Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Envy” Genesis 4:1-12
This is the second message in a Lenten series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
Aristotle described envy as the pain we experience when we learn of the good fortune of others. We see the ability, resources, or excellence of our neighbor, and we want that for ourselves. Thirteenth century scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas characterized envy as an active, escalating resentment. Seeing our neighbor’s good fortune, we first seek to lower their reputation, perhaps through tale telling or criticism. Next, we feel joy at the other’s misfortune, or we feel grief at our neighbor’s continuing prosperity. Finally, over-focused on their success or well-being, we feel hatred. Augustine taught that envy is a truly diabolical sin because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good in our neighbor, and we, consequently, rob our community and world of that God-given goodness. Last week, I shared that C.S. Lewis characterized pride as the anti-God sin. Well, envy is the anti-neighbor sin. Envy stands in bitter opposition to that second half of Jesus’ Great Commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The root of envy is the Latin word invidia, which means unseeing or blind. When we are envious, we don’t see things as they truly are. We waste our time in over-focusing on the lives of others, and we fail to see and pursue our own unique God-given gifts and purpose. The Medieval poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri depicted the sin of envy in his Divine Comedy. The envious are second only to the prideful in their fall from grace. In Hell, they plod eternally under grey cloaks made of lead. In an act of poetic justice, their eyes are sewn eternally shut with metal wire, unable to see their neighbor or themselves.
That most essential biblical paradigm of envy is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). Cain, the farmer, brings a portion of his harvest as an offering to the Lord. Abel, the herdsman, presents to God the best of his flock—the firstborn with the choicest and fattiest portions. Abel gave God the best while Cain did what was adequate. Instead of learning that God deserves our first-fruits, Cain was filled with envy at his brother’s acceptance. Even after God cautioned Cain about the destructive power of envy, Cain met his brother in the field and murdered him. The world was robbed of Abel’s gifts and Cain was cut off from his family and even the land.
In the New Testament, Matthew’s gospel tells us that the Chief Priests and elders of the Temple handed Jesus over to Pilate for execution out of envy (Matt. 25:18-20). Then, they ensured that Pilate could not extend mercy by persuading the crowd to call for the release Barabbas instead of Jesus. Influence and money changed hands to ensure Jesus’ death. Envious of Jesus’ wisdom, gifts, and God-given authority, those Temple-insiders conspired to discredit him and rob him of his life.
We know envy when we see it. The legendary voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer described the experience of her family. They lived as sharecroppers on the plantation where they had once been enslaved. Thanks to the hard work of her father and mother and their twenty children, the family prospered. Her father was able to save enough to buy a team of mules to work more land. Their dreams crumbled when an envious white sharecropper poisoned the mules.
Envy is manifest in the realm of athletics. On January 6, 1994, U.S. Figure Skating Champion Nancy Kerrigan was brutally attacked as she prepared to defend her national title. Badly bruised, Kerrigan withdrew from the competition, and her rival Tonya Harding took the title. An FBI investigation ultimately determined that the attack on Kerrigan was prompted by envy. Harding with her husband and bodyguard conspired to take Kerrigan out of the competition and ensure Harding’s own bid for the Olympics.
Social theorists say that we live in an Age of Envy, which is fueled by social media, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Professor Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan says that envy is at an extreme today because we are constantly bombarded by photo-shopped lives. Barraged by images of the achievement and joy of others—the spectacular vacations, the joyful families, the workplace accomplishments—we feel envy. We resent others, and we feel bad about ourselves.
Envy manifests in our lives when we gossip. We defame the character of our imagined rival and undermine their standing in the community. We criticize and belittle their accomplishments. We refuse to acknowledge their gifts and abilities. We undermine their efforts to get ahead. We attack their expertise and sabotage their work. When I was an undergrad at Colgate, a top student in the pre-med program was caught spitting in the test tubes of his rivals to ruin their research. Our envious actions don’t make us feel any better. Instead, we are left dissatisfied with who we are and what we have, resentful about our lot in life, and unhappy with the world as we know it.
The remedy for envy is found in the virtues of gratitude and kindness. Gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for what we have been given and thankfulness for the generosity of others. Martin Luther taught that gratitude is “the basic Christian attitude” because God is the selfless giver of all good things, and we are all immeasurably blessed. Gratitude doesn’t forget or ignore the negative aspects of our lives, but it sees the good even amid the hardship. The 18th century prophet of the Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards believed that our gratitude is the clearest measure of our spiritual health, because gratitude reveals our awareness of the presence and goodness of God in our every day. Gratitude is the enemy of envy because we see and savor the goodness of God in our own lives, and we acknowledge that God is at work in others in ways that bless them and bless the world around them. Gratitude restores our right relationship with God—we become like that Samaritan Leper, who returned to give thanks to Jesus, falling down at his feet and praising the Lord (Luke 17:11-19).
Professor Robert Emmons of University of California Davis has been the preeminent scholar of gratitude for more than twenty years. His research has found that when we cultivate gratitude, it is good for us and others. People who keep a weekly gratitude journal by recording the ways they have been blessed feel better about their lives and are more optimistic. Folks who maintain a gratitude list—a master list of their blessings—were more likely to make progress toward important goals in school, work, relationships, and health. A daily time of focusing on gratitude increases our alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy. The daily discipline of gratitude also makes us more likely to help others and offer our support.
That leads us to our second weapon in battling the sin of envy: kindness. Aristotle described kindness as helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, but to simply benefit the person whom we are helping. Kindness is the exercise of charity, compassion, friendship, and sympathy simply for its own sake. Studies at Yale University have suggested that kindness is inherent in human beings. Babies have the impulse to be kind, and we can all testify to the natural sympathy of children, to their innate desire to show concern for a peer who is in distress. Mark Twain reminds us that kindness is active. He said, “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see,” because we are out there doing it. One of the amazing dimensions of kindness is that in practicing it we often find that we are blessed. My seminary professors called this mission-in-reverse. Even as we reach out to help someone else, we find that our interaction touches our heart, expands our understanding, or makes a new friend. We often get so much more out of our kind impulses than we put in.
The biblical paradigm of kindness is, of course, The Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The Samaritan rises above prejudice to come to the aid of his wounded, vulnerable Jewish neighbor when no one else will. He cleans wounds, takes the man to shelter, and pays his way, all out of kindness. According to Jesus, kindness like this is what truly makes us neighbors. Gratitude and kindness are the antithesis of envy because they make us mindful of God’s incredible goodness to us and turn us to our neighbors with open hearts and willing hands. Thanks be to God.
I suspect that as we go forth into the Lenten season, we will experience envy. We’ll be scrolling through our Facebook feed and feel envy’s gut-punch as we read of our neighbor’s epic vacation. We’ll wear a forced smile when our friend tells us they are putting in a new kitchen. Our neighbor will retire early, and we’ll resent their leisure. Envy will rear its ugly head. But we can get the better of it. Count your blessings. Give thanks to the one who fills our lives with goodness beyond measure. Pay it forward. Reach out to the world with kindness. The world will be blessed—and so will we. Amen.
Becky Little. “How the 7 Deadly Sins Began as the ‘8 Evil Thoughts’” in History, March 29, 2021. Accessed online at history.com.
WJS Martin. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy” in Anglican Way Magazine, Feb. 14, 2016. Accessed online at anglicanway.org.
Charles Pope. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy” in Community in Mission, April 5, 2019. Accessed online at blog.adw.org.
Moya Sarner. “The Age of Envy” in The Guardian, October 9, 2018. Accessed online at theguardian.com.
Walter Brueggemann. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Robert A. Emmons. “Highlights from the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness” in Dimensions and Perspectives of Gratitude. Los Angeles: UC Davis, 2010.
1 Now Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”