Recognizing the Sin of Envy in Ourselves


Sermonette Notes 7-7-01


Herman Melville, best known as the author of the great American novel Moby Dick about Captain Ahab’s madly fanatical hunt for an albino whale, once wrote:  “Is Envy then such a monster?  Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever anybody seriously confess to envy?”  This question appears in the short novel Melville wrote late in life, Billy Budd.  The story concerns Billy Budd, a handsome but illiterate and marvelously innocent sailor aboard the 74 ship-of-the-line HMS Indomitable in 1797.    John Claggert, the master-at-arms, basically the MP (military police) on board who keeps the men generally in line, envies Billy’s naturally magnetic personality, which made the ship’s men naturally gather around him.  He conspired against Billy, and before the Captain, Edward Vere, accused Billy totally falsely of planning a mutiny.


So then, what exactly is envy?  How did this sin help lead to Christ’s crucifixion.  How is it different from jealousy and coveting?  Do we ever resent other people’s successes in life?  Can we recognize this sin in ourselves in its more subtle manifestations? 


The sin of envy is clearly warned against in Scripture.  It helped to lead directly to Jesus’ death.  It can’t be assumed it will merely go away on its own when it appears.


S.P.S.  We need to be alert to the sin of envy in ourselves and others, and strive to wipe it out.


Envy appears frequently on the “sin lists” of the New Testament.  Are we passing over it too casually?


Genesis 37:11


Joseph was resented by his brothers because their father favored him over his other sons and because of the dreams he had that revealed that one day they would obey him.  They actively sought to harm him, and even thought to kill him.  They didn’t care about having the many-colored coat for themselves.  They figured that by eliminating their rival, then their father would show equal love for them all.  (Notice how Jacob’s own arbitrary acts of favoritism towards the first-born son of his favorite wife contributed to the situation).


Because the meaning of the terms coveting, envy, and jealously naturally tend to overlap, we should distinguish them carefully.  We don’t want to misdiagnose what our spiritual problem here may be by accident.


Coveting is the state of desire in which we intensely desire what someone else has.  For example, the man with the broken down, old junker might covet the Corvette, Lexus, or Cadillac he sees someone else driving.  Greed, the strong desire for money or material things, has nearly the same meaning.  It emphasizes the lack of restraint in the desire.


Jealousy is the emotional state in which we demand someone’s exclusive devotion.  It makes us intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness.  The classic situation in which jealousy occurs, of course, is when a man, who has a particular woman as his wife or girlfriend, resents the other man she is flirting with.


Envy, which is what we’re focusing on today, is one step worse than coveting.  Instead of just desiring the car, house, boat, wife or husband that another person has, we resent and harbor ill will against the person who has what we want.  Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms (p. 207) described “envy” as to “regard another with more or less chagrin, repining, jealousy, or hatred because he possesses something one covets or feels should have come to oneself.”  Hence, if a welfare mother envies a rich and beautiful actress she sees on TV, she resents that person for her good fortune in life.  She doesn’t merely desire to be good-looking, rich, famous, etc. herself.


Now how did envy lead to Christ’s own death, as I mentioned earlier?


Mark 15:10


Since Jesus could do miracles, and was perceived as being unusually close to God even by His enemies, they resented Him.  Since this sin helped lead to Jesus’ own death, we should especially be alert to when we resent other’s successes in life.


One of Satan’s motives in his revolt against God?


Notice that this sin doesn’t necessarily mean a person who envies another would be happy if he himself became rich, famous, good-looking, intelligent, etc.  Instead, he really wishes to rip down, humble, even destroy, the man or woman he envies.  It involves a desire to hurt the one envied.  It’s not so much about wanting someone’s physical talents or material things for oneself.


Now this sin is particularly apt to appear in veiled form in modern politics.  If the sin that the pro-capitalist rightwing caters to is greed, or at least self-interest, the sin that the welfare statist or socialist leftwing appeals to is envy.  Leftwing politicians typically will condemn the rich, whether or not they earned what they have, in order to gain the votes of the much more numerous poorer people.


The “dog in the manger” view of life.  NYC case of building lockers for homeless denied since not accessible to the handicapped.


Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (p. 35):


“For despite the apparent attractiveness of the idea of justice, if one examines it closely, one realizes that it represents the most destructive aspect of Russian psychology.  In practice, “justice” involves the desire that “nobody should live better than I do” . . .

This idea of justice is motivated by hatred of everything that is outstanding, which we make no effort to imitate but, on the contrary, try to bring down to our level, by hatred of any sense of initiative, of any higher or more dynamic way of life than the life we live ourselves.  This psychology is, of course, most typical of the peasantry . . .

As I have observed myself, many peasants find someone else’s success more painful than their own failure.  In general, when the average Russian sees that he is living less well than his neighbor, he will concentrate not on trying to do better for himself but rather on trying to bring his neighbor down to his own level.  My reasoning may seem naïve to some people, but I have been able to observe scores of examples in both village and town, and I see in this one of the typical traits of the Russian psyche.”


Russian American philosopher novelist Ayn Rand called this emotional state “hatred of the good for being the good.”  That is, when someone hates a virtue or value someone else has, one hates that person and desires his destruction.


The New Left:  The Anti-industrial Revolution (pp. 170-71):  “Was compassion the motive of the noted social worker who, years ago, wrote about her visit to Soviet Russia:  ‘It was wonderful to see that everybody in the streets was equally shabby”? . . . Ask yourself what were the motives [compassion vs. envy] in the following example.  A professor asked his class which of the two projected [economic] systems they would prefer:  a system of unequal salaries—or a system paying everyone the same salary, but which would be lower than the lowest one paid under the unequal system.  With the exception of one student, the entire class voted for the system of equal salaries (which was also the professor’s preference).”


p. 156:  “Envy is part of this creature’s feeling, but only the superficial, semirespectable part; it is like the tip of an iceberg showing nothing worse than ice, but with the submerged part consisting of a compose of rotting living matter.  The envy, in this case, is semirespectible because it seems to imply a desire for material possessions, which is a human being’s desire.  But, deep down, the creature has no such desire:  it does not want to be rich, it wants the human being to be poor.”


p. 156-57:  “This is particularly clear in the much more virulent cases of hatred, masked as envy, for those who possess personal values or virtues:  hatred for a man (or a woman) because he (or she) is beautiful or intelligent or successful or honest or happy.  In these cases, the creature has not desire and makes nor effort to improve its appearance, to develop or to use its intelligence, to struggle for success, to practice honesty, to be happy (nothing can make it happy).  It knows that the disfigurement or the mental collapse or the failure or the immorality or the misery of its victim would not endow it with his or her value.  It does not desire the value; it desires the value’s destruction.”


p. 163:  “The touchy vanity of these haters—which flares up at any suggestion of their inferiority to a man of virtue—is not aroused by any saint or hero of altruism, whose moral superiority they profess to acknowledge.  Nobody envies Albert Schweitzer.  Whom do they envy?  The man of intelligence, of ability, of achievement, of independence.”


Example:  Do we hate Bill Gates?  Or some other rich man we’ve never met?


Conclusion:  In conclusion, we have to be alert for envy in ourselves.  If we resent another’s success, especially when it didn’t come at our expense, we may well be guilty of envy.   So now, let’s turn to I Peter 2:1-2:  “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”