Looking across the parking lot outside my kitchen window the other day, I spied a coyote loping rather more rapidly than normal, pursued a few moments later by a golden retriever mix running for all it was worth. Kind of humorous in a way—the survival-hardened coyote easily besting the soft, house-warmed, city-dwelling retriever. The retriever almost seemed like he wanted to play, but the coyote wasn’t having it … taking “the better part of valor,” just in case.
It reminded of a spectacle years ago of a large dog running flat out to try to catch a small herd of pronghorns … which loped casually along ahead of it, easily and teasingly maintaining the distance despite the dog’s determined effort. Sorry, old lad; you’re just plain outclassed. In both cases, one can almost imagine the dogs’ “thoughts”: “Dang! I wish I could run that fast!”
Ah … envy; one of the proverbial seven deadly sins, and one that can really cripple if taken to the extreme … which it is more often than we might realize. How many lives destroyed, how many reputations ruined, how many futile pursuits striven toward, how many friendships obliterated, how many families impoverished, how many lives wasted because of that nefarious vice. It’s no wonder it’s a four-letter word, and that scripture exhorts: “…neither will I travel in the company of sickly envy, for envy does not associate with wisdom.” (Wisdom 6:23)
A limited “envy” may not necessarily be a bad thing if it motivates one to improve and excel honestly. Take, for example, our aforementioned retriever: if he could reason, perhaps envy of the coyote could get him off of his cushion more often, push the kibble bowl aside a bit sooner, and go run the canyons once in a while. Similarly, any of us might find a mentor who works hard, seeks self-improvement, is honest, etc. This self-motivation is not necessarily bad if kept within reason and perspective.
Evil enters when admiration and its accompanying emulation/imitation turns into destructiveness and hatred. If our retriever put out poison, or booby-trapped the coyote’s path, or subverted the coyote’s reputation with his pack, that would pass into destructive envy. Likewise, we’ve all likely either witnessed (or suffered) back-stabbing by friends or co-workers envious of success. Then there’s the gossip, the rumors, the calumny, the sabotage, the theft of intellectual property, the unjustified blaming, destruction of reputation, etc. These are despicably low, not to mention petty and cowardly … especially remembering that such actions don’t hurt only the person targeted, but the family/co-workers depending on him/her.
And then there’s the “keeping up with the Joneses” envy—putting on the façade, going into debt to one’s eyeballs if necessary just to be admired—the car, the house, the remodel, the overseas vacations, etc., even to the point of bankruptcy, and endless family strife and danger to its welfare. When I worked for a major petroleum company, I could not but marvel at colleagues who purchased houses (often bereft of furnishings), which required almost their last monthly dime … all for appearances. “What IS the point?!” was my question.
When I ministered in prison, I found that envy drove much of prisoners’ crimes—especially the desire to be rich and have other people envy them!—“envy seeking envy”, as it were. Some gang members even expected to be killed one day by their own people when they had done too much and knew too much, and thus became a possible liability to the higher-ups … but they joined nonetheless. All for the glitz, the glamour, the passing pleasures, the momentary prestige. So much more content, I think, is honest labor and the peace of mind of daily work than criminality (or even dishonesty) in which there IS no rest, but only never-ending threat of prison, or worse.
So much more peace is found in living simply, honestly, humbly and well within one’s means. The temptation to prestige or honors always looms, but we can repel it with reason and integrity, remembering the carnage that envy threatens to bring to others, and even to oneself and one’s family. The wise remember scripture: “The essentials for life are water and bread and clothing and a house to cover one’s nakedness. Better is the life of a poor man under the shelter of his roof than sumptuous food in another man’s house.” (Sirach 29:21-22) … and St. Paul: “There is great gain in godliness [virtue] with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Timothy 6:6-8)
We don’t have to live a minimalist existence, but the wise man/woman will see the truth of Paul’s words, and seek to live without excess. Jesus gives the best advice of all: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
In the end, no matter our position on the social/financial/success/beauty/intellect ladder, there is always someone with more; therefore, envy is one of the most pointless of vices. Certainly we use the gifts God has given us for the betterment of family and society; after all, the line from “Kingdom of Heaven” applies: “What man IS a man who does not make the world better?” But always within boundaries of virtue, for “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)
Jesus came to serve and not to be served; His disciples necessarily should have the same attitude and ideal. And with such an ideal, there is no room for insidious envy.