Monday, 5 November 2012

Envy


Seven Deadly Sins- Envy  

            The sins and virtues have a funny relationship in our world. Even take this series itself. We are advertising it as the 7 deadly sins. We are not advertising it as the seven virtues. But, honestly ask yourself, which one sounds more enticing? The seven deadly sins? or the seven holy virtues? Which one are you really more interested in hearing about?   In our culture sin is sexy. Virtue is boring and geeky.  Even as Christians we tend to think that Sin would be a whole lot of fun if God just didn't have a "thing" about it.

            'Wrath' sounds like a superhero name- "Captain Wrath". Ladylust is a Yahoo email address. There is a sense of power and individualism that comes with sin. When we think of virtue, however, we think of a Victorian woman with lace gloves and a parasol fighting off a man's advances and "protecting her virtue".

            This has led to many of us knowing the sins better than the virtues. The 7 Sins get movies staring Brad Pit and Morgan Freeman. Most people can't name the virtues, if they are even aware that there are opposing virtues to the seven sins.

            Perhaps that is the way it has always been. Sin has always seemed more sexy, which is why we are drawn into it. We don't see sin for the muck and filth it actually is. We choose not to see it for the pain and destruction it causes. We see the excitement and adventure and power, ... but the allure of sin is always a trick. Sin always steals some good to wrap itself in. It wraps itself in some beauty that is not its own. You think it is a delicious fruit that will make you like God, but really you end up full of shame, and cut off from the source of all pleasure and joy. Sin is disease. It covers itself in false promises and temporarily hijacked pleasures. If we really saw sin in its true form we would see it as the putrid pile of manure and muck that it is.

            Envy, however, is the least sexy of the seven deadly sins.  If your average Joe or Jane were asked to list the seven sins, most wouldn't name Envy. But, our whole society is permeated by envy. To a large degree our economy is driven by it. Advertising is designed to heighten our envy and drive us into consumerism. So it's funny we aren't more conscious of the dangers of envy.   

             The reason we don't think about it more is likely that envy still seems to carry with it a sense of shame. Even the most worldly of people will still be embarrassed by their envy. They don't want to admit to feeling lower than someone because they value equality, and individuality so highly.  They will hide envy with sarcasm, or  with anger, or maybe disgust. People don't really show their envy truly. It feels gross, so we usually disguise it as something else.  

             Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. What is 'envy'?  Imagine two people. Me and Scott. Scott has some 'good'. Scott has a brilliant theological mind. Now, I could admire Scott and his mind, and there is nothing wrong with that. Admiration is actually good. I can admire a saint and be drawn deeper into relationship with God. Admiration can motivate me to be better than I am. The Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft says "Aspiration looks up and says, 'I aspire to be up there too.' ...Envy, on the other hand, looks up and says, 'I want you to be below me.' Envy is essentially competitive."  'Envy' is when I want him to be destroyed just for having whatever good he has. In my envy I would be happy just to see Scott get the flu and be not able to finish a lecture series where he exercises his gifted mind.  

            So there is a good that someone has. I am upset that that good is not mine because in my mind it elevates them above me in worth. I then begin to hate them for possessing this 'good'. Ultimately I desire their downfall. I want that person to fall on their face in the mud. I am pleased to see the suffering of the person who has that good.  Thomas Aquinas called Envy "sorrow for another's good".

            It differs slightly from jealousy and greed. There is a blurry line between them. Jealousy worries about being dispossessed of something they have. For example, we might worry about someone stealing their boyfriend or girlfriend. Greed is when we want to take something from someone and make it our own. ... In envy we are upset merely by the fact that the person has the good thing.        

            In our Scripture reading today David is blessed with being a successful warrior- that is the 'good' that he posesses. King Saul doesn't admire him. He isn't pleased because David is winning battles for the kingdom. Instead King Saul is filled with envy. He wants David to go down.

            We see this in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. God is more pleased with Abel's offering than with Cain's.  Cain kills his brother Abel, filled with envy over God's favor towards Abel.

            We see envy again when we read about Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery and faking his death because their father, Jacob, bestowed favors on him that he withholds from the others.  

            We see envy in fairy tales. The wicked queen looks into her mirror asking, "mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" When the mirror answers "Snow White" instead of the queen, that is when she plots to kill the girl.  

            If I'm honest with myself, I can sometimes become envious when I think about the fact that I have as many years of education as a lawyer, but my paycheck doesn't reflect that.

            Envy comes from the Latin word, "invidia", which means "to look upon". In Dante's Inferno the envious have a particular punishment. Since they have derived pleasure from seeing others suffer and be humbled their eyes are sewn shut with iron wire (13.43-72).            

            Someone is blessed with some good- a beautiful body, a seemingly perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, a nice car, a new iphone, a front loading washing machine, a vacation, a house, good grades, musical talent, ... (fill in the blank).... And we can't stand the person because they have been blessed with that good.

            In envy there is a twisting of our sense of fairness and equality. Something inside us can't stand that someone has something we don't. It's not fair. Envy hates the idea that we are living in a world where people have more money than us, and are more talented than us. Envy hates that some people can conceive and have children and others can't. Envy hates that some of us have to grow up without both our parents in our lives. Some of us deal with tragedy and trauma and others don't. Some get good grades without trying. Some are better looking than others. And envy hates them for it. You can feel envy in you. It eats at you. It feels gross and sick. To feel envious is to feel inferior.  

            It is essentially a selfish state of mind. Rather than rejoicing at the blessings those around us receive, we feel contempt for them. When something good has happened to our neighbor, God calls us to rejoice with them. Peter Keeft points out that, we are to "'rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep'.... [but] envy weeps at those who rejoice and rejoices at those who weep." Envy denies that God is sovereign to deliver good gifts to whoever He likes. Envy causes us to be ungrateful for what we have been given, and focuses our attention on what has been denied us and given to another.             

            In other sins there is a hint of gaining some pleasure. Lust promises pleasure, for example. Wrath promises justice. But, in envy there is only pain and sorrow. It is emptiness. Like the other seven deadly sins, Envy leads to more sin. In particular envy quickly leads to hatred.    

            If the disease is envy then what is the cure? The 4th and 5th century monk John Cassian said that of all the deadly sins envy was the hardest to cure because we hide it. But, if we can admit that we struggle with envy, there are choices we can make to help us deal with it. There are disciplines, or practices, that place us so that we can receive God's grace. We can practice refocusing our perspective. We remind ourselves that God is sovereign. God is in control and knows what He is doing. God has the right to bestow good gifts on whoever He chooses. We have no right to criticize God's choices, which is what envy does.

            We can practice compassion and empathy allowing ourselves to relate to the person we are envious of. We can learn to shift the focus off ourselves and learn to celebrate the blessings and the positive traits in others. We humble ourselves so that we can see ourselves as we are- not deserving any good any more than another person. 

            In humility we can remind ourselves that God loves us, not because of any good that we possess, but simply because we are His creatures. We can learn to believe that God truly does love us, and that we can trust Him to care for us, then we will learn to be content with what God has given us. When we truly know that God loves us, then we will in turn share that love that is poured into us. If we love others, we will want the best for them. The best example of God's love poured out is Christ on the cross in his willingness to suffer for the benefit of others. He becomes our example. He is who we aim at. When we grow in Christ-likeness and learn to love as he loved, then we will be able to suffer in love for others as well.  When we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of others our soul will be free of envy.

            This might sound a bit impossible. "So all we have to do to be free of envy is be like Christ. Thanks. Real helpful." ... The Christian life is the impossible life... in human terms. Loving our enemy and turning the other cheek are counterproductive to perpetuating our DNA. This life is impossible in human terms. It has to be Christ's life, and Christ's work in us.  We receive the grace and work in cooperation with God, but ultimately Christ begins to live his life in us. That is all that can free us from sin. We can't be freed by our own efforts or tactics.  Even the disciplines of refocusing our thoughts and reminding ourselves of God's truth are actually God's grace to us, given to us to help us walk the path of Christ. It's Christ living in us.

            In learning to love our neighbour as Christ loves us, we will not rejoice in the suffering of the person we envy. Instead we will learn to rejoice in the blessing that God has freely given to those around us.  Instead of having some sense of inequality we celebrate the fact the we live in a world where God freely showers us with blessings. When we learn to love as Christ loves we will be free of the pain and destruction of envy.

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