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Celebrating Superiority

Have you ever noticed that the sins you hate most may just be the sins closest to your heart? I hate the sin of envy, and I think I hate it so much because it is so often very near to me, just waiting to strike, to cause me to mourn when I ought to rejoice, or to rejoice when I ought to mourn. “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Scripture tells me. It is rarely that easy. I wish it was that easy.

I recently began reading Assist Me To Proclaim, John Tyson’s biography of Charles Wesley, and was challenged with these words:

Charles had a meekness and unfeigned humility about him that was remarkable and attractive. His sermon editor observed, “His most striking excellence was humility; it extended to his talents as well as virtues; he not only acknowledged and pointed out but delighted in the superiority of another.”

To delight in the superiority of another. There is humility. There is envy slaughtered and laid to rest. I think I envy this lack of envy.

In his book The Call Os Guinness says this:

Traditionally envy was regarded as the second worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh, and thus a “cold” and highly “respectable” sin, in contrast to the “warm” and openly “disreputable” sins of the flesh, such as gluttony. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.

It was Aquinas who provided a famous definition of envy when he suggested it is “sorrow at another’s good.” Guinness says:

Envy enters when, seeing someone else’s happiness or success, we feel ourselves called into question. Then, out of the hurt of our wounded self-esteem, we seek to bring the other person down to our level by word or deed. They belittle us by their success, we feel; we should bring them down to their deserved level, envy helps us feel. Full-blown envy, in short, is dejection plus disparagement plus destruction.

Dorothy Sayers said, “Envy begins by asking plausibly: ‘Why should I not enjoy what others enjoy?’ and it ends by demanding: ‘Why should others enjoy what I may not?’” Guinness provides a clear example of the truth of this statement, using the words of Sir John Gielgud, “When Sir Laurence Olivier played Hamlet in 1948, and the critics raved, I wept.” These are startling words but ones with which I can identify. While others have raved I have often wept or have often wanted to weep. While I should have been offering congratulations or encouragement, too often I have been muttering and grinding my teeth, begrudging another man a blessing.

This envy is so dark and so evil, so competitive and so selfish. One of the most horrifying aspects of envy is that I am most likely to feel envious of those who are similarly called, equipped and gifted. Those people with whom I share the most, from whom I stand to learn most, are those I am most prone to resent. Guinness reminds his readers of Thomas Mann who showed that “we are always most vulnerable to envying those closest to our own gifts and callings. Musicians generally envy musicians, not politicians; politicians other politicians; sportspeople other sportspeople; professors other professors; ministers other ministers.” Those whom we should help and support are those against whom we set ourselves, driven mad by their success.

Why can’t I be more like Charles Wesley, a man who could rejoice in the superiority of another. Was another man a better preacher? This was a cause to rejoice. Could another man write a greater hymn? This was reason to praise God.

I believe Wesley avoided envy because he had found the cure for this sin. And for that I turn to Charles Spurgeon.

The cure for envy lies in living under a constant sense of the divine presence, worshiping God and communing with Him all the day long, however long the day may seem. True religion lifts the soul into a higher region, where the judgment becomes more clear and the desires are more elevated. The more of heaven there is in our lives, the less of earth we shall covet. The fear of God casts out envy of men.