The content of this sermon is based in part on Rebecca Konyndyk De Young’s Glittering Vices (Brazos, 2009).
I could feel envy eating me up – from the inside out.
I could feel envy getting hold of my life and my thoughts and my emotions.
But it seemed that there was little I could do to escape – there was little I could do to turn things around. Envy had a grip and it wasn’t letting go.
I have discovered that the Proverb gets it exactly right: “A tranquil heart is the life of the flesh; But envy is the rottenness of the bones.”
I have discovered that Chyrsostom was exactly right: “As a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a man.”
I’m not saying that I was just a victim in all of this. I know I’m responsible for my own actions. But for a time it was like I had became an observer of my own life. I could see what was happening. I could see where I was going. I could see what I was doing. And I could see the train wreck that lay down the track – a train wreck that would involve me and the person of whom I was envious.
Envy. What exactly is envy? Perhaps it will help you to know that envy is a cousin of covetousness. You’ll remember the 10th commandment of God. “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, you shall not covet your neighbours wife, nor his manservant or his maidservant, nor his ox nor his ass, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
When I covet something, I want it.
When I covet my neighbour’s house, it’s because I want to have a house like that.
When I covet my brother’s wife, it’s because I’d want to have a wife like her.
When I covet my sister’s career, it’s because I’d want to have a career like hers.
When I covet something, I want that something.
In my envy I also wanted something. I was grasping after something. So in a way my envy was coveting. My envy was a betrayal of God’s law – the 10th commandment. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.
But envy and covetousness are only cousins – they are not the same thing. My envy of him was covetousness. I wanted something he had – but envy was more than simply wanting. Yes, I wanted to be able to write music the way he could write music – yes I wanted to be able to compose pieces that were as memorable and as compelling and as beautiful as the pieces that he composed. But what I really wanted was to be honoured and recognized and esteemed in the way that he was honoured and recognized and esteemed.
Here’s the thing about envy. It’s personal. It’s about you and him. Or it’s about you and her. It’s not simply about wanting the other person’s ability or their home or their family or their beauty.
Envy is about the fact that you think they have something that elevates them in the eyes of others. Envy is about the fact that alongside the other person I feel neglected or diminished or forgotten or inferior, because they have something that I perceive to better than what I have.
We are both beautiful, but everyone pays attention to her beauty.
We both have abilities, but everyone acknowledges his abilities.
We are both intelligence, but everyone seems to notice only her intelligence.
In my case it was his ability to compose music that made me envious. My tunes were forgotten alongside his – my melodies didn’t attract the attention that his melodies attracted – my symphonies weren’t played nearly as widely as his symphonies. Beside him I felt like a shadow. Whether it was true or not I felt like no one notice or celebrated or acknowledged me…
Envy eats into your soul – it is a rottenness in the bones. And its insidiousness lies in the fact that it is so deeply personal. It is not simply his abilities that I wanted to have – it is that I want him to be diminished, so that I would be esteemed. It is not simply that I want to have what he has, but that I want people to think more highly of myself than they think of him.
Perhaps some strong words of Kierkegaard are appropriate here. He has written: “Envy is quick to give up on a person, and yet it does not actually give up on him as if to let him go – no, envy is on the go very early to assist in his downfall.” Envy of another person very often translates into a wish for the downfall of the other – it can even become a participation in the downfall of the other. In the case of envy there is at times a false and destructive impulse that says: “the only way to regain my own sense of self and my own sense of significance is to topple the other, to bring him down.”
Of course it becomes obvious in all of this that comparison lies at the heart of my envy – and lies at the heart of envy wherever it makes an appearance. Comparison, which speaks in terms of better or worse, higher or lower, mores skilled or less skilled, more beautiful or less beautiful. To be envious is to compare, and is to find oneself coming out on the losing side of the comparison.
When I think of my own life – when I think of the way I compared myself to him – when I think of how I measured everything to see who came out on top – when I think of my own envious acts of comparison, I think about different words of Kierkegaard: “A moment wasted on comparison, then everything is forfeited. The moment of comparison is, namely, a selfish moment, a moment that wants to be for itself; this is the break, is the fall—just as dwelling on itself is the fall of an arrow.”
I could feel it the first time he walked in the room. I could feel it when I first saw him play the piano. Comparison defined my relationship to him. I ate and drank and slept and woke in comparison. And in that selfish moment of comparison, was my fall, the fall of an arrow that becomes preoccupied with itself – the arrow falls to the ground. The relationships collapses through comparison because love cannot fly and rise when it is preoccupied with better or worse, higher or lower. In envious comparison, which is deeply personal, and never wishes the other well, all that can result in the end is a fall. A fall out of love. I fell out of love – in my envy – in my comparing – in my wishing ill – in my wish to bring about his downfall. What other end could there be than a fall – of course it could only be my fall, in the end.
We are going to change gears now – moving out of this kind of first person reflection – and the question that arises for us, of course, is this: what is the answer to envy. What is the antidote to envy? Perhaps Psalm 73 will give us part of the answer to envy. That Psalm, which we read as our responsive Psalm this morning, begins with the question or reality of envy. In this case it is envy understood in a slightly different way than we have understood it. The Psalm speaks of envy of the wicked – it speaks of a desire to have the treasures and power that others have attained through their ways of violence and injustice. So in this Psalm it is envy understood in a slightly different way.
But at the end of that Psalm we also get part of an answer to envy. We read toward the end of that Psalm:
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast towards God. Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me with honour. [SLIDE] Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.
The first answer to envy is a rediscovery of the presence of God in our lives – and not only the presence of God, not only the nearness of God to us – but a rediscovery of our desire for the God who is with us and near us – our desire for the God who is the source of our lives. When we fall into the trap of comparison; when we descend into rivalry and ill will; when we undermine others and seek to diminish them for the sake or our own ego or glory; it is because we have become decisively oriented toward our own smallest self. It is because we have taken delight in our own smallest self. It is because we have forgotten, as we might have put it last week – God’s way. And in our self-preoccupation, as we delight in our own smallest selves, we become Kierkegaard’s arrow – the arrow that falls from the sky – the arrow that cannot soar or rise because it has become preoccupied with itself.
The first step out of envy is a remembrance that our life is rooted in the God of covenant and creation – the God who promises his love and life to us through Christ. And this isn’t only about information. It isn’t only about something we know in our heads. This first step out of envy is a matter of the heart – a rediscovery of desire for the God who creates and redeems us in Christ – a rediscovery of desire for God through prayer and song and meditation and service. It is in knowing God and desiring God that I discover my identity, my worth, my strength, my calling – it is in knowing and desiring God that my envy is not simply disciplined, but diminished. Envy is naturally, if you will, when our desire for God grows.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.
Like many other vices, envy is a habit that is formed over time. An envious glance here; an envious thought there; a belittling word here; a negative comment there. Our vices are an accumulation of attitudes and actions. Envy in our lives is an accumulation of attitudes and actions. And for those who belong to Christ, the way back from envy, is through the formation of different habits – habits rooted in faith; habits of prayer and reflection that turn our hearts and our desire toward the God who has come to us in Christ and who is alive among us by his spirit. A desire for God, for Christ, and for his way of loving service.
Finally this morning, we have said that in envy there is a grasping after what the other has – there is a grasping after praise for ourselves. There is wish to diminish the other and grasp his or her glory of ourselves. The grasping hand is a good emblem of our envious selves.
And to think a littler further about path away from envy – perhaps we can say that there is no gesture or response that is more important on that move away from envy than the gesture of gratitude. When we open our hands to receive from God, when we open our hands in gratitude toward God, then grasping after our own honour and esteem and well-being becomes impossible. Gratitude will always displace envy. The open-handed gesture of gratitude is fundamentally opposed to the grasping gesture of envy. We cannot reach and grasp if our hands are opened toward the gifts of God – gifts given not only to us but to others around us. Indeed, to be truly open to God’s gifts in my life requires that I be equally open to what God is giving to the other in her life or his life.
In gratitude we receive joyfully what God has given to us.
In gratitude we celebrate what God has given to others.
In gratitude to God we celebrate our intelligence and relationships and gifts.
In gratitude we celebrate the intelligence and relationships and gifts God has given to others.
When we live in gratitude, we live with the grain of the universe – we live in a way that fits with the reality of our world as we must know it in Christ. As we speak words of gratitude for ourselves and others – as we offers prayers of gratitude for ourselves and others – as we offer songs of praise and gratitude for all that God has given to us in Christ Jesus – then we are set free for grateful service to God – and we live to set others free in their grateful service to God.
We do well to remember the prayers of gratitude with which the Apostle Paul opens almost all of his letters. Prayers of gratitude for others – never bemoaning them or their giftedness – but celebrating what God has given. As he says to the Thessalonians Christians: “Timothy has brought us news of your faith and love. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”
Through gratitude to God we receive or become our true selves – and through gratitude to God we set others free to receive or become their true selves. When gratitude defines us, then envy and insecurity and ill-will and bitterness lose their place, then we truly belong to Christ, then love and service define us – and the arrow flies.
Thanks be to God. Amen.