Envy

I’m finally getting around to responding to the final sermon in the series about the seven deadlies. Before I do, let me mention that fear, doubt, obsessive thinking, depression, and all sorts of other things are not among the seven, not in the ten commandments, not in any of the lists of sins in Old or New Testaments. Not that they’re wonderful things to cultivate; they surely hinder us in many ways. But they are not sins.

Fr. John’s opening paragraph resonates quite a bit with that article I previously wrote about, regarding Auden’s poetry and the ability of art to awaken people to realities beyond themselves. Unresisted sin leads to “a gradual closing off of ourselves to light and life until we are locked in the darkness of our own selves.” I know he doesn’t mean that the only reality within ourselves is darkness, or that being a self at all is a dark and awful thing. His next phrase clarifies — “a kind of spiritual solitary confinement” — he’s getting at the darkness that comes when we are unaware of, unengaged with, unconnected to anything outside ourselves.

Evoking the parable of the prodigal son, he goes on to say that in order to reconnect with Christ and receive his light and life, we must “come to ourselves.” This phrase seems to indicate the awareness of one’s self in a broader perspective — to notice the disconnection, and the need and the possibility for connection. To ask, as Jeremiah 2 says, “Where is the Lord,” and to notice that there’s not much water in this broken cistern.

The motif of the true and false selves has been involved in each of these sermons. Envy seems especially related to this motif. As Dallas Willard notes in The Divine Conspiracy, we all have the good* desire to be significant — to count, to matter. Envy comes in because we try to matter in ways that don’t belong to our true self — in ways that other people matter instead. We want what they have instead of what we have, even if it means building up a false self in order to try to get it: “The envious person somehow thinks that his personal identity is forged in competition with others — a false idea that leads to a false self which results in a false way of life.” It involves a scarcity mindset, in which there is only so much success and significance to go around, and so one person’s achievement is felt as our failure or diminishment.

It would be sensible to be who we are — as with many things, it’s easier said than done. It is hard to escape from competition, comparison, trying to impress, being impressed in a way that makes us feel inferior, trying to find the inferiority in others as if doing so would lift us up. It is the dog in the manger who can’t eat the hay and won’t let the cow eat it either. It is the fox who calls the grapes sour just because he couldn’t reach them.

The prevalence of envy is a testimony to the difficulty of coming to a proper estimate of one’s own self. It takes a fairly large dose of humility to combat envy — humility in the sense of an acceptance of reality. C. S. Lewis talked in various places about the Christian having a “preference for the given;” that is, coming to terms with what is, and not with what one wishes were the case.

I’ll add that “coming to terms with what is” also involves dealing with the ‘tyranny of the shoulds’ — not just “what one wishes were the case” but what one thinks ought to be the case, either in ourselves, as if we ought to be able to be different, or in external reality, as if God or other people ought to make things different. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean that you have to think everything is wonderful the way it is — it means that you accept that it is what it is, that you don’t try to will what can’t be willed, that you don’t fight against reality.

Fr. John is quick to remind us that there is such a thing as injustice, and that radical acceptance doesn’t mean we shrug and ignore injustice. However, let us be careful lest we confuse envy and anger at injustice. And:

And most of us, even if we have to fight against the occasional injustice, do, in fact, have what we need to become what God wants us to be. That is, we can truly become our true self — the self that is not envious because what he is, he is because that is what God wants for him, and so there is nothing for him to envy. There is a sense in which we will have no peace at all if we are still unhappy with what we actually are. Of course, what we are is what we are discovering as we pursue our relationship with God. We don’t know — none of us — what we are capable of, what we are finally going to be, until we know ourselves perfectly in God. Most of us have a way to go yet to reach that point.

There is a lot of noise in our lives. So much going on — such a flood of information — constant access. To become the true self — “knowing who we are in Jesus is the basis for all our Christian living” — requires time in quiet, like the prodigal found when he was alone with the pigs in the field. It is not the dark solitary confinement Fr. John described in the beginning of the sermon, but an open quietness with awareness and connection — connection to God, to our selves, to our neighbors.

*The desire to be significant is good. Egotism happens when that desire is frustrated; Willard defines egotism as “pathological self-obsession, a reaction to anxiety about whether one really does count. It is a form of acute self-consciousness and can be prevented and healed only by the experience of being adequately loved” (15).

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