The green-eyed monster

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

Blind to what’s obvious

How do we fail to see something that’s completely obvious? Later we’ll say ‘It was staring me in the face. How could I have missed that?’ But we did.

Motorcyclists have died when a car driver pulled out in front of them at a road junction. Afterwards the driver says ‘I just never saw him’. But the rider was there, plainly there.

Most of us miss errors in our writing. After I’ve written this blog, I’ll re-read it two or three times, correcting mistakes or improving sentences. Then I’ll print it out and my wife, Alison, will proof read it for errors and unclear meaning. After that I’ll go through the paper copy line by line, and I’ll find even more mistakes. Finally, all changes made, I’ll read through it one last time. And always – always! – I’ll still find another error. How did I not see that earlier?

In the first example the driver was blind to what he didn’t expect to see – a motorcycle. It was obvious, but he was looking for larger vehicles, not motorbikes. In the second example my eyes see wrongly spelled words on the page but assume they’re correct.

Blindness to what’s obvious is an odd phenomenon. But also a common one.

It’s a kind of blindness which can affect our view of big and small issues.

We’re blind when we don’t want to see what’s there    I’m writing a year and a half after Covid-19 began affecting everyone’s lives significantly. The number of infections and deaths runs into many millions, and most countries have had repeated levels of lockdown. My friend Richard said to me, ‘I’m fed up with lockdowns. I can’t accept another one’. A little impatiently I asked him what that meant – that instead of lockdown he was accepting he might get seriously ill or that he might make others seriously ill? He’s still my friend, but Richard didn’t like my questions. He didn’t want to see the hard reality of a virus we hadn’t overcome and may never wholly overcome.

I met similar defiance on another subject from Paul. He’s so utterly opposed to ideas of global warming or climate change he evangelises denial. He knows the vast majority of scientists argue differently, but he doesn’t believe them. Paul is not a scientist. He’s simply someone who doesn’t want to change his consumerist lifestyle, so prefers not to see truth in the scientists’ research conclusions.

I’ve seen much the same blindness in those who look down on black people as somehow inferior. And in men who can’t see why women would want the opportunities and positions of leadership and influence that they have.

These are not stupid people. But they deny overwhelming scientific or moral evidence and argument. They’re blind to what they don’t want to see.

We’re blind when we don’t recognise what’s there    That’s why the car driver says ‘I never saw the motorcycle’. Because he was looking only for bigger vehicles like cars and buses, he didn’t recognise what was right before him.

The same problem occurs with relationships. I can’t be the only person who’s tried to help a couple save their marriage but privately thought: ‘This couple should never have got married in the first place’. They’re struggling because they were always fundamentally unsuited. Perhaps others saw there would be problems, but the couple didn’t. And now the relationship is in trouble.

There’s an old saying ‘Love is blind’. It can be, but it never should be. People excuse or bypass problems they should recognise as serious. I’ve jotted down the kinds of statements people make, and added my own comments after each.

‘The problems will go away once we’re married.’ [That’s naïve. A wedding service doesn’t magically make deep-rooted problems vanish.]

‘This may be the only chance I’ll ever have to be married. I’m sure it’ll all work out.’ [False optimism can’t justify getting married. Marriage is great, but only between the right people.]

‘I’ll be able to change him once we’re married.’ [There are two problems here: a) it isn’t true; b) while she’s thinking she’ll change him, he may be thinking he’ll change her. Collision ahead.]

‘I really want to have children; nothing else matters.’ [I knew someone who married exactly on that basis. The parents and their children were miserable and damaged.]

‘Everyone thinks we’re a great match; we’ll be fine.’ [Everyone may be saying you’re a great match. But that may be no more than politeness or fear of sounding negative. In any case, they don’t know the inner reality of your relationship.]

‘Perhaps real love will come later.’ [There are marriages where that happens, sometimes in cultures with arranged marriages. But gambling on ‘perhaps’ is a bad bet.]

‘It doesn’t matter that we have different values and goals. All that counts is that we love each other.’ [John Lennon wrote the song ‘All you need is love’ while fascinated by the power of slogans. It became a hit, but that doesn’t prove the slogan is true. Where a couple’s values and goals pull in different directions, love will be under great strain.]

What these small scenarios have in common is a blindness to how things really are. Perhaps all their friends are getting married, so surely they should too. And they convince themselves that marriage will be wonderful while failing to see serious problems which will undermine a wonderful life together.

We’re blind when we don’t care what’s there     Some eat so much they’re seriously obese, ignore their doctor’s warnings, and take years off their life expectancy. Others drink to excess, damaging their liver and family life too. Or they drink and drive, risking death for them and others. Or (going back a few decades) they manufacture cigarettes and deny there’s any proof that smoking harms health. Or career climbers work 18 hours a day, ignoring signs of ulcers or heart irregularities. Or overbearing bosses create a toxic work environment with bullying and threatening behaviour. Or the management of a chemical plant pumps waste into waterways, contaminating drinking water. Or planners and builders pack so many homes into small areas, there’s nowhere for recreation, and cars congest streets which diminishes air quality to levels that damage health. And so on.

Perhaps all of us have our ‘blind spots’ – areas of life we don’t examine much in case we find something that should change but we don’t want to change. It happens at personal levels (such as eating, drinking, driving), management levels (wellbeing of staff or customers), planning and regulatory levels (quality of life issues). We don’t care enough to look closely at what’s happening with ourselves or the lives of others.

Some things are complicated. Losing weight or stopping an addiction isn’t simple for anyone. And planning in an overcrowded city is compromised by the need to house people. But other things aren’t complicated, such as the morality of promoting a lethal product or disposing carcinogenic chemicals recklessly.

At root, there’s a kind of blindness. If we don’t care enough to look, we don’t see the consequences of our actions. But later we regret not putting things right. One man said: ‘I didn’t value my health until I didn’t have it any more’. Exactly. He had been blind to how valuable his health was.

Of course, the challenge with any of these forms of ‘blindness’ is that we don’t realise we’re blind. We think we see the world perfectly clearly.

Two things can change that.

The first is that something shatters our delusion. It could be dramatic like driving straight into the path of a motorcyclist, or a marriage ends, or health breaks down. Or more gentle such as realising we’re out of synch with the views of most people.

The second way to change is by choice. The choice is determining to be open to new ideas or perspectives. Willing to rethink big issues. Willing to view people differently. Willing to change lifestyle. Willing to review the quality of relationships. And so on. It’s taking the risk of seeing truths differently from before. That’s not easy. You might need a real friend to help you, because it may involve accepting being wrong in the past, and rethinking how to live for the future.

But it’s worth it. It could end dangerous blindness in your life.


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Serious business

As I drove past, I barely noticed the broken down car on the grass verge at the side of the road. Except, something had caught my eye. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said to my wife, Alison. ‘Did you see the sticker on the back of that car?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Why? What did it say?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘But if it’s anything like what I think it was…’ I found the first safe place to U-turn, back we went and pulled up beside the abandoned car.

The very prominent sticker on the rear of the car was what I thought it was. In big bold letters it said: Got a problem? Just try Jesus!

I don’t have any issue with encouraging troubled people to turn to Jesus. It’s the right thing to do when you have problems, and even better to do it before you have problems.

But I do have issues with that way of communicating the message.

The least of my issues was that the sticker was a bad advert in those circumstances. That car looked like it had been broken down for several days. ‘Got a problem? Just try Jesus!’ clearly hadn’t got the car going. If I’d driven past it every day, I’d have been thinking, ‘What Jesus wants you to try now is calling a garage or a rescue service.’

However, I had more significant problems with that car sticker.

A 21st century generation isn’t won over by trite messages. Sloganizing doesn’t impress. I’ve come across sayings like these:

  • Why worry when you can pray
  • Know God, Know Peace; No God, No Peace.
  • Let Go and Let God
  • When down in the mouth, remember Jonah. He came out alright.
  • 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given

I almost like the Jonah saying, but it’s funny and understandable only for people who know their bibles. They, presumably, are not the target audience.

 Some slogans are much more troublesome than my examples.

An associate minister told me that, when he was younger, he used ‘conversation starters’ with university students.

‘What kind of conversation starters?’ I asked.

He listed them. I shuddered. The worst was probably ‘Turn or burn’. The rest were nearly as dreadful and offensive.

‘Who did you say them to?’ I hoped they were people he knew well and who wouldn’t be too upset. I was wrong.

‘I’d go up to students in a bus queue, tap them on the shoulder, and let them have it.’

It’s a wonder they didn’t let him have it. He thought his shoot-from-the-hip approach would get them talking. I suspect what most people said was ‘Go away,’ but with less polite language. When I asked him if he still used that technique sometimes, he said, ‘No, it didn’t work’.

Now there’s a surprise.

Some advertisers still sloganize, but many of the best prefer to tell a story or make people smile. They don’t smack them in the mouth with their message. They want people to think, and use subtlety and humour to achieve that. (Do an internet search for john lewis christmas adverts and you’ll see what I mean.)

In what most call the ‘western world’, there are two disturbing truths. One is that few people believe in God in a deep sense. The second is that many people have never even thought about God in a deep sense. We need to make people think, but slogans won’t do that. What’s easily said is easily dismissed. We can do better.

Slogans aren’t appropriate for serious business. And Christianity is serious business. One of the most important conversations of my life occurred when I was 17. I never expected it, and the way it happened was very odd.

My first year in journalism included study, and a few days of the journalism course were spent with other young reporters at a residential centre. The place was no upmarket conference suite; facilities were basic. I was allocated to share a room with John and Graham. I knew both of them already, including a strange peculiarity of John’s. He liked black. He liked everything around him to be black. His hair was jet black, and his clothes were all black (long before that was anyone else’s fashion choice). He told me how his parents had responded when he wanted black curtains, ‘John you’ve already got black wallpaper and now you want black curtains…?’He got his black curtains. John was a likeable one-off.

Late that evening each of us climbed into our narrow, dormitory-style beds, and John switched off the light. He also liked darkness. But the three of us talked, about lots of things and then one of them mentioned God. John was unmercifully direct: ‘So, what do each of you think about God?’ Graham mumbled something about reaching the age of ten and giving up believing God existed. Then it was my turn.

‘I believe in God…’ I said hesitantly. There was silence. They expected me to say more, but I didn’t have anything more to say. John and Graham had studied journalism with me for several months. They knew me. I’d never mentioned God before, and my lifestyle wasn’t bad but no advert for Christianity.

Then John’s voice came out of the darkness. ‘I respect you believing in God, but what I can’t respect is that you don’t then do anything about it.’

I remember nothing more of what was said that night. But John’s sentence stayed in my mind in bold capitals. ‘…WHAT I CAN’T RESPECT IS THAT YOU DON’T THEN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT.’

When those words were still there next morning, and the one after that, I decided I had to talk to the minister of the church I (sometimes) attended.

But the minister went away to another church.

I went away for seven months to report the news in another city.

What never went away was that sentence spoken in the dark, by the unlikeliest of friends. How could I believe in God but do nothing in response to that?

After my seven month exile I returned, and found there was a new minister at the church. His name was Peter, and he seemed friendly. Almost my first sentence to him was, ‘I need to speak with you about God.’

One day every week after that I met with Peter, and  we talked about what lived-out faith meant. Gradually it made more sense. Late one Thursday night – really late – there was a moment when all my thoughts came together. I knew I had to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God. If ‘yes’ my commitment would be everything. If ‘no’ I’d never go back to church. And, in the dark, at 2.40 that morning, my decision was made.

Next day, as soon as work was over, I phoned Peter and said I had to see him as soon as possible. ‘Come now, if you like,’ he replied.

Thirty minutes later I rang Peter’s door bell, was welcomed inside, and I told him what had happened early that morning, and that I’d said ‘yes’. I couldn’t have been more excited. Peter was too. We laughed, we prayed, and from that day on my life changed. A man called John had caused me to find a man called Peter – it sounds so biblical – and now I knew what believing in God had to mean: my life lived for him.

I’ve described that deeply personal story because it illustrates something very significant: Christianity is serious business. We can reject it or accept it. What we can’t do is be complacent or casual about it. We can’t tuck faith away in a corner of our minds, dust it off occasionally, but mostly do nothing about it. It’s far too important for that.

That’s why it’s wrong to tell people to just ‘try Jesus’.

A slogan saying ‘try Levis’ is fine because if you buy jeans and don’t like them you return them to the store or consign them to the ‘rarely used clothes’ shelf in the wardrobe. That’s okay, because jeans are a ‘take it or leave it’ commodity.

God is not a commodity. We can’t try God on for size, and if he doesn’t fit we’ll return him or ignore him. My strange friend John had helped me realise that you can’t really believe in God and do that. Believing in God must mean following God, and that’s a serious business.

A much more serious business than any bumper sticker can communicate.