Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Where Does Envy Come From?

So Cain was very angry and his face was downcast (Genesis 4:5).
Saint Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow at another’s good.”

We experience that sorrow in different ways. Someone else’s blessing may feel like your curse.  Their gain feels like you’ve been deprived.  Their gladness galls you and their celebrating sends you into a tailspin of self-pity.

At its root, that sorrow – the bitter gnawing we name envy – grows in the soil of comparison. We look at the life we have and we compare it to the life someone else has. Most often we’re comparing ourselves with the life we think they have. Either way, the flower of that kind of comparing is envy. Envy isn’t the original sin, but it makes its debut very early in the biblical story. We’ve been struggling with this for a long time. 

An Age-Old Struggle
Both Cain and Abel presented offerings to God, but “the Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering” (Gen. 4:5). Why him? Cain asked the same question. It ate at him, making him sad and angry at the same time. Cain’s sorrow at his brother’s good drove him to kill his brother.    

And then there’s the story of Joseph. Joseph’s eleven brothers felt sorrow over Joseph’s good. The story in Genesis 37 never uses the word ‘envy’ but it repeatedly uses the word ‘hate.’ That’s how their sorrow felt. They hated Joseph. They were jealous of him.

As we read the story we’re hardly surprised that this is so. For one thing, what we see in Joseph is less than flattering. He is introduced to us as a tattle-tale, a brat. On top of that, he insists on sharing his self-aggrandizing dreams with his family.

Furthermore, all of the things that typically evoke envy are present in the story. We often envy someone’s possessions and Joseph was the only brother with a tailor-made multi-colored robe. We often envy someone’s rank or position and Joseph clearly has a special place in Jacob’s affections. Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his sons (Gen. 37:3). We may also envy someone’s talents or gifts. Obnoxious though he was, Joseph had a gift for dreams and what they meant. Joseph seems to have had all the good, so we’re not surprised at the brothers’ sorrow.

But here’s the problem. While envy may be sorrow directed at another’s good, that sorrow is not really caused by another’s good.      

“I Shouldn’t Feel This Way” (but I do)
Jesus made it perfectly clear that envy, along with a menu of other evils, has its origin in the human heart. To be more specific, my envy can never be blamed on someone else. My sorrow, be it anger or self-pity, is not created by someone else’s good. Rather, my envy comes from my own heart. Indeed, the human heart is the primary residence of all sin.

This means that pornography does not make a person lust. Food does not make a person a glutton. Money does not make a person greedy. And the windfall of blessing that comes to my neighbor does not make me envy.

The corrosive acid that is envy will not be abated by something external to you. The remedy for what ails us is not to be found in a different turn of events or new set of circumstances. And what’s more, you can tell yourself “I shouldn’t feel this way,” but you still will. Envy can’t be cured by earnest efforts at doing or being a better person.

What we need is a new heart. The Hebrew prophets anticipated a time when God would make a ‘new covenant’ with us, writing his law on our heart. That new covenant became a reality in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Envy is put to death at the cross of Jesus.

Do you feel sorrow at another’s good today? Stop looking at them and look to Jesus, the only one able to change what we cannot change.

Merciful God, change my heart. Forgive the sorrow I’ve carried because of someone else’s good. Grant me the grace that replaces sorrow with joy. I would leave my envy at the foot of the cross today, receiving the gift of new life through Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.

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