Envy: The Devil’s Darling

Turning round, Peter saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who, at the supper, had leaned back upon his breast and said, “Lord, who is it that will betray thee?”  Peter therefore, seeing him, said to Jesus, “Lord, and what of this man?”  Jesus said to him, “If I wish him to remain until I come, what is it to thee?  Do thou follow me.”

–John 21:20-22–

For where there is envy and contentiousness, there is instability and every wicked deed.

–James 3:16–

And as unto the blind the sun comes not,
So to the shades, of whom just now I spake,
Heaven’s light will not be bounteous of itself;
For all their lids an iron wire transpierces,
And sews them up, as to a sparhawk wild
Is done, because it will not quiet stay.

–Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIII–

            I’d like to say a few words about envy.  It’s a wonder more preachers don’t talk about envy since, while it is not the greatest of sins, it does, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, occupy the chief place in the devil’s heart.[1]

            To begin, there is a difference between jealousy and envy.  The two are by no means synonymous.  Jealousy is when I look out for what is my own.  It is sometimes sinful and sometimes not, depending on its object and its degree.  For example, if I have been winning my company’s golf tournament for the past several years (Imagine me playing golf!), and if I see some young upstart from the office whose scores are getting progressively lower, it is not sinful for me to be jealous of my title if my jealousy simply compels me to go out on the golf course and practice my short game.  It is, however, sinful if I put a bomb in my rival’s car.  Here is another illustration.  If some flirtatious fellow is trying to catch my wife’s eye (Imagine me being married!), my jealousy for my wife is not sinful if I tell the fellow in no uncertain terms to get lost.  It is, to be sure, sinful if I forbid my wife to go out in public without me.  I repeat:  Jealousy has to do with what belongs to oneself, and it is not always sinful.  Thus God is rightly jealous when we give the worship that rightfully belongs only to Him to some creature.[2]

            What about envy?  Envy is a direct violation of the Tenth Commandment.  It has to do with what belongs to another.  It is always sinful.  According to Father Adolphe Tanquerey, “Envy is a tendency to be saddened by another’s good as if that good constituted an affront to…[my] own superiority.”[3]  It is often accompanied by an inclination to be gladdened by another person’s misfortune as if that person’s misfortune somehow benefited me.  This wicked glee, by the way, is what theologians call delectatio morosa.  The Latin words sound so beautiful, but the reality they convey is quite dark.  I repeat:  Envy is a preoccupation with what belongs to another, and it is always sinful.  Thus, Dante portrays the envy-ridden souls in purgatory with their eyelids sewn shut.  No longer able to gaze enviously on their fellow sufferers, they must, perhaps for the first time in their existence, lean on one another for mutual support.

            Sad to say, my own heart has not infrequently harbored the big green monster of envy.  I taught high school sophomores for twenty-four years, and for twenty-four years I got to see them getting their driver’s licenses.  If one of my students would come up to me and say, “Father, I’m getting my driver’s license this weekend,” on the surface I would pretend I was happy—“Oh, isn’t that great!”—but in my heart I’d be miserable.  If I could put my feelings into words, I would sound much like the frustrated, furnace-fighting father in the movie A Christmas Story.  “Blasted dadgummit!  I want a license too!”

            If, on the other hand, a senior would come up to me and say, “Father, I’m losing my driver’s license for eighteen months on account of a DUI,” outwardly I’d pretend I was sad—“Oh, Isn’t that terrible!”—but underneath I’d be full of wicked glee, that is, delectatio nmorosa.  “Hee, hee, hee!  Now he’ll know what it’s like not to drive!”  Didn’t I just say that Saint Thomas Aquinas reckons envy the most diabolical of all sins?  Envy is the oldest and most often used trick in the devil’s play book, and I have succumbed to it more times than I would like to admit.

            Why does the devil incite us to envy?  I have a theory.  I like to think that the Evil One can see Jesus throwing blessings our way long before the blessings ever get to us.  Satan, seeing blessings headed in our direction, incites us to envy our neighbor and so turn away from Jesus.  While our eyes are thus averted, the blessings that were intended for us go whizzing by.  That is why Jesus tells an envious Saint Peter to take his eyes from Saint John and “follow me.”[4]  I firmly believe that, whenever we feel envy, it’s a sure sign that Jesus has just sent a blessing our way.  If we keep our eyes fixed on Him rather than on the blessings of our neighbor, we might be very surprised indeed to see how blessed we really are.

            What is our greatest weapon against envy?  It is none other than gratitude.  If we count our blessings, we’ll be so busy that we won’t have time to fret about what our neighbor does or doesn’t have.  There is much wisdom in the old hymn:

So, amid life’s conflicts, whether great or small,
Do not be disheartened, God is over all;
Just count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you till your journey’s end.[5]

            Lastly, in addition to being the most devilish of all sins, envy is the stupidest of all sins, especially when it occurs among Christians.  As Saint Paul assures us, when one member of the Body of Christ benefits, we all benefit.[6]  This is particularly true when it comes to spiritual goods.  Note this remarkable passage from Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

            …as St. Augustine often reminds us, the same spiritual treasure can belong in its entirety to all men, and at the same time to each, without any disturbance of peace between them.  Indeed, the more there are to enjoy them in common the more completely do we possess them.  The same truth, the same virtue, the same God, can belong to us all in like manner, and yet none of us embarrasses his fellow-possessor.  Such are the inexhaustible riches of the spirit that they can be the property of all and yet satisfy the desires of each.  Indeed, only then do we possess a truth completely when we teach it to others, when we make others share our contemplation; only then do we truly love a virtue when we wish others to love it also; only then do we wholly love God when we desire to make Him loved by all.  Give money away, or spend it, and it is no longer yours.  But give God to others, and you possess Him more fully for yourself.  We may go even further and say that, if we desired only one soul to be deprived of Him, if we excluded only one soul—even the soul of one who persecutes and calumniates us—from our own love, then God Himself would be lost to us.[7]

Father Benedict Groeschel puts it quite bluntly.  “There is,” he says, “nothing logical about envy.”[8]

            To sum up:  Envy (as opposed to jealousy) is always sinful.  It is a direct violation of the Tenth Commandment and the most diabolic of all sins.  It is the tendency to be saddened by another person’s good or the tendency to be gladdened by another person’s misfortune.  Satan employs it against us so that we will miss the blessings God intends for us.  The best defense against envy is to cultivate a sense of gratitude.  Finally, when you get right down to it, envy is just plain stupid.

            The next time the big green monster of envy comes whispering at the door of your heart, be jealous for your own happiness, and tell him to take a hike.

[1] Summa Theologica, II-IIae, Q. xxxvi, art. 4.  See Wisdom 2:24.

[2] See Exodus 20:5.

[3] Quoted from: The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology.

[4] John 21:22.

[5] Words by Johnson Oatman, Jr.

[6] See 1 Corinthians 12:26.

[7] Quoted from The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, Chapter I.

[8] Quoted from Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones.