One of the seven deadly sins is envy, or jealousy, and it can be a very unattractive attitude because it often involves an element of hypocrisy. There was an instance in which the actors in a play were extremely jealous of each other’s success, with each of them wanting all the applause and recognition for themselves. The ironic thing was that the play called for their characters to show great love and tenderness and concern for each other, and they acted this out very movingly onstage—but backstage they were bitter, vicious, and suspicious of each other (Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, p. 271). Envy will cause people to do stupid and even dangerous things. Some years ago there was a news story about a farmer who actually fired his shotgun at his neighbors while they were out on their tractor working in a field; they had been having an ongoing argument over manure, of all things. The police were called, and they had to taser the farmer in order to subdue him (Port Huron Times Herald, Sept. 15, 2009).
Property disputes are nothing new, and such an argument ended up playing a major role in the vocation of one of the Church’s saints. In the 10th century a man named Sergius was arguing with a relative over the ownership of some family property, and the two men decided to settle the matter with a duel. Sergius forced his son Romuald to witness the fight, and when young Romuald saw his father win the duel by killing his relative, he was horrified. Even though it was his father who had sinned out of envy, greed, and anger, Romuald fled to a monastery to do penance—but even there he wasn’t safe from jealousy. He prayed and did penance with such intensity that some of the other monks were put to shame, and they forced the future saint to leave. St. Romuald eventually established a number of monasteries of his own, and even convinced his father Sergius to spend the rest of his life in one of them, doing penance for his sins. In this case, a tragic story of envy had a happy ending, but a look at today’s world shows that it doesn’t always work this way. Many lives are ruined because people have disordered desires and uncontrolled feelings, and are unwilling to accept God’s plan for their lives. This must never be true for us as Christians. God blesses each one of us far more than we can ever deserve—and if we’re giving thanks the way we should, we’ll be too busy to make comparisons with others.
As human beings, we all like to feel we’re special, and that’s good—unless that feeling causes us to show disrespect toward other people. In the Letter of James (5:1-6), the rich are condemned for being unsatisfied with the blessings they had already received in addition to their willingness to cheat and abuse the poor to achieve more. Violence rooted in envy always leads to moral and spiritual disaster; St. James insists that a severe punishment awaits those who act in such a manner. Even milder cases of jealousy can be a major obstacle to spiritual growth. In the Book of Numbers (11:25-29), Moses had to correct Joshua, his protégé, for being envious that two men who were absent from the camp at the appointed time nonetheless received the gift of prophecy like the others. Fortunately Joshua humbly accepted this correction, learned his lesson, and went on to become a great leader of the people. The same thing was true of John and the other apostles (Mark 9:38-48), who were upset at first when they saw someone else using the Name of Jesus to perform good deeds. Our Lord explained that rather than being an occasion for envy, this was a reason to rejoice—for all who associate themselves with Him will be blessed. Jesus also used the occasion to warn of the extreme importance of helping others in His Name, and of doing whatever is necessary to avoid harming anyone. He didn’t mean we must literally cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes, but this figure of speech does emphasize the grave importance of guarding ourselves against every deadly sin, envy included.
An interesting fact from the world of crab fishing is that when the crabs are caught and put in a basket, it’s never necessary to cover the basket with a lid: even though the crabs can easily climb out of the basket and escape, if one of them tries to do so, the others will pull it back down (Nelson, op. cit., p. 271). Quite often human beings act in this same manner; seeing someone else’s success should result in admiration and imitation, but often leads instead to criticism, back-stabbing, and vicious jealousy—and just as all the crabs remain imprisoned in the basket when they could easily escape, so no one wins when we’re too busy being envious to fulfill the duties God has given uniquely to us. As Christians, it’s imperative that we learn to recognize and resist this temptation. Over 100 years ago there was a very successful Christian evangelist whose lectures on the Bible drew great crowds—but then another evangelist began preaching to even larger numbers of people. The first evangelist confessed to his friends that he was tempted to feel envious—and then he added, “The only way I can conquer my feelings is to pray for him daily, which I do” (Nelson, op. cit., p. 272).
That is a true Christian response: praying for the persons who arouse feelings of jealousy within us. Humble, honest prayer of this sort not only pleases God; it helps us overcome the temptation to be envious, and even allows us to rejoice in the other person’s success—and when we reach this point, we are making true spiritual progress. The 4th century bishop St. John Chrysostom said that one of the best ways of praising God is by being sincerely happy over the well-being of others, and the more we do this, the more we ourselves become capable of being blessed by God. This goes against the mindset of the world, which preaches class envy and suspicion and complaining, and insists that we can only get ahead at the expense of other people—but in looking at the condition of society today, we have to ask ourselves if this is the direction we want to follow: jealousy, anger, greed, violence, and spiritual death. Jesus calls us to travel a very different path: generosity, humility, kindness, compassion, and genuine concern for others and rejoicing over their successes and spiritual well-being. We don’t have to keep score in life; that’s God’s job—and as long as we try to make love our highest priority, we’ll all end up winners.