Saint Basil the Great said it well: “There is no other passion engendered in human souls more pernicious than envy. It does less harm to strangers, but is the chief homegrown evil for whomever possesses it. As rust eats away at iron, so envy eats away at the soul in which it lives. Envy is grief over a neighbor’s wellbeing. Therefore the envious man never has a lack of sorrows and afflictions. What can be more pernicious than this disease? This is a corruption of life, a profanation of nature, enmity against what is given to us by God, opposition to God.”
So Beware! Envy is a particularly Deadly Sin.
Remember, all the Deadly Sins are interior – passions, as we Orthodox call them, persistent temptations which threaten to gain control over us. Most of them result in outward actions. For example the interior passion of Anger often causes a person to yell at someone or punch someone out or (these days in America) shoot somebody – which are the outward manifestations. Other Deadly Sins work the same way. This means it’s fairly easy for people to notice that they’re afflicted by them and need to do something about it. But Envy usually stays hidden within us. It rarely results in embarrassing outward actions, and therefore people rarely pay much attention to it or repent of it. And unrepented sin leads to…. well, you know what.
What is Envy?
Envy is defined in our source book, the little Antiochian Archdiocese Pocket Prayer Book, as “jealousy of some other person’s happiness”. Some distinguish between envy and jealousy. We will use them here as synonyms, but the derivations of the two words provide interesting insights.
“Envy” derives from the Latin “invidus” – having hatred or ill-will. “Look how happy he is and I am not, how much she’s got and I don’t, and I hate it and I hate them.”
“Jealousy” has a similar meaning in popular usage, but it has a different source. It comes, oddly enough, from “jalousie”, a French word for “angled blinds or shutters”, through which one may peek. Envy looks at others with hidden resentment.
Three notes about Envy from the Scriptures
1 In the Seven Deadly Sins-Introduction post, we mentioned that Pride is usually said to be the primal sin: making ourselves the center – no, trying to make ourselves the Lord of things, in place of God. However, some of the Fathers said Envy was the first sin: Lucifer was jealous of God’s power and authority, then Envy twisted his mind, causing him to see God as the enemy who refused to “give the devil his due”, so to speak – and so he rebelled. Likewise we could say that Envy was the sin of Adam and Eve. Their real temptation was: “Is it fair that God should have such freedom and knowledge, and you do not? Eat this fruit and you will be like God.” It began to seem to them that God was their enemy, so they rebelled against him. But it didn’t work out quite the way the serpent promised. This is the story of the sin of all mankind.
2 Only one of the Ten Commandments, the last, deals exclusively with inner motivations: “You shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife,…your neighbor’s house; nor his field nor his manservant nor his maidservant nor his ox nor his ass nor any of his cattle, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Exodus 20:7 Covetousness is a strong desire for something that is not ours. It is caused by Envy, jealousy.
3 Have you noticed that Envy was one of the things that lay behind the Crucifixion of Christ? Pontius Pilate tried hard to release Jesus because “he knew that [the chief priests and elders] had handed him over [to him] because of envy.” Matthew 27:18 Jesus was a threat not only to “the nation”, but also to them. The people were giving attention to him rather than to them. He had power and popularity, serenity and confidence which they did not possess, and which they wished they had. So Envy twisted their minds so that they could not see him clearly, and he seemed to them to be the enemy who had to be destroyed. It parallels the sin of Adam and Eve.
Some Comments about Envy
Like all sins, Envy is something good that has been misshapen. The fact is that each of us is also someone good, twisted out of shape. God created us and declared that we were very good, and we were – but now look at us. We are rightly dissatisfied with what we are and what we have. We know innately that we were made for better than this. That is why people are forever seeking, seeking, seeking.
There is a God-given tendency within us to be dissatisfied with ourselves and want better things for ourselves. We naturally want better health for the bodies God has given us. Most of us want to provide well for ourselves and our families, so as not to be a burden on others or on society, and to become more informed and wiser. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look better. However, all these things can be twisted, so that we think we must have a Mercedes or a McMansion, or a “makeover”, or maybe a new husband will set things aright. Hopefully we want to become more virtuous and more holy than we are, and above all to seek the salvation of our souls, which is the best thing of all. In every way we should try to do the best we can with what God gives us.
Our dissatisfaction with ourselves goes wrong only when we get focused on how unfair it is that other people have these gifts. Why does he deserve to have all that stuff when I do not? It’s just wrong that she’s so much smarter than me, or that he has that big house or that she is so much better looking than I am. Or, if our standards are high, we can even be envious of people who seem spiritually superior to ourselves.
Now, admiration of others is not the same as Envy. We all need heroes and heroines, people we can look up to and try to emulate. I wish the modern world gave us more of them: men and women who tell the truth, are humble, honest, clean-minded, faithful to their spouses, who apologize quickly and forgive easily, are magnanimous, kindly, intelligent, wise, honest, who are merciful and have compassion on the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, who are strong but gentle, who seek God and his righteousness. However, admirable people don’t necessarily need to be “religious”, at least as we Orthodox think of it – Abraham Lincoln rarely went to church. And not all who claim to be “religious” are admirable. Look around. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’…” Matthew 7:21
Remember again how Envy, whether with us or with Adam and Eve or with the Scribes and Pharisees, distorts our perception. I begin to see the person I envy as an enemy who looks down on me, who thinks he or she is better than me. (Chances are very good that they scarcely notice me at all.) And if the person we envy should do something good to us, we therefore look at it as “patronizing”. Saint Basil the Great wrote, “Envy is the form of hatred that is the hardest to tame. While acts of kindness may soothe those who might otherwise be our enemies, this same kindness shown to the envious and malicious person irritates him even more. The more he is shown kindness, the more indignant and displeased and disgusted he becomes.”
Take it a step farther: Envy of others can easily lead us to resentment not only towards them but also towards God. It’s an easy transition. “Why does God love him or her more than me?” So we begin to see God as the enemy – and then we are in deep trouble, for this was the path taken Adam and Eve and by Lucifer before them.
Why Envy is so Hard to Overcome
This one is easier to categorize, but even more complex. Two reasons:
1 Because, as we’ve said, Envy is often hidden, and that which we don’t see is hard to analyze and deal with.
Also, others rarely see it in us unless it should result in some outward action, and even then they probably won’t understand it was out of Envy. So even those closest to us, maybe even our spiritual father or mother, will likely think we were in a bad mood that day, or maybe that we’re just nasty people, and they’ll just let it pass.
Because Envy is often hidden deep within our own hearts, often we will know we’re miserable, unhappy with life, but won’t know quite why. The sin of Greed leads to a buying spree, and Lust leads to… well, watch television, especially the news these days. But Envy often just lurks within us. Later we may come to realize that the hardness in our heart and our resentment of others and the distance between us and God have been caused by our Envy. Or, if we’re not especially introspective, we may never figure out what was going on, and we’ll die angry and miserable and resentful and aggrieved. And then… C.S. Lewis said it right:
2 Envy is hard to overcome because both its origins and effects are so complex. We said in an earlier Post that the various Deadly Sins are interconnected. One may lead to another and that one to yet another, and then maybe back again. This is particularly true in the case of Envy.
Consider, for example: The sins of Greed and Lust for various things can lead to Envy, as we desire what others have for ourselves. But this also works backwards: Envy may lead to Greed, Anger, Lust – and hatred, acts of revenge, thievery, lust, even murder.
Now, let’s take a more complex one: The Fathers said (and it’s obvious) that Pride, putting myself in the center, leads me to envy others, causing me to believe I deserve what they have. But in another way, Envy seems like the opposite of Pride: Pride consists of looking down on others from my position of supposed superiority, while Envy causes me to look up at others with malice from my supposed position of inferiority, so that I may think I am being very humble. Yet this also is Pride, for in my Envy I am wanting to be the center of things, as they seem to be.
Are you still reading? Is this making sense? I’m not sure.
If you find the above confusing and hard to figure out, you’ve got it right. It is! Envy catches us in a maze which is hard to understand, difficult to grasp – like a spider web from which it is hard to escape.
The Disastrous Results of Envy
As Saint Basil said, even when Envy is never expressed outwardly but remains hidden, it is still misery. It destroys the joy of living.
Even worse, Envy is a dreadful, no, make it sinful waste of our lives. God gives each of us particular gifts to be used for his service and in the service of others, to be developed and employed and enjoyed by us with love and gratitude to him. Of course, you can always look about and find someone richer than yourself, smarter or better looking or more spiritually gifted than you – but you can never look and find another you. God has made each of us unique, a never-to-be-repeated combination of gifts, talents, experiences and abilities. No one just like you has ever existed, nor will anyone just like you ever live again. And if you spend your life moping over what other people have and you do not have, you will waste what you have, and the unique contribution that you and you alone can make to the Church and to the world. Brothers and sisters, do not throw away the gifts you have out of Envy of those who have their gifts.
Therefore in the Scriptures Envy is condemned again and again. A few examples: “Envy is rottenness to the bones.” Proverbs 14:30 “Wrath is cruel and anger is a torrent, but who is able to stand before jealousy?” Proverbs 27:4 Saint Paul said that Envy is one of the works of the flesh (our fallen nature), and he lists it right between heresy and murder. (You get the point.) Galatians 5:21 The Lord’s brother writes: “Where Envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and everything evil are there.” James 3:16
However, Saint Paul tells us also that Envy can be overcome. He wrote to Titus: “Once we lived in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared… he saved us [from all this].” Titus 3:2,3
Next Week: How we can recover from Envy