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.