The Power of Envy

Untitled-jan 13On the subject of “envy”, God’s word is brutally terse:
Resentment kills a fool and envy slays the simple” (Job 5:2)
“A heart at peace gives life to the body but envy rots the bones” (Prov. 14:30)
Since envy has the power to destroy us all if we allow it to, it is worth our attention. Envy is one response to the unfairness, real or perceived in our lives.  In this essay, I try to show a better way.

Some definitions:
Suppose my neighbor buys a new truck. Envy is wanting a truck just like his AND resenting him because I cannot afford one.
Admiration is wanting a truck just like his but accepting I cannot afford one just yet. Admiration without resentment is not envy. Admiration can lead to a positive outcome.  Envy never does.

Jealousy is that unpleasant emotion you feel when you think someone is trying to take what’s yours. We are envious of what belongs to another person but jealous of our own, or what we perceive is our own. If someone is flirting with your wife, you may be jealous. If someone is flirting with your girlfriend, the distinction may become a little blurred. Is your girlfriend really “yours”?  If someone asks her out and she accepts, and you resent that person, your emotion is envy. By her acceptance your girlfriend is telling you she is not really “yours”.

God says: “I the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5) “They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols.” (Deut. 32:16)  God was jealous of Israel, because Israel belonged to Him. Paul describes his relationship with the church:  “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Cor. 11:2)


Envy exists because of inequality, real or perceived:
Some say that inequality is unfair and needs to be corrected through human leveling, called redistribution or “social justice”. The most famous articulation of such a philosophy is Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”.  Such schemes are based on envy and ALWAYS define equality downward; people are more equal with but with less. Such schemes always fail. Why? Their authors CANNOT explain how to produce more in the aggregate. Envy NEVER leads to greater happiness or prosperity.  

God also would like to reduce inequality. His method reduces inequality but with everyone having more. In the classroom and playground we see at an early age the unequal distribution of talents and abilities.  In sports one group or another always seems to dominate over others. God’s way is the one we learned as children. If we try real hard, and emulate the good examples of others, sometimes we can catch up and even get ahead.  Romania elevated women’s gymnastics and led the world, till the world caught up. God’s way to reduce inequality is through emulation, not envy.


Inequality among nations began a long time ago.
“The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.” (Gen. 11:6-8)

To “scatter” is to “isolate”. Physically, God scattered humanity throughout the earth.  Linguistically, He confused their communication with each other. God implies here something quite profound; when people are connected to each, they are capable of creativity and advancement FAR more so than when they are isolated from each other.

Thomas Sowell picks up the story in his book “Wealth, Poverty, and Politics” (2015) He discusses with innumerable examples why inequality is inherent on earth.  Not all regions are equal. Some are more fertile than others. Climate, temperature ranges, rainfall, and many other factors that determine wealth are not equally or randomly spread throughout the earth.  Sowell identifies the ability to overcome “isolation” as a primary reason for the advance of cultures; in effect, the ability of people to reconnect once more with others … to reverse their isolation, so to speak.


Isolation is the enemy of growth and prosperity.
This seems logical. No single society has a monopoly on the discovery and invention.  The more a society overcomes its own isolation and enters the current of knowledge discovered by all cultures, the faster it will advance. In the centuries and millennia after God scattered people throughout the earth, progress was not equal, and inequality was the norm.

Geographic features like mountain ranges and deserts, or oceans before the days of great ships, or non navigable rivers …all contribute to isolation and therefore backwardness. Mountain people have always lagged behind those in the plains, mainly because they are isolated. Waterways are transportation arteries and greatly affect the prosperity of people. Rivers that flow gently as they do through the plains of Europe and China, or like the Mississippi in America are far more useful than rivers that plunge rapidly through rapids and waterfalls, as in Africa.

The availability of beasts of burden such as horses, oxen, or camels also reduces isolation and helps advance a culture more rapidly. This helped Europe progress more quickly than the western Hemisphere where such animal were unknown until recent centuries.

The decline of isolation was accelerated by the development of agriculture:
People who hunted for food tended not to settle together and were more isolated. Throughout history cities have produced far greater advancement and wealth than scattered people. Agriculture first developed in the Middle East and spread more quickly to Greece than to northern Europe. “The ancient Greeks had geometry, philosophy, architecture and literature at a time when Britain was a land of illiterate tribal peoples, living at a primitive level.  (Sowell, page 1)


Inequality has been changing norm throughout history.
History also shows a pattern of radical change in wealth of people. After the barriers causing isolation are removed, formerly backward people can catch up. “While Greeks were far more advanced than Britons in ancient times, Britons were far more advanced than Greeks in the 19th century, when Britain led the world into the industrial age” (Sowell, page 2) . Wealth and inequality were never permanently fixed.

The Chinese also were for centuries far more advanced than western culture, having invented the compass, printing, paper, rudders, and porcelain plates that we still call “chinaware” and cast iron.  Chinese ships, greater those of Columbus, embarked on voyages of discovery generations before he did. In the course of time, western culture overtook the Chinese and roles reversed. Early in the 15th century, an emperor of China decided to cut off China’s contacts with the outside world. As a result of this decision, China fell disastrously behind and only now has caught up, after 600 years.

In modern times “Switzerland, Denmark and Germany each have more than 3 times the per capita GDP (or output) than Albania, Serbia, or the Ukraine. Norway has 5 times their amount. Japan, a nation with few natural resources, produces 3 times more per capita than China and 9 times more per capita than India.  Within nations, great inequalities also exist between classes and groups.” (Sowell, Page 4)

So from the history of cultures we learn the following lessons:
Inequality is not new; it has been around from the beginning.
Inequality exists within cultures as much as between cultures.
Natural wealth is not essential to prosperity (example Japan).
Willingness to learn from other cultures is critical to growth.
Oppression can destroy natural prosperity (example Russia).
People take their turns in experiencing inequality.


These examples teach a spiritual lesson:
Sometimes life seems so terribly “unfair” and we wonder “Why me?”, we might remember that inequality is imbedded in the fabric of the universe. Unfairness is natural. Inequality is the reality God has ordained for man. He does so for a reason. He offers us a way out. That way is not envy or resentment. Envy is a fundamental sin that can “rot the bones. We know that. God once said to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:4)
How do we rule over the temptation to envy, and do what is right?


Learning from Immigrants:
In the course of American history, different groups have emigrated here, overcome adversity, and become part of the melting pot we call America. Their example can inspire us spiritually. The Cubans are one such group. When Castro took over Cuba in 1959, many successful business people and professionals had to flee, rather than submit; most settled in Florida.  Unable to take their wealth with them, and unable to resume their prior professions since their credentials were not recognized here … they found themselves at the bottom.

They crammed into apartments and became dishwashers, janitors, and tomato pickers …
For the overwhelming majority, the story of their success was one of arduous toil, swallowed pride, and sacrifice for their children. Former executives parked cars; judges washed dishes, doctors delivered newspapers. Women who had never held jobs before worked as seamstresses, hotel maids, or shrimp sorters at warehouses by the Miami River – work so painful they called it La Siberia.  As one émigré put it “I was determined that my children would be middle class even if I had to have two jobs, which I did for 14 years” (Sowell, Page 64)

So in 1959 they were at the bottom.  But thirty years later by 1990, their children were earning 50 thousand twice as often as white Americans. By the year 2000, the total revenue of Cuban business exceeded the revenue for the entire nation of Cuba.

How did this happen?  How did the Cubans overcome the inequity that descended upon them in 1959?  Actually, it took many of the same attributes thatChristians must employ in seeking to become citizens of a new country where Christ is King.
It began with courage to leave Cuba and everything they owned, behind. The escape was dangerous and not all made it.  It DID take courage. People died in the boats coming over.
It takes vision; the willingness to imagine how the future might be different from the present.
It takes humility for a doctor to deliver newspapers and his wife to work as a maid.
It takes patience. They did not attain the middle class overnight; 30 years in fact. Many had to wait for their children or grandchildren to make it there.
By striving in the three basic tasks God has given all of us … learning, working, and creating … the Cubans overcame adversity and became successful in America.


The third option: Just give up.
The third option, available to all of us when life becomes unbearably unfair is common today.

Life can become so unfair that at some point, from our innermost being, we rationally come to believe: “What’s the use?  I have done all that is possible. From here on, it is up to God”.  So we put our lives in “park” and cease meaningful effort. Under the burden of Communism, people were not free and so found reason NOT to perform. Those who left bought freedom.  With freedom to perform came the burden to perform … and the Cubans delivered.

Today for example, many young people face the burden of college debt incurred in the pursuit of (oftentimes)a near worthless education. Such debt denies them freedom to “enjoy the fruit of their labors”. This CAN become a reason to give up or resort to envy.  All trials, no matter their source, can create perceptions of unfairness that lead to resentment, envy, or despair. All these “crouch at the door” and we must “rule over them”.  Rather than “ruling over” despair or envy, we may lapse into a state of isolation. How so?

Devotion to technology in the form of computers, cell phones, games, entertainment, and other fantasies can transform us into human islands.  We become oblivious to the knowledge and creative efforts of others.  We become incapable of reaching our full potential.


Envy versus Emulation:
One remedy for “isolation” is “good education”.   A good education passes on the wisdom of the past. It trains one in rational thinking, that we may understand a rational universe. It teaches us how to be better people.  It shows us how we can add value to the lives of others that we may prosper ourselves.  A good education does not try to incite envy, but teaches how to emulate those who do produce. The ultimate alternative to envy is emulation. 

We become educated so that we can emulate the thinking and actions of successful people who have preceded us, and then in our own way, try to advance it. They call this “standing on the shoulders of others”.   All successful immigrants group such as the Cubans, Germans, Chinese, Irish, Jews, etc. worked hard to give their children a good education, including fluency in the American culture and language. Emulation says: “I will not envy that which I admire, but will become it”.


Emulation is a foundational principle of God’s church:
Emulation acknowledges our own imperfections and seeks to remedy them by profiting from the example of those around us. Paul said: “Imitate me as I also imitate Christ”(1 Cor. 11: 1) and “…  join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” (Phil. 3:17)
For this reason it says in Hebrews “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another as we see the day approaching”(Heb. 10:24-26)

Bottom line: One reason Church exists is to reduce the isolation of God’s people, bring them together, that we may pattern ourselves after each other and grow.
Emulation leading to growth is the remedy for envy.

The power of thankfulness versus the power of envy:
Successful immigrants come here poor, yet full of thanksgiving.  Those who express resentment or envy, never seem to be thankful, while those who are thankful rejoice at the success of others.

Paul says the following: “… although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened … they became fools … “(Rom. 1:21-22) and in verse 29 they were “full of envy”.

After refusing to glorify God, it has puzzled me why God mentions next they ceased to be “thankful”.  It is good to be thankful, but lack of it has never in my estimation been the worst sin in the world. The verses that follow list far worse sins. Perhaps there is another reason.

Perhaps envy acts as a gateway to a darkened, degraded mind. Envy destroys the will with a corrosive force that eventually rots the whole body. Thankfulness on the other hand can act as a barrier against envy.  Envy and thankfulness are fundamental opposites. One cannot be envious and thankful at the same time. We see this opposing relationship expressed in our opening proverb: “A heart at peace gives life to the body but envy rots the bones” (Prov. 14:30)

If one seeks to destroy envy, let thankfulness be your sword.


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