wonder if this is one of the blind spots of our culture.

We are a wealthy people, and we do get reminded of the dangers of the related sin of materialism from time to time.  But that usually has the personalities taken out of it.  We are reminded that “things” are unimportant compared to relationships, and won’t make us happy. Jesus speaking about the lilies of the field or the pearl of great price does not bring our relationship with others into it.  The focus is on the things, at least in those passages. All quite true, and perhaps that is the better message for our day, I being merely contrary about it.

But envy, and the last commandment about coveting, have a different focus than mere asceticism and seeking simplicity. There is a Someone Else in the picture, or multiple someones, and part of the sin seems to be some resentment that they have what we want.  It is not enough, seemingly, that we have sorrow over not having something – we have to sin one step further and wish others less happiness. Materialism has mostly individual effects, hindering our “personal growth,” even our personal spiritual growth, or so we think. It is therefore a fairly popular stick to beat ourselves with.  We don’t have to apologise to anyone, we don’t have to own up to a particular red-letter sin, and can merely wish we were farther along some vague continuum than we are.  It’s another of those sins with which we can score points for even noticing it in ourselves. We give ourselves a jolly whipping with a paddle, but neither too brisk nor too thick.

Covetousness and envy are clearly first-level worries, the former making it to the Big Ten, and the latter into the Seven Deadlies.  This drain on relationships, on community, is the most obvious explanation.  They are also more expansive than a focus on poverty and riches.  Some of us have a fair bit of immunity from envying material wealth, but there are hundreds of other categories in which we can feel deprived. Other people’s children win awards or have better health; other people had better parents; other people have beauty or charm; they aren’t dragged down by a difficult spouse; they lucked into a better job undeservedly; they dodged the bullet when terrible decisions didn’t result in catastrophe.

We are perhaps most prone to envy of those we know best, perhaps even love best.  The clearest examples I have seen certainly, have been among siblings, or parents and children.  Next most would likely be neighbors, coworkers, friends.  I think the levels of disguise are quite subtle with this one. We might carry little envy over long periods but fall into it briefly and easily; or the reverse, seldom envying anyone their good fortune, except a sister or a best friend, quietly and unconsciously, for years or decades. An awareness may elude us unless we search for it explicitly, and the results may surprise.

I think I’d better stop chattering in the abstract and get to thinking about this.


Christopher B said...

Envy roots in viewing life as a zero-sum game, that someone has something because another person has been deprived of it. If that's true then we should despair of what we are taking from others. Instead we almost always assume that we are just getting what's due, and that someone else is the one getting the extras

Sam L. said...

Or perhaps we envy their luck. My brother has about the best in-laws I've ever met. He's wealthier, too. But envy of him I have none, and I can't think of anyone I do envy. There are lots of things and conditions I'd like to have, but don't want (want--being something I must have/do to make me happy). I am fortunate to be sufficiently satisfied with my lot in life.

Jonathan said...

Wow. Great post, Dad.

bs king said...

To me envy seems extremely similar to lust, but applied to different topics. We'll all have feelings of hey that's attractive/I wish I had that money/house/etc, but I think there's a toxic version too.

It's an interesting topic to consider in reverse...as in what responsibility falls on the object. Christian women in particular are often asked to "help keep their brothers from stumbling" when it comes to lust, but do we feel equally compelled to help others when it comes to envy? I had Chinese roommates in college who felt very strongly about this...that even mentioning good fortune was very wrong. It's part of traditional culture there, but something that the Christians I knew felt was Biblically mandated as well.

I actually had this discussion yesterday after a particularly well off girl I know posted hundreds of pictures of a very expensive vacation her family took to a tropical location. Her family is very vocally Christian, and honestly I was a little put off by the display...it felt vaguely wrong to have 100+ pictures up of something most people couldn't afford (especially when it was clarified there was no celebration, this was just for fun).

So I guess I'm curious...while clearly the final responsibility for lust and envy lay on the one having the feelings, do other Christians have any responsibility to help fellow Christians with these sins? At least in my experience, many Christians acknowledge such a responsibility with lust "women should dress modestly" but less so with envy...despite the second half of 1 Tim 2:9 expressly prohibiting "gold, jewels, and costly garments".


Assistant Village Idiot said...

An excellent addition, Bethany, especially in view of the popularity of health & wealth gospel in some Christian sectors. (I used to think it was openly popular among some evangelicals, but covertly popular - without the Southern accents, of course - among mainstreamers. I no longer think that. Both and both now.)

Is there a "Jesus Wants You To Be Beautiful, Sexy, and Tempting" movement? I'd think most folks would see through that, but maybe I overrate insight.

I think conspicuous wealth likely is a stumbling block placed before others.

Including nonmonetary wealth. Ouch.

Texan99 said...

I suppose because my life is pretty fortunate, it's not often that envy really stabs deep. When it does, though, look out! It happens when I'm deeply shocked by a loss. The worst attack I can ever remember was when a good friend and colleague kept getting pregnant every couple of years like clockwork. I was happy for her, of course, but I still vividly remember the crushing wave of envy I had to fight every time she gave out the good news. Envy is worst when someone else has something you think you'll die without.