Lenten reflection -How envy hurts us

Each Lent gives us a great opportunity to stop our busy lives to grow spiritually in some way.  Besides giving something up and doing good works, it is a great time to reflect on the Word and where we can recognize things in ourselves that separate us from God’s plan.  Most of us probably don’t think we are guilty of the seven deadly sins (Pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust) but, when we look deeper, there is often a hint of all of them in each of us, more than we like to admit.  The seven deadly sins are deadly, not in themselves but in what they can lead us to.  Envy is an example of one we may have experienced at times in our lives that can greatly impact us and those around us.  There is nothing wrong with desiring good things in life or even what other people enjoy, but envy is a “sadness or discontent at the excellence, good fortune, talent, blessings, or success of another person. It implies that one considers oneself somehow deprived by what one envies in another.”  It isn’t an ordered desire for the good but being fixated on drawing comparisons between ourselves and others, or the destructive sense of rivalry that drives the sin of envy – someone is better off than us and it makes us angry. 

Gore Vidal once summed up envy when he said, “when a friend of mine succeeds something in me dies.”  That sounds incredibly sad to me but why is envy considered a deadly sin or a sin at all if it is a personal sadness or anger?  The danger of envy may be in the damage it does to ourselves than to others.  The sin of envy has been around since Adam and Eve listened to the serpent convince them that God was holding out on them, since Cain was angered by Able’s acceptable gift that was given from his best to God, and Saul's envy of David that led him to plot his death.  Each example leads to personal unhappiness, sadness or anger for the envious one involved.  Each also felt a strong sense of shame.  We can see the effects of envy today when people are bitter when someone else is promoted, gets a better grade or raise, or good luck that we do not believe is deserved.  Jesus told a parable about the vineyard owner that hired workers at different times of the day.  At the end of the day, the workers were all paid a full day’s wages, regardless of whether they came early in the morning or only an hour before the end of the day.  The workers that came earlier were paid exactly what they agreed to and were not cheated but felt angry at others being paid the same.  What was Christ’s point in telling this story to his followers?  One point was that God does not think like us, in his mercy his only concern is having us come back to him, while we want others to pay out of a sense of fairness.  A closer look at our anger may be that it is not with the other person but in questioning God’s generosity.  The fact that God is this good really bothers some people. 

It is interesting that other sins promise at least some sort of short-term returns to us, but envy offers none.  Envy can corrode our hearts, weaken out minds, and destroy our peace.  It only brings sadness and anger, and we lose our orientation towards Christ, who died of self for love of others.  Envy is the opposite of love, as true love is an unconditional willing of the good for another. “Love your neighbor, as yourself.”  This external reaction of envy is often a symptom of an inner conflict and lack of peace within our soul.  When Christ told the parable of the vineyard owner, his remedy was to be like a child who trusts his father and lives in the present moment, unlike envy that lives in the past and ambition that lives in the future.   

So, what can we do this lent if we recognize, even a little bit of envy in our emotions towards the success or talents of others?  An honest recognition of this type of underlying feeling is a huge first step.  The next step would be to practice developing a strong sense of gratitude for the gifts God has given to us without comparison.  Writing down ten things we are grateful for each day can help to bring this home and change our focus.  We can also work on developing a stronger sense of humility.  This virtue helps us to let go of the need to rank above others or be rewarded more.  Being able to recognize the gifts and talents of others as worthy gifts from God, is a good sign.  Next, we can focus on Christ’s example to be the selfless servant of others, truly willing the good for them out of unconditional self-giving love.  Be like Christ who said, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”  The next step is to practice forgiveness, even when we do not believe that others deserve it.  Following Christ’s example to love our enemy and desire others to find their way back to God’s mercy is an act of true love and will help to reduce those feelings of envy.  Finally, trusting God’s plans for us and for others is difficult for independent-minded human beings but always the right path to bring ourselves out of sin and into his loving embrace.  Even if we don’t see ourselves as every being envious, asking God to help us take a closer and more humble look at our relationships and willingness to celebrate the good fortune of others, can be eye-opening and the beginning of freeing ourselves from the harmful human tendency.  

A happy and fruitful Lent to all of you.