Sunday, 16 March 2014

Envy and Greed- Kindness and Charity

Today we are continuing our series on the Seven Deadly sins- the seven major diseases of the soul and the graces that cure them. Today we are dealing with 2 of the Seven Sins- Envy and Greed.          
Envy is the pain or sadness we feel when someone possesses some object, quality, or status that we don’t possess.  Related to this we will also feel a kind of pleasure when we see something bad happen to the person we envy.  Envy doesn’t necessarily want the thing, rather they don’t want the other person to have it. Envy differs from admiration. 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."  How envy works is this: 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. 
Greed can be related to envy because for us to envy someone we have to value what they have. For example, if we have an intense love for money it is more likely that we will be envious of a person who makes more money than us. We can only envy people who possess something we highly value. Greed might motivate us to take something from someone and make it our own, but envy leaves us upset merely by the fact that the person has the good thing. Usually we connect greed to wealth because that’s usually where we experience it. Greed is a kind of idolatry. We set money up as a god- we place our hope, trust, and security in it. We believe it will save and rescue us from what troubles life throws at us. Greed manifests in many ways. It can look like an immoral competitor, a workaholic, a con-man or con-woman, a gambler, or a miser.  Greed is the inordinate love of money or material possessions, and the dedication of one’s life to pursue them. Greed is love for wealth that goes beyond providing for one’s life and family. It is focused on amassing wealth and not distributing it. One can be greedy and own little, or greedy and own much, but the state of the heart is the same. Greed leads us to the pursuit and protection of wealth as an end in itself. In our Gospel reading we read about a man who focuses completely on his wealth and builds bigger barns to hold all his possessions, but who then suddenly dies and can take none of it with him.    
In our Old Testament reading two mothers are standing before King Solomon and arguing over a baby. The envious mother is happy just for the other woman to be childless as well, and so she accepts the king’s proposal to cut the child in two. Envy is focused on the other person. It leaves us wondering why they have what they have rather than us. Them having what they have feels like an attack on our self-worth. We might feel envious of someone because they received a better grade than us, or they make more money than us, or they have a relationship with someone who is interesting or beautiful, or they have some sort of social prestige we don’t have. Someone is blessed with some good- a beautiful body, a nice car, a new iPhone, a front loading washing machine, a vacation, a new house, musical talent, ... (fill in the blank).... And we can't stand the person because they have been blessed with that good. Envy causes us to focus on something the other has that we don’t have. We don’t care if they worked hard and deserve it. We don’t think about all we have that others don’t have. Envy has been called a boomeranging arrow because the person who shoots it is the one who is shot in the end.
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. And envy hates them for it. 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.   
There is an old Jewish story about an envious man and greedy man who stand before a king. The king says he will give to the other twice what the person asks. The greedy man doesn’t want to go first because he wants to ask for everything (which can’t be doubled). The Envious man thinks, but can’t stand the thought of the other man having twice the amount, so he finally turns to the king and says, “pluck out one of my eyes.” 
We are not likely to admit that we are envious or greedy. They are still fairly shameful sins to have. We might not even admit them to ourselves. Envy and Greed, however permeate our consumerist society to an incredible degree. We are surrounded by advertising that is designed to instill greed and envy in us. Greed nearly collapsed our economy a few years ago. So it is deeply suspicious that we are so unwilling to admit our own envy and greed, or make ourselves conscious of their dangers. 
We see envy in Scripture when King Saul becomes envious of David as a successful warrior. David is winning battles for Saul, but Saul is envious of the people’s admiration for David.  We see envy in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. God is more pleased with Abel's offering than with Cain's because Abel gives his best.  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.
Turning to greed now, we live in a hyper-consumerist world where we are encouraged to be greedy. We are surrounded by advertising that is continuously trying to convince us that we are in need. We live in a world that thrives on lending money at interest, which was against God’s law and called usury (Ex 22, Lev 25, Deut 23). Usury has been condemned in many cultures throughout the world, but it is pervasive in our world. The whole stock market and banking system is based on it. It is a system that allows greed to run rampant. It was greed that caused the near economic collapse just a few years ago. If we have money in the bank we are a part of this system. If we have stocks and mutual funds or GICs we are a part of this system.
The system we live in encourages us to be the man in Jesus’ parable who is able to make the system work in his favor. We accumulate so much that we need to tear down our barns and build bigger barns to hold all our wealth.  We accumulate so that we can say to ourselves in retirement, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
We are told to be this person, but what does Jesus say in the parable? God says to the man, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." (12:20-21).
Anyone who loves Jesus and has any savings in the bank is feeling a bit bothered by that parable. We have attached to wealth notions such as security, power, successfulness, and happiness. And there is some truth there, though it is a partial truth.  We have become convinced that all we need to make our life better is more money. You don’t have to be rich to be consumed by wealth. Anyone who places their ultimate trust in wealth- rich or poor- has fallen pray to greed. It is an especially deep trap because it is insatiable. There is always more to have. I read that John D. Rockefeller, who I’m told was once the wealthiest man in the world, once expressed to a reporter that he was not really happy or satisfied. When the reporter asked how much money it would take to make him happy, Rockefeller replied, “Just a little bit more”.[1] The ability of wealth to satisfy all our desires is limited. Like Rockefeller, we will eventually reach the limits of our wealth to give us security, happiness, success, etc.
            If the diseases are envy and greed then the graces that cure them are kindness and charity. To some degree these treatments overlap. Both diseases are helped by a strengthened faith In God as the provider of our needs and that God is ultimately where we find worth and treasure.  To cure greed it will help to contemplate the impermanence of material things and even our own lives. There will be an end for us, just as the man who built new barns died before he could enjoy them, so we will someday die and we will not be able to take what we own with us. In the end what we will be left with is our character and our relationship with God. Our desires ultimately will only be fulfilled in God. Whatever we desire here in this life will ultimately leave us wanting. Rich people are not necessarily more happy than poor people.  We have yearnings in our heart that cannot be fulfilled outside of God.  
            To cure Greed some have left all possessions behind. This is not for everyone. It is a particular calling from God.  While not all of us are called to leave our possessions behind and enter a monastery, the rest of us are called to use our wealth to bless the world. We are called to use our wealth as something that has been entrusted to us by God. Practicing generosity and giving to charity will help cure us of greed.  By doing so we will become rich towards God. It is by acting this way that we will be building treasure in heaven, rather than on earth.
Looking at envy now, part of the cure is first to realize the irrational nature of envy. Envy makes many assumptions about the ability of something like wealth to make a person happy, or give fulfillment to life. It also tends to diminish the blessings we have in our own lives. Envy also causes us to compare ourselves with those who have something we don’t, but we often possess many things that others do not.  
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 or greedily desire to have what they have. 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 that 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 and greed.

If you want to dig deeper please see the following books:
Kreeft, Back to Virtue
Willimon, Sinning like a Christian
Sheen, The Seven Capital Sins
Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins
Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life

[1] Good and beautiful life, James Bryan Smith, p. 157

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