There is a cruel side to Christmas. There it was under the tree: A Laser Blaster 2000! Nothing else mattered. You raced around the house gleefully saving the world from bug-eyed monsters from outer space, but then came that awful moment Christmas afternoon when you met your friends. You triumphantly held up your prize and pride, the Laser Blaster 2000, only to discover Billy got the Laser Blaster 3000 with battery powered flashing lights and realistic sound. The joy you felt a moment before was snuffed out and you began to feel — perhaps for the first time — the spark of envy.
By the time we become adults that little spark has become the raging fire of “conspicuous consumption.” We begin buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know. The desire to be the envy of others often leads to overspending and consequent marital conflicts. (Arguments over money and spending is listed as one of the greatest causes of divorce in America.) “A convincing case can be make that the entire free enterprise system is fueled by envy,” Harry Stein writes in his book, Ethics and Other Liabilities.
Envy isn’t just about material things. We envy successful people. We envy beautiful people. We envy powerful people and have you noticed the irony of it all? Envying someone causes them no inconvenience whatsoever. In fact, the object of our envy is likely to enjoy the envy of others! Stein continues, “No emotion is so corrosive of the system and the soul as acute envy” because, unlike hatred or lust or violent anger, it is internalized and there is nothing therapeutic about it. Envy can be debilitating to the point of paralysis and then there is the ugliness factor. It is nearly impossible to envy with style. Invariably we end up looking as small as we feel. In fact, at its base, envy is largely a matter of self-contempt — an intense dissatisfaction with what we are.
Anthony Campolo (The Seven Deadly Sins) observes, “Envy diminishes people’s enjoyment of life because they cannot be content with what they possess.” A man who covets another man’s wife becomes discontented with his own. A woman who envies another woman’s sexy appearance becomes a supporter of a cultural system which diminishes her own value and encourages her own unhappiness.
Envy isn’t just a sin of the world; I’ve seen it within the church. One minister is jealous of another staff member’s success and his envy leads him to say and do all kinds of horrible and hurtful things. The story is told of the devil. Once Satan was crossing the desert and came across some of his minions trying unsuccessfully to tempt a poor Christian pilgrim. They were using every trick they knew — temptations of the flesh, doubts, fears — all to no avail. Satan smiled and asked them for a turn. The devil bent down and whispered in the man’s ear, “Your brother has just been made the Bishop of Alexandria.” The serene face of the pilgrim twisted into a scowl fueled by the fires of envy and jealousy.
So what can we do about envy? An attitude of gratitude can shield us. I like the wise observation, “If you think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence; it is probably because you are not properly caring for the grass on your own side.” When we count our blessings and are grateful for what God has given us, we are protected from envy. Likewise, learning to be happy for others is a mark of wisdom. Christians are urged to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12:15). It’s all part of learning to live unselfishly. Third, we need to “learn to let go.” One of the greatest joys — and perhaps one of the hardest challenges — is to give things away. How much do we really need to be happy? Finally, we need to commit to the common cause. The war we face is not with each other! We are in this world together.
Let’s go back and change that Christmas afternoon scenario. “Billy, that Blaster 3000 is great! I am so happy for you. Now let’s go save the world from bug-eyed monsters — together!”
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