What is prohibited in the Ten Commandments, included among the acts of the flesh in the New Testament, listed as one of the seven deadly sins, and described by Shakespeare as the green-eyed monster? *
The answer is envy.
It’s hard to imagine there’s anyone who hasn’t been envious. You might think it’s especially a failing in affluent societies, a temptation of people in suburbia who ‘want to keep up with the Joneses’. Whatever others have, they want it too. But envy also happens in the poorest of places. Someone has a better tea pot, or bicycle, or job, or a rich relative who sends them money, and others want these things too.
It’s an understandable sin. We all want our lives to be better, so we envy those who have things or connections or abilities which would improve our lives, if only we had them too.
Sometimes we justify our envy. ‘It’s not fair they have these things,’ we reason. ‘Why shouldn’t I have them as well?’
I studied Human Resources as part of my management degree. One paper described how staff reacted when the work was demanding but the pay poor. Interestingly, their research showed that employees would work for low wages providing everyone doing that work had the same low wage. But if some were paid more, those on less were seriously discontent. They wanted parity. They wanted what others were getting.
On the whole, though, few try to justify envy. Down the ages envy, and its close cousin jealousy, is considered wrong.
I’m going to set out three ways in which envy is harmful. I’ll finish by adding three rather different thoughts.
First, how envy harms lives.
Envy is a cruel master
I spent a lot of time trying to help Gwyn and Julie. People would think they were a great couple with two wonderful children. But they had a secret. They were lost in a maze of unpayable debts. They owed money to the bank and on five different credit cards, and when they’d maxed out on their limits, they’d borrowed from short-term lenders at astronomical interest rates. That wasn’t all. They’d bought from several catalogue companies, the kind where you pay small sums every week but the overall cost of goods is high. And they owed significant sums for unpaid utility services and local taxes.
I sat with them for hours, tried to list every outstanding amount, and, just when I thought we were done, Julie or Gwyn would remember another debt. They were deeply submerged in a financial swamp. Debt collectors phoned constantly and banged on their front door at all hours.
The couple seemed unable to think straight so, on their behalf, I began contacting credit card providers, banks and catalogue companies. Most of them were amenable to working out payment arrangements. I introduced them to a friendly bank manager, and we considered consolidating all their debts and structuring a payment plan.
But, just before any of those remedial arrangements went into effect, I saw Gwyn and Julie’s children playing on brand-new bicycles. How could they have those new bikes? I caught up with their parents, and asked for an explanation. ‘All their friends seemed to have new bicycles, and we couldn’t let our children not have them too,’ Julie said. I asked how they found money to buy them. Sheepishly she said, ‘We got them from a catalogue company we’d never used before’. More debt. Soon after Gwynn and Julie were made bankrupt. I lost touch but I believe their marriage fell apart a year or two later.
There are three hard truths from Gwynn and Julie’s story. First, the fundamental problem behind most of their debt? They saw what others had and they had to have it too. Second, their envy was uncontrolled. It got them into debt, and then more debt. Third, despite outward appearances, and despite all they bought, Gwyn and Julie were miserable. So miserable, it ended their relationship.
Envy is a cruel and destructive master.
Envy is insatiable
Envy doesn’t have limits. It’s inexhaustible. We may think, ‘If only I have this, then I’ll be satisfied.’ But we’re not. We will always see something better than what we have already, and we’ll want that too.
One of my favourite podcasts is ‘No Stupid Questions’. A recent episode had the title: Why Do We Want What We Can’t Have? ** The presenters included the story of a stone cutter who constantly wanted something better for his life.
A stone cutter is passing the house of a wealthy merchant and sees his expensive and fancy possessions, and his important visitors, and he says to himself ‘Wow, that merchant must be so powerful. It must be amazing to be like that.’
The next day he wakes up as the merchant. So he’s happy for a while. Then he sees a high-ranking, important government official being carried in a sedan by his servants. And he thinks ‘Woah! How powerful that official must be.’
The next day he becomes the official, and this trend continues and the guy becomes the sun, he becomes a big storm cloud, and he becomes the wind. Then he finds that the one thing he can’t move when he’s the wind is a massive rock so he grows envious of the rock.
And next day he’s the rock. One day he hears the sound of a hammer hitting his surface and he thinks ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute – what could be more powerful than me, the rock? And he looks down and sees a stone cutter…
That story says it all. Envy is never satisfied. There’s always one thing more, then another and another, an unending lust for things better than those we have already. In the end it get us nowhere.
Envy is no judge of what really matters
I arrived in the car park of the golf club, and began getting my gear out of the car. I was getting ready to play in a pairs match – my partner and I against two golfers from another club. My partner arrived in his Jaguar. Then the first of our opponents drove into the car park in his Porsche. Minutes later our second opponent came in his Audi S5. I hadn’t come in any of these elite models of car. I came in my Nissan. For a moment I wished I had one of their cars. I wouldn’t have been fussy. Any of them would be fine. But I caught myself quickly, realising ‘I already have a good car. It does everything I want a car to do.’ What matters with a car is that it gets you from A to B with reasonable comfort, safety and reliability. My car does that. The brand name is not what’s important.
Envy doesn’t think like that. Envy casts greedy eyes over anything supposedly better or more desirable than what you have already, and says ‘You should have that’.
Envy doesn’t think of affordability, or climate impact, or even suitability. It considers only things like prestige, speed, and impressing others. They are not the things that really matter.
I’ll finish with three rather different points about envy. The first will seem surprising.
- Sometimes envy pushes people to do the right thing
Envy is a bad driver, but occasionally points us in a good direction. I’ll give an example.
While I worked in America, my car was a Subaru. I’d never owned a Subaru or any 4 x 4 car before, but it was the right car to have for the snow and ice of a Chicago winter. I deeply appreciated that car’s road-holding ability when the temperature was minus 18F. But what I most enjoyed was its reversing camera. Put the car into reverse, and a rear-facing camera showed an image on the dashboard of whatever was behind. I loved showing that to friends. Some said, ‘Wow! I wish I had that feature on my car.’ That was envy. But a good envy, because reversing cameras don’t just prevent you reversing into a wall, they stop you running over the toddler who’s invisible to wing mirrors but standing right behind the car. My friends’ envy meant they’d insist on a rear-view camera when they next bought a car, which might save a life.
In that instance envy served a good purpose.
- Envy is not inevitable. It’s a choice
Envy feels like it’s a reaction. Your neighbour builds a wonderful extension on their house, or takes their family on the vacation of a lifetime, or gets promotion at their work, or inherits a million from an aunt they never visited. And you react with ‘I want that too’ or ‘I wish that would happen to me’. It’s an instinct, the thought that inevitably comes to mind.
But envy is not inevitable. It happens so quickly and easily it feels automatic. We’ve become used to it, as if coveting what our neighbour has is a preset feature of our humanity.
But it isn’t a preset. Envy is a choice.
Envy is a choice just as greed or lust or anger is a choice. If someone puts a plate of Danish pastries in front of me, must I eat one? Or two? Or three? If I see a beautiful woman, must I imagine having sex with her? If someone is rude and insulting, must I punch them on the nose? We’d say there’s no must about any of these. We might fail, but it was never inevitable we’d fail. Nor is it inevitable we’ll fail with envy.
The hard truth is this: envy is a choice. We are not helpless beings, pushed around by irresistible instincts. We can make decisions, including a decision not to envy what others have.
- To beat envy, turn the other way
You’ll have heard or read this: Happiness is not having everything you want, but wanting what you have. (It’s a saying attributed to many writers.) It’s rather simplistic. But what it points to is powerful: contentment.
For a time the Apostle Paul was held prisoner in Rome. From his prison he wrote letters, including the one to the church in Philippi. Given his circumstances these words are remarkable:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13)
Paul was beaten, thrown out of cities, deserted by friends, suffered poor health and, here, languished in prison. Yet, whatever his circumstances, he was content. But please notice that twice he says he has ‘learned’ to be content.
We’ve all learned things – how to use tools, how to speak a language, how to drive a car, how to grow plants, how to play chess, and many more. We didn’t know automatically how to do these things, but we learned. It took effort, time and commitment, but we got there.
The same is true with contentment. There aren’t ten easy steps to memorise and, suddenly, you’re now perfectly content. It’s choosing to be at peace with what you have, and choosing to resist the urge to chase what you don’t have. I’d never pretend that’s easy, but I know it’s possible.
And here’s an encouraging truth. If two things are in opposite directions, moving towards one takes you further from the other. Contentment and envy lie in opposite directions, so the more we walk towards contentment the further we are from envy. I can’t overcome envy by thinking constantly about things I envy, hoping that one day I’ll wake up not wanting those shiny new things others have. I overcome envy by focusing on the very many thing I have already that bring me contentment. I choose to be content, and let envy perish by neglect.
I urge you to do the same.
* The tenth of the Ten Commandments is: ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Exodus 20:17)
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, says this: ‘The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’ (Galatians 5:19-21)
Thomas Aquinas – the 13th century Italian philosopher and theologian – is considered to have defined the standard list of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth.
Shakespeare used the term ‘green-eyed monster’ in Othello, Act 3, Scene 3:
“O beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”
** No Stupid Questions Ep. 68 https://freakonomics.com/podcast/nsq-envy/