Is envy a big deal?

| February 8, 2018 | 0 Comments
Envy

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Q. I’ve been told that I have a streak of envy in me, but I don’t even know what that means. Besides, there are so many worse sins than envy, so why should I even care?

A. Good question. One of the universal experiences that we all unfortunately share is envy. It is one of the most silly and pointless sins, and yet can often be devastating and seemingly impossible to overcome. I describe envy as “silly and pointless” because it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t offer pleasure. It doesn’t even make the promise of happiness virtually every other sin does. (I mean, even a sin like gossip brings with it a little shot of self-importance and glee at sharing a secret, but there is never a moment when envy makes a person feel good.)

Yet, envy unchallenged and allowed to reign free can lead a person to interior bondage and exterior disaster. If I do not resist envy, I can easily become obsessed with my perceived lack and another’s perceived abundance, and this could lead to terrible consequences. (“Othello,” anyone?)

While there can be distinctions between the terms “jealousy” and “envy,” I will use the most simple definition that sees them as relative synonyms: “sadness or distress at another’s well-being.” When trying to describe envy to folks, I often refer to the experience “I’m sad because you are happy,” or the converse “I’m happy because you are sad.”

But what is the source of envy? One answer is Satan. The Book of Wisdom says that it was “through the envy of the devil that death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it” (Wis 2:24). That’s a dash of cold water, isn’t it? When you and I give in to envy, we are aligning our interior selves with the posture of the devil against God and all those whom God loves.

This is why envy is not to be taken lightly. It must be recognized and fought against with God’s grace. Considering that the current fallen state of the created world is not the result of lying, stealing or murder, but envy, that should give us at least a moment’s pause when we discover it in our lives.

Another source of envy is found in the definition offered by the Catholic Encyclopedia: “sorrow which one entertains at another’s well-being because of a view that one’s own excellence is in consequence lessened.” Note this: Envy comes from the fear that “your good means my loss.” It is the fear that another person’s excellence is a threat to my personal value.

I recently read that in Dante’s “Inferno” the author describes those who are in hell for the sin of envy as having their eyelids sown shut with metal wires. This is Dante’s incredibly poetic way of highlighting the fact that those who give in to envy are constantly looking at what others have while being perpetually blind to what they have been given.

I’m sure that we have all experienced this, or we have known someone who seemed to live like this — the kind of person with whom you never feel free to share good news or anything positive that has happened in your life because you know that they are virtually incapable of being happy at the blessings of another. Rather, all they seem to note is that you “have” and they “have not.”

How can we escape from envy? I mean, it isn’t enough for us to simply agree that envy is something we don’t want in our lives. There has to be a way we can be free from envy in every situation. One track that we can take is the route of gratitude. We can choose to fight against the temptation to look at what another has and compare it to what we do not have (envy), and to instead acknowledge the blessings that are currently in our own lives (gratitude).

It leads us to become more and more aware of at least two things: One’s life is filled with good things, and many of those things have been freely given by another. An attitude of abundance (rather than an attitude of scarcity or competition) can greatly enhance gratitude, and any person can do this simply by truly seeing the good things in his or her life and thanking the source of those good things.

But there is also a deeper remedy for envy. It isn’t a matter of willpower or of trying harder. It isn’t even a matter of “counting one’s blessings.” It is the remedy that would have transformed Satan’s reality: the gaze of the Father.

Envy is the result of believing that one is “not enough,” that one is “lacking,” that another’s good “steals from my goodness.” The only thing that can truly restore wholeness is not mere gratitude, but allowing oneself to be seen by the Father.

In prayer (and throughout your day) place yourself beneath God’s gaze. Allow him to declare who you are and what you are worth. When he speaks, there is no voice that can overwhelm his. When the Father defends, there is no liar who can steal or destroy. And when one is claimed by the Father and lives within his sight, there is no room for sorrow at the good of another, because all one sees is the Father’s blessings upon oneself and upon others. Everything is seen as a gift — even the gifts of others.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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