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When the Critics Rave, I Weep

Reflecting on the sin of envy.

It is healthy, I think, to reflect at times upon the evil of my heart. This seems like a terribly negative thing to do, but I believe it is an important discipline of my spiritual life that I seek to discover where evil lurks within my heart. There are some areas in my heart where, through God’s grace, sin has been routed, pushed back. There are certain temptations that are no longer temptations and certain sins that no longer stir my soul. But there are others, always others, that like a volcano are sometimes dormant, sometimes active. It is in times of reflection and meditation upon God’s Word that I am able to see and understand those places that I have allowed sin to make its awful presence known.

I often see the evil of my heart most clearly when I become aware that I have begrudged another person a blessing. Perhaps another man has been given a salary increase or a generous bonus and now has money that I do not. Perhaps another man has been given a position of responsibility at work or at church. This man has been given a blessing and I resent it. I see that he has been blessed and I react with envy and resentment. If pride is the most common, insidious sin (and one that has justly received a lot of attention in the church of late), surely envy follows soon after. I went looking for resources on envy recently and, to my surprise, found an article I had written a few years ago that dealt with the very topic. It was inspired by some words I had read from the pen of Os Guinness.

In his book The Call he 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.

Without pride and without envy, many other sins would not exist. Would there be adultery without pride or envy? Would there be gluttony? It is for good reason that the Ten Commandments conclude with a prohibition against coveting, for it is the desire of our hearts that leads us into sin. Envy is a deeply private but destructive form of covetousness. 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. What an indictment this is of my sinful heart.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the fact that pride is essentially competitive. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.”

And this envy, so dark and so evil, so competitive and so selfish, lives in my heart. It lives in yours. One of the most horrifying aspects of envy is that we are most likely to feel envious of those who are similarly called, equipped and gifted. Those people with whom we share the most, from whom we stand to learn most, are those we most 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.

Thankfully, there is a cure for envy. The cure comes in a contentment found in comparing ourselves not to mere men, but to Christ. It comes in setting our minds on heavenly matters. The task of each believer is to do all he can with what God has given him. He is not to resent what has been given to another and is not to feel he needs to accomplish the task of another. He is to be a faithful steward of the gifts, blessings and resources that have been provided to him. We are not all called to the same task and we will not all experience the same blessings on earth. And when it is time to receive our reward, each of us will be rewarded not on the basis of the quantity of the blessings we received, but on the quality of our response to these blessings, no matter how abundant.

I will close with the words of 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.