Let’s play the “What if...” game.
What if you just lost your job while your co-worker received a promotion and a big raise? Would you be happy for him?
What if a parent that was often critical of your children, found out that her child was just caught for cheating? Would you feel the slightest bit of satisfaction?
What if your child dropped out of school while a friend’s child was just awarded a 4-year scholarship to a prestigious university? Does the news make you feel sick with envy?
What if you just learned your spouse was having an adulterous affair and a friend calls to share that her husband just surprised her by planning a second honeymoon to Hawaii. Would you share her happiness?
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
In the Christian world, this is where the rubber meets the road. Going to Mass and praying is easy compared to mustering up the love for those that tempt us to envy. It’s as if someone has punched us in the stomach. They did not do it intentionally, but they did it just the same.
When someone’s success makes our failure feel bigger, the temptation is to feel envy and to even desire his or her failure. Misery truly does love company. No one understands our suffering like a fellow sufferer and no one can deepen our pain like someone that has great success in the place we feel loss.
For example, someone with an abusive, unloving spouse could best find comfort in a fellow betrayed spouse. On the contrary, if the abused spouse has to sit next to a person with a publicly adoring husband or wife, a new seating arrangement might be necessary before nausea sets in. Then, if down the road, the adoring husband or wife was found out to be having an affair, the abused spouse would be tempted to feel some level of satisfaction. This is where the sin of envy lies.
Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we cannot love those whose success is greater than ours, then we are not loving them as ourselves. And if we rejoice in their failure, again, that is not love but sin.
Please! you might be thinking. Am is supposed to be a saint? Yeah, actually you are. But how on earth can we muster such love? From earth, we don’t, but from heaven, we can. It will take prayer and an iron will, because it ain’t easy. Yet, if we succeed, we truly follow Christ and in the end, the reward is ours.
“Give and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure--pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” ( Luke 6:38)
What does this have to do with envy? It’s about giving love even when it’s hard so that we may receive love in return. We may be helpless to change the circumstances that cause us pain, but God never wants us to wallow in it. Still, it is what it is. Loss and failure cause us sadness. But if we rejoice or desire failure for others, then we have sinned. Instead, we should force ourselves to pray twice; once for the person that experienced the success and once for ourselves for help not to be envious. By praying for the person with the success, we are taking a step to protect ourselves against envy. You may think, that person is already experiencing success, do they even need our prayers? Yes, everyone needs prayers. By saying prayers for a person tempting us to envy, we are giving a truly Christian love that might at that point, take every ounce of energy to muster up. By loving others under such difficult circumstances, it will be returned. Love always comes back to us; if not from the world, from God. For the measure with which you measure will be measured back to you.
Jealousy and Envy
There is a difference between jealousy and envy. They are often used in the same way, but are two different things. Jealousy is the feeling that someone has something that rightfully belongs to us. Thus, a person might feel jealous that a sibling seems to be getting favored treatment. In sports, there might be jealousy that a fellow teammate viewed as an equal or lesser, is being given more playing time. With jealousy, on some level, the person feels something was taken from him. If an attractive person is flirting with our partner, we are apt to feel jealous because our partner belongs to us.
Envy, on the other hand, is when a person has a desire for something that someone else has. Not in a shared-goal sort of way but in an angry way--they have what we want so we feel angry inside. There is a feeling of ill will at the success or good fortune of another. Envy tempts us to bitterness. In the end, it is a sin with no earthly reward. For instance, a person that steals has sinned, but his incentive to do so is the goods he has taken. A person lies in an attempt to benefit in some way. With envy, there is no reward. Don’t misunderstand me and think that some sins are okay because a reward is involved. My point is that there is even greater incentive to ward against such sin because all the way around, we come up empty. With jealousy there is the perceived feeling that something is being taken from us. With envy, we got nothin’ and knew it all along.
To me, envy is the granddaddy of them all to overcome. Loving God, going to Mass, not taking His name in vain, not killing, stealing or lying or committing adultery.... these involve choices. But envy....it has a mind of it’s own. Envy pops up in a place where we hurt or feel insecure in some way. We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. We want to succeed. So watching another’s success in an area where we are falling short seems to cut us to some degree. If our pain is deep the cut is equally as deep. In reality, it’s probably not so much that we don’t want others to succeed. We just don’t want them to succeed while we fail. We don’t want their child to be the honor student with the scholarship while ours is arrested for breaking and entering. If our child was doing well, then it would not hurt us to hear about the success of their child. Instead, we might be kindred spirits and celebrate together. But without our own reason to celebrate, it’s harder to be happy for others.
Prayer and Perspective
It’s not our fault if the pain comes and we are tempted to envy. It is our fault if we wallow in it. In reality, there is great incentive to overcome it because in doing so, we overcome the pain it causes us. But how can we overcome something we did not cause and do not want? It’s a matter of prayer and perspective.
It’s good to keep in mind that God has our lives in His hands. Who are we to argue with our lot in life? We must realize that doing so is a lack of faith and us telling God that we know better. And we also can only know what is happening on the outside of most people’s lives and in the present. How often do we look at a family that seems to have it all only to later learn of some tragedy that befalls them? Or they are dealing with something very painful that they keep hidden from the world. Stop looking at the things we want in their lives because a life does not just come with good stuff, but crosses too. Do we also wish for their crosses? We should never want to trade lives with anyone for their crosses would not be suited for us anymore than the rest of their lives.
Sure, someone may have gotten the promotion we wanted, but stop and think a moment. Could offering up this disappointment lead to the salvation of someone in your family or even your own? God knows what we need and don’t need. Adjust your perspective and pray through your weaknesses. Those pangs of jealousy and envy spring from your own pain, so offer up the whole thing and force yourself to pray for the very people causing your pain. Of course it’s not an easy thing to do: “They already have what I want and I’m suppose to give them my prayers too?” Well, it’s a great idea.
You’ll ultimately relieve your own pain through the grace of God and in the end, your generous spirit will come back to you because God cannot be outdone in generosity.
Copyright 2011 Patti Maguire Armstrong
About the Author
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of 10, and has a B.A. in social work and M.A. in public administration. Her newest book is Holy Hacks: Everyday Ways to Live Your Faith & Get to Heaven. Others include Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and the Amazing Grace Series. Follow her at @PattiArmstrong and read her blog at PattiMaguireArmstrong.com.