By Amber Kinloch
Envy is a sin alive and well in our society. Its venom courses through social media and news programs, school and work environments, and even into our churches and homes. One of the great evils of our time—Communism—has its roots in envy.
Despite this, I’ve heard little mention of this sin from the pulpit. What is it exactly? How does it differ from jealousy? And what makes it so dangerous?
Envy and Its Origins
“Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else because I take it as lessening my own. The key difference is that with envy (unlike with jealousy) one does not merely want to possess the good or excellence of another but rather to destroy it.” (Monsignor Charles Pope, “Envy Illustrated”).
Envy begins as an unwarranted negative reaction. Perhaps someone has earned a promotion at work. Maybe a friend has proven more talented at something than us, or is considered more attractive by others. Maybe a younger sibling achieves a significant milestone before we do. We could even envy a person because they appear more virtuous than us.
The proper response is to rejoice at all these things. Instead, we sink into gloom. We feel diminished or passed over, like Cain when God looked with favor on his brother Abel’s offering (Genesis 4:3-7).
Envy is rooted in ingratitude to God. We lack a proper appreciation for all the gifts He’s showered upon us and our neighbor. And why are we ungrateful? It’s because we are proud. We feel entitled to this or that, when in truth we are and deserve nothing. All the good in and around us comes from God. It is His to bestow as He wishes. Without Him, we have nothing.
Envy, as Monsignor Pope points out, is worse than jealousy. Jealousy is simply a desire to possess something good that another person has. A jealous person might react by trying to beat the competition. Maybe he studies harder or trains harder before a race. He fall into sin when his desire is unreasonable or inordinate.
An envious person does not merely want to possess something good that another has. Rather, he seeks to destroy the other and their goodness, whether it’s by outright murder (Cain), slander (the Jewish leaders and Jesus), or even through the pretense of being “nice.” (Think of our society’s “everyone gets a prize” mentality regardless of whether someone truly excels or not.)
The Poison of Envy at Work
Envy betrays itself most clearly in our thoughts and speech. We take a negative view of others’ good fortune, talents, conduct, and accomplishments. We downplay their goodness and excellence, and are reluctant to offer praise. Soon, perhaps, we find ourselves quarreling with them or criticizing them behind their backs. We take joy in their suffering misfortune and are grieved when they are blessed. Envy, left unchecked, will even lead us to hate and persecute others.
My eldest brother attended high school at a prestigious magnet school where some of the students had a vicious competitive streak. If he turned away from his laptop even for a moment and it was unlocked, somebody would lean over and delete the work he’d left open. It wasn’t enough for these students to do well. They actively worked to cripple their peers.
Similarly, I can remember an end of season swim team party where everyone got paper plate awards for the exhibition of basic manners (helping out, being cheerful), amusing personality quirks, etc. The coaches meant to be nice, but frankly, it was ridiculous. Monsignor Pope gives a similar example of a school board eliminating the naming of valedictorians on the claim that it promotes unhealthy competition.
Communism is an example of envy taken to the extreme. With Communism, everyone must have “equity” (the same outcome) vs. “equality” (the same opportunity to excel). A person is taught to tear down those who are “superior.” Inevitably, everyone is reduced to performing at the lowest common denominator. Why should I strive to excel when a person who is lazy or lacking in talent or ability will be accorded the same merit as me?
Envy and all the sins that proceed from it are hateful to God. Envy makes us like the Devil and his minions “who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls” (Prayer to St. Michael). Needless to say, we should wage a fierce war against this sin if we find it laying hold of us.
A first good step is the practice of gratitude. There’s so much cause for rejoicing. We come from the hand of God. We are created in His Image and Likeness. We have an intrinsic worth that no one can take away. How much or little we count for in the eyes of the world is irrelevant. Our worth is rooted in who we are, not what we do or possess.
Additionally, we should thank God for the blessings He’s bestowed on others. I’ve been blessed numerous times through others who’ve generously shared their money, time, or talent for something (e.g., art, writing, photography) with me.
This practice of gratitude fosters humility and contentment. It also grants us a sense of security. If God has done so much for us already, will He not continue to provide for us?
We should also be on our guard against sloth. When we are lazy and idle, it’s all too easy for our minds to wander to things that are not our business. (Think of those who spend their free time engaged in gossip or tearing down others on social media.) Likewise, we fail to achieve the good we should, which renders us sad. Diligence, on the other hand, keeps us busy and happy, leaving no time or room for envy.
Last but not least is charity. We should draw close to our neighbor, embracing their interests as our own. In our thoughts and speech, we should be perpetually vigilant. “Praise, encourage, thank,” is a helpful motto for me. We might remember, too, that mostly we only see the surface of a person. Deep within, they are like us—wounded and struggling with sin and a cross. We may not see it, but it’s happening.
Likewise, they bear the image of Christ. If we can only learn to see Him in everyone, we will possess true love. There is no surer guard against envy.
Amber writes from the bunker of her living room. There she hunkers down with her laptop and a blanket while keeping an eye and ear tuned in to the activity of family life. Music set on loop keeps her energy flowing as she muses on the deeper happenings of ordinary life and what food to restock the fridge with.