Thursday, April 12, 2007

Envy, Jealousy, and Covetousness

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines envy as "a feeling of resentful or discontented longing aroused by another person's better fortune, situation, etc." It's how I sometimes feel lately when I see healthy people going about their business without a care in the world. It is a sinful, dangerous feeling, and one which is addressed in the 10th commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17). The word "covet" merely means to long for what belongs to another. We covet out of envy or jealousy. We covet because we feel we deserve better or more. We resent those who have what we feel we should have, and therefore, envy stands in opposition to agape - sacrificial and unconditional love for our neighbor.

God commands us to be content with his provisions for us, and turn away from envy. The Westminster Larger Catechism puts it this way: "The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his" (Q. 147). Envy poisons our relationships with others, and poisons our hearts. It must be resisted with every ounce of our energy. This may seem impossible, but we can take comfort in the words of The Heidelberg Catechism, "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience" (Q. 114).

I write about this because it seems that envy is everywhere in our culture, prompting people to accumulate enormous debt to keep up with their neighbors. Envy hinders joy, and joy is a most precious thing. All around us are unhappy people, worn out from discontent. God would have us be joyful, thankful, and contented people, and the only way to reach such states of blessing is to place our trust in God, despite our circumstances. Shakespeare, in his play Othello, famously writes, "O beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." Envy, jealousy, and covetousness all lead to tragedy. Let us flee from them.


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