Summary: Envy is unenviable. Kindness gives life joy.
A fellow Army chaplain asked me to sing at his chapel service in Schweinfurt, Germany. He was preaching on the 7 Deadly Sins. When I finished singing, he said, “I really envy Chaplain Leroe’s musical ability…oops! I just committed one of the deadly sins!”
Billy Graham issued a challenge: “I defy you to show me an envious man who is a happy man.” Of all the 7 deadly sins, envy’s the only one that’s “no fun at all” (Joseph Epstein). “Envy remains thoroughly unenviable” (Graham Tomlin). In fact, envy usually makes us miserable. This sin has been called the “evil eye” and it’s as old as Cain and Abel, as old as Joseph and his brothers. Envy focuses on the success and advantages others have. We may envy someone’s looks, their position in life, their possessions, or talents. We especially see this in the voyeuristic emphasis on celebrity in our culture and the importance we give to earthly success. What does it say about our values when we envy the ungodly? Proverbs 23:17 cautions, “Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.”
Jewish folklore tells the tale of an envious man who was visited by an angel, who granted him a wish--with a condition. The angel would grant him whatever he asked, but his rival, a man he envied intensely, would receive double. Without hesitation the man asked to be blind in one eye.
Our inner motivation determines whether we’re envious. Rebecca DeYoung makes an interesting observation: “There is a difference between wanting a BMW because I’m a car aficionado and I love the driving performance of a particular model, in contrast to wanting a BMW because I think it will make me feel superior to my neighbor who just bought a new Camry.” We owned a “Beemer” in Germany, where they’re as common as a Ford, and for us it was just transportation.
Enviers enjoy being envied, and they’ll do all they can to flaunt their success. This reminds me of Tom Paxton’s folksong, “My dog’s bigger than your dog.” Attempts to generate envy come from insecurity. A Greek philosopher pointed out that “It is the character of very few people to honor without envy a friend who has prospered” (Aeshulus). When someone we consider a peer is honored, if we don’t have healthy self-esteem, we may feel diminished.
Envy isn’t just wanting what others have; it’s wanting them not to have it. Someone said, “I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burned.” Envy breeds bitterness. Envy can be malicious; it can lead to schadenfreude, (a German word) which is defined as pleasure over someone’s misfortune. Envy bears grudges and finds faults. Envious people resent those who have what they lack and may even attempt ways to bring them down. They may spread vicious rumors or speak ill of rivals. It was out of envy that the religious leaders delivered Jesus to Pilate to be crucified (Mt 27:18).
The movie Amadeus is about grace and envy. It tells of the musical genius Mozart who was envied by the less-talented composer Antonio Salieri, a bitter man who schemed to destroy the one who was (in his opinion) undeservedly gifted. Ultimately Salieri’s resentment is directed at God, Who blessed Mozart while Salieri remained less accomplished. Salieri craved praise and applause. He couldn’t become like Mozart, so he sought to ruin him. Mozart composed exciting music of tremendous complexity, while Salieri’s compositions were second-rate. This drove him mad; and in the process he condemned himself to a hell of his own making; he ended up a bitter, broken man. Proverbs 14:30 warns, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”
The point of it all is that any blessing we receive is undeserved, and any success we achieve is not because we’re worthy. When others prosper, we have a choice: to accept what may seem unfair with graciousness, or to feel cheated. Our joy should not depend on doing better than others. If you’re a marathoner, you should feel pleasure when you run, not just when you win.
We admire successful people and hope to learn from their example and even pattern our lives after theirs. We can highly regard them, or begrudge their success. We sin when we think we deserve what they have more than they. Those who “win” at envy end up losing at life.
Abraham Heschel reflected: “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people. Now I admire kind people.” Kindness seeks the good of others and rejoices when they have it. We need to learn what it feels like to do something good for others, with no reward other than the satisfaction of seeing someone helped.