St. Thomas Aquinas defines envy as "sorrow or sadness over another's good because that good is regarded as something withheld or taken away from the envious person's excellence or reputation." The CCC puts it more simply: "It refers to the sadness at the sight of another's goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly. When it wishes grave harm to a neighbor, it is a mortal sin.
Do you sometimes think as you drive: "Why does my neighbor get to drive that lovely Mercedes, while I am saddled with this tin can." Or, when you see a beautiful woman in the mall: "Why did God make her so pretty and me so plain? I wish it would be other way around." Or, if you're in the spiritual 'business': "Why has God blessed him with such a successful ministry, and me, despite my years of service, with just a handful of people?"
That's envy. And it's deadly. Like Basilea Schlink said, envy is like "a poisonous root in our soul that can kill others, and ourselves." Or, if you prefer Scriptural quotations, here's one from the Book of Proverbs: "A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones" (Proverbs 4:30 NIV).
We don't have to look too far to see the truth of these statements. One of the first stories in the Bible is a story of envy—and its consequences. As there are many insights we can obtain from it, I reproduce the passage here, slightly abridged.
Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him (Genesis 4:1-8 NIV).
Why God accepted Abel's offering and not Cain's is something we can speculate about, but it's vital we don't miss the main point of the story, which is Cain's deep-seated hatred of his younger brother — a hatred fermenting from envy — and the horrific consequences thereof.
God warned Cain — as he does all of us — of these consequences: "If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." Sin is like a drooling beast, waiting with fangs bared to see what we will do with the turbulent emotions raging within us. Tame them, and we'll be spared. Give in, and we're dinner.
Cain didn't heed the warning and sin devoured him. It corroded his insides with poisonous hatred until he was finally consumed by it. The result? While the life of one man was literally snuffed out, the spiritual life of the other ended. Cain became an outcast, consigned forever to be "a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth."
There are several others stories of envious people in the Bible. Joseph's brothers were envious of the love their father had for him and tried to kill him. Saul was envious of David and he, too, tried to kill him. Envy always results in attempts to kill, if not the body then the spirit. It also always backfires.
I have plenty of personal anecdotes to share on the subject. Holy Spirit Interactive (HSI) has been an apostolate that has been immensely blessed by God. In the short span of five years it has touched the lives of millions of people. It has also aroused the envy of many who have tried to destroy it, but even as they attempt to do so, they only end up hurting themselves. But these are stories for another time. There are others for now.
A classic tale is told by the preacher Dwight L. Moody. An eagle was envious of another that could fly better than he could. One day, the bird saw a sportsman with a bow and arrow and said to him, "I wish you would bring down that eagle up there." The man said he would if he had some feathers for his arrow. So the envious eagle pulled one out of his wing. The arrow was shot, but it didn't quite reach the rival bird because he was flying too high. The first eagle pulled out another feather, then another – until he had lost so many that he couldn't fly himself. The archer took advantage of the situation, turned around, and killed the helpless bird.
The moral of Moody's story, and every other story about envy, is this: If you are envious of others, the one you will hurt the most by your actions will be yourself.
How do we protect ourself from this deadly sin? How do we tame the beast crouching at our door? It would help to see him coming. Here are some signs.
Signs of Envy Crouching
Do you want to be first? Or the greatest? When Jesus told His apostles that He was going to die (see Mark 10:35-45), they seemed more concerned about what was going to happen to them than what was going to happen to him! Two of them, James and John went to him and said, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." Imagine! But that's not the end of the story. When the ten others heard this they were furious. Why? Because they wanted these places for themselves.
Jesus had to set them straight. "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (NRSV).
That's good advice for us all, especially Christian leaders, as a way to tame the beast crouching at the door. Be a real servant. A true servant is just happy to serve and please his master. If we are able to feel this way towards everybody in our lives, we can keep envy a long distance away.
Do you want to be rewarded more than others? The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (see Matthew 20:1-6) offer some telling insights. An estate manager hired workers for his vineyard at an agreed wage of a dollar a day. Later, he saw some other men hanging around the town square unemployed. He hired them too. He did the same thing at noon, and again at three o'clock. At five o'clock he went back and found still others standing around idle. He got them to join in the work too.
When the day's work was over, the owner of the vineyard instructed his foreman to call the workers in and pay them their wages. Those hired at five o'clock came up and were each given a dollar. When those who were hired first saw that, they assumed they would get far more. But they got the same, each of them one dollar. Taking the dollar, they groused angrily to the manager, 'These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.'
He replied to the one speaking for the rest, 'Friend, I haven't been unfair. We agreed on the wage of a dollar, didn't we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can't I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get envious because I am generous?'
God has not shortchanged any of us. He has blessed each and every one of us in great abundance. Our main problem is that our eyes are often focussed on the blessings that others receive and not on the blessings we ourselves obtain. If we spend a few minutes each day counting our own blessings we will discover that we have far too much to be grateful for to be envious about others. And even if he does bless somebody a little more, so what? Let us be happy for them, rather than bitter.
Do you want better gifts? The Corinthians did. They had knowledge of the wonderful gifts that the Holy Spirit brought with him (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-11), but regarded some as better than the others. Consequently, they grew envious of those among them who were blessed with these "better" gifts and, resentfully, began to separate from the group. Paul had to scold some sense into them.
He writes: If the foot would say "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose" (1 Corinthians 12:15-19 NRSV).
Their problem is our problem. We forget that while we are individuals, collectively we form part of one single body. "The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance" (1 Corinthians 12:25-26 MSG).
When Sin Devours
I don't normally speak about the devil, because I don't like to give him any more importance than he deserves, and he deserves little. Yet, we need a certain awareness of him, especially given this subject of envy. When God warned us about sin crouching at our door, ready to devour us if it wasn't tamed, he wasn't speaking metaphorically. This can actually happen in our lives. We find a good illustration in the life of King Saul.
Saul, the son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin, was anointed the first king of Israel. With a little help from God, Saul defeated the Philistines in his very first battle. He then defeated Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Amalekites in quick succession. A great warrior, he was delighted in his success and the adulation he received from the masses.
Then David came into the picture and spoiled it all for him. After David killed Goliath, Saul took the young lad under his wing. Things went well for a while until David started going out to battle. One day, when David returned, Saul heard the people chanting: "Saul has killed thousands, but David has killed ten thousands."
It was more than the king could handle. Scripture tells us that an evil spirit rushed upon Saul, then, and he raved within his house. As David played the lyre, Saul threw the spear at him, but David eluded him twice (cf 1 Samuel 18:10). Earlier (see 1 Samuel 16:14) Scripture says that the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit began tormenting him. Evil spirits can and do take over at times and envy is often the doorway.
Mother Nadine tells the story of a young man she once met who was convinced he was really a woman trapped in a man's body. He was so sure of it, he was about to undergo a surgical procedure to make the conversion. As Mother Nadine and her team probed him in conversation, they discovered that he had been conceived out of wedlock and his father left him before he was born.
A couple of years later, his mother got married to another man, and soon had a daughter. The boy, now three years old, saw the affection the girl was getting and became envious. In his little mind he worked it out that the child was getting so much love because she was a girl. The spirit of envy entered him and took over. Once they discovered what the root cause of the problem was, it was easy going. Mother and her companions bound the spirit and evicted it. Almost immediately, the man was healed of his sexual issues.
The Virtue: Brotherly Love
We have already looked at some ways in which to prevent envy. Following the pattern we have followed in this series, we will look at the virtue to combat the vice, and the corresponding gift of the Holy Spirit. The virtue is brotherly love.
John in his first letter, writes: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:7-12).
God commanded that we love one another (cf Matthew 22:39). We are to treat even our enemies with brotherly love because we are all children of the same heavenly Father (cf Matthew 5:44). True love seeks the good of another, not their downfall. It is expressed as happiness in another’s success. When we truly love one another then we are not resentful of each other's achievements but take pride in them. It isn't easily achieved, but as with everything else, practice makes perfect. That, and the remarkable grace of God, sets us free from the capital sin of envy.
The Gift: Wisdom
With the gift of wisdom, we can see things from God's point of view, which is totally different from the way in which we look at things. The highest form of wisdom is surrender. Surrender brings about union, which brings about love. Then we have everything we need. When we have everything we need, then there is no reason to be envious of anybody.
We have the additional promise that this gift will be given to those who ask. James says that "if any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you." Let us ask God for this gift, the first and greatest of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
A Final Word
I would like to conclude with a revealing little anecdote that John relates towards the end of his gospel. I address it especially to those who suffer from spiritual envy, which is perhaps the worst kind of envy we can feel towards each other, but unfortunately all too common.
Jesus had just finished telling Peter that he was leaving all his sheep in his care when the erstwhile fisherman turned around to see John following them. Apparently not too content with the great plans that Jesus had for him, Peter wanted to know what plans Jesus had for John. "Lord, what about him?" Peter asked Jesus.
Jesus answered, "What is that to you?"
Let us not be bothered by the plans that God has for others, the gifts he bestows upon them, the work he selects them to do. God has plans, gifts and tasks for each and every one of us, and if we just focus on that, we will have all the peace we need to last us until we meet Him in heaven.
May the Spirit be with you.