Shankar Vedantam hosts a fascinating and terrifying podcast about envy. He is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast on NPR, and talks about the brain science behind this idea of envy in a podcast titled, “Counting Other People’s Blessings.”
He begins with some positive examples of envy, what scientists call benign envy. Benign envy can be like positive peer pressure, encouraging us to work hard, or seek positive things in our lives, so that we can be like someone with whom we are acquainted. I want to sing as well as Reed Schenkel, so I will take lessons and practice and maybe one day I will be able to (play) sing like that. Benign envy. Comparing ourselves to others can be healthy, motivating, and inspiring.
But envy can turn ugly in a hurry. Vedantam moves into examples of how that social comparison starts to move from positive and inspiring…to some pretty dark places.
- He talks about envy in sports, and references studies that show the stronger the affiliation with a sports team, the more likely that someone will cheer when an opposing team strikes out or throws an interception. Even if they are playing a completely different team. I may or may not have considered in my life buying a shirt that says “I cheer for the Chicago Cubs…and whomever is playing the St. Louis Cardinals.” But those same studies show that fans with strong enough affiliations will actually cheer when a player on the opposing team suffers a gruesome injury. They feel better about themselves when that person gets injured. That’s envy.
- He talks about envy in politics. More and more often, the role of politics in our lives is not about differing ideologies or how we can best govern the country. It is about cheering for your “team” over the other “team.” He cites examples of Republicans who rejoiced when Iranians took Americans captive during the Carter administration, because it would mean political points for Reagan. Likewise, Democrats were quietly happy when they saw numbers of Iraq War casualties, because of what it would mean for Bush’s popularity and electability. Again, social comparison—and the envy of the other political party—begins with “us” and “them” goes to some pretty dark places.
- He even suggests that some social scientists see envy at the heart of the Holocaust. In the years before the Nazi movement, European Jews were especially productive and affluent. Germans who were suffering under reparations following World War I saw their envy turn to resentment, and their resentment turn to rage. Before long, it became possible for an average Christian German citizen to do things that were incredibly heinous and violent…all stemming from the envy of “us vs. them.”
You see the line that gets crossed. These are examples that scientists call hostile envy, or malicious envy. We move from social comparison that inspires to social comparison that creates resentment. It is like we have this yardstick in our hearts and minds, and we are always trying to figure out where we are on that yardstick…how we measure up. And we are constantly asking where our neighbor is on that same yardstick. Envy is at its heart more than simply wanting a thing (i.e. “I am envious of your car.”) it is more relational than that. More to the point, “I resent you because you have a nicer car than I do, or a newer one, or the one I always wanted.” At its depths, envy crosses over from wanting a thing, to wanting to see harm caused to you because you have that thing, even (as Vedantam shows) being willing to cause that harm if need be. We know inherently that this is the worst part of who we are as humans. But we cannot help ourselves.
Which is why we call it a vice. Our series this Lent is about the seven capital vices. They are sometimes called the Seven Deadly Sins, but as I suggested in the Ash Wednesday sermon, there is an important difference. Vices are character traits or patterns of behavior. Sins are the result of those traits or patterns. So, we have heard about the vices of vainglory and lust so far, and now we turn to the vice of envy.
What Vedantam found in his research on social psychology is something that the author of the book of James knew a couple of millennia ago. Following the vice of envy brings nothing but destruction. James was not a stranger to social comparison. We aren’t for sure when James was written, but we can guess that it was sometime around the early development of the church, where there were small house churches scattered around. Because of the topics that he writes about, it was clear that house churches were dealing with envy. There were power plays inside of the congregation between different factions within the church. Congregation members started playing favorites…rich members got to sit in the seats of prestige, but poor ones had to sit on the floor. There was back-biting and hallway whispering and talking behind each other’s backs. The social comparison game from society outside the church just got baptized and brought right into the church.
And James goes ballistic! “If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
So it is clear for James, like Vedantam and the social psychologists that he talked to, that we can have this envy, but the real question is what we do with it. James says, “if you have envy, do not allow it to create violence in your life or in the church.” The assumption is that we don’t have to let envy rule our hearts. But, of course, he goes on to show that members of his church have done just that…
“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts…”
James blasts the members of the congregation for creating division and dispute and conflict. And what does he say is at the heart of it all? Envy. When we are envious of another’s position or power, we create discord and disorder. James is incredulous that it is happening in the church! “Hypocrites!” “Murderers!” I stopped right before he calls them “Adulterers!” Angry James has had enough!
But alongside of angry James, this other guy shows up. Gentle James. Peacemaker James. This is the James from the book of Acts, who suggests a compromise when Peter and Paul are getting ready to tear each others’ heads off. This is the James who helped integrate Paul and his message to the Gentiles alongside of those who demanded obedience to the Torah. It is hard to find that James sometimes in the book. Martin Luther thought that we should just leave the whole book out of the Bible. For Luther, James didn’t talk enough about the cross, about Jesus, and about grace!
But I would offer that he does talk about grace, just in a way that is subtly different than Paul or the Gospels. For sure, James got angry at the congregation (or congregations) to which he writes. But his anger comes from a place of pity. He sees the way that they are living, and knows that there is a better way. There is a way of grace. A way of peace. His frustration is reserved for those who are following a wisdom of comparison, of envy, of disorder, because he knows that there is a way beyond such envy.
The way of wisdom. For James, the way of wisdom IS grace.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Barbara Brown Taylor recognizes how similar this passage is to Paul’s Love Chapter in 1 Corinthians 13. What Paul calls love, James calls heavenly wisdom. Wisdom here is more than just being smart or having the right information. Wisdom is a way of living…in the next few verses, James likens it to “friendship with God.” And James hurts for those in this church because they are foregoing this wisdom, this friendship with God, in order to keep up with the social comparison, the yardstick of envy. James offers this beautiful description of what wisdom can bring, and invites his readers to enter into this life of wisdom. He begs his readers to leave behind this broken life of envy and comparison and disunity and dispute. And enter the way of wisdom. The way of a better life. The way of grace.
And I think deep down, we know this to be the case. We know that envy is an ugly part of who we are. And we know the results. I could tell you some horror stories—much like James—of congregations that I have known over my life that have dealt with the same dynamics: one or two people are envious that they don’t have as much influence or power that they like, so they go underground and whisper and gossip and divide and “disorder.” And when that happens, no one wins. Everyone gets hurt. James doesn’t want this for us. He wants something better for our lives. Better for our churches.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes about what that way of wisdom might look like in our world. DeYoung is the author of Glittering Vices, which has been the inspiration and guide through the dark world of these capital vices. She says that envy is an inclination of character, or a pattern of behavior. But patterns can be broken. And character can be shaped.
She summarizes the way that wisdom defeats envy like this:
“If envy is a loser’s game, it is also a game we are doomed to lose even if we win. For to “win” at envy is to destroy the possibility of love between oneself and others, and oneself and God. To be envious is to be determined to live in a way that precludes gratitude and contentment, love and happiness. Relationships of love are the only thing that will truly make us happy. The envious thus pursue happiness in a way that necessarily undermine their chances of having it. The only escape from this vice is to find a completely different foundation for our self-worth. Envy depends on a comparative self-value.”
DeYoung and James and even Vedantam at some level recognize this. The only way to defeat envy is change the terms of worth and value. In other words, the only way to beat envy in our lives is to see ourselves the way that God sees us. But the way of wisdom sees ourselves in the way that God sees us.
Remember the title of Vedantam’s podcast? “Counting Other People’s Blessings” So, what is the alternative? Of course, the most obvious answer to the podcast title is what? Don’t count other people’s blessings, but what, “Count your many blessings…name them one by one…count your many blessings, see what God has done.”
A good answer, and a great song. But wrong. Think about the yardstick again. When it comes to envy, we can count our blessings, one by one. But what does envy do? As long as we are counting our blessings, we are still peeking out of the corner of our eye at how many blessings our neighbor has. And when envy has a hold of us, we will always find someone who has one more blessings to count. So what do we do instead?
Stop counting. In fact, throw away the yardstick.
Stop seeing ourselves through the wisdom of the world, and start to see ourselves through God’s eyes of love. With apologies to Johnson Oatman, Jr., the author of Count Your Many Blessings, we have to stop counting.
What if, instead, we took to heart the words of another song? Gloria Gaither wrote these words seventy years ago, and they are still a powerful reminder of what it looks like when we throw away the yardstick and see ourselves through the lens of love:
I then shall live as one who’s been forgiven.
I’ll walk with joy to know my debts are paid.
I know my name is clear before my Father;
I am His child and I am not afraid.
So, greatly pardoned, I’ll forgive another;
The law of love I gladly will obey.
I then shall live as one who’s learned compassion.
I’ve been so loved, that I’ll risk loving too.
I know how fear builds walls instead of bridges;
I’ll dare to see another’s point of view.
And when relationships demand commitment,
Then I’ll be there to care and follow through.
Your Kingdom come around and through and in me;
Your power and glory, let them shine through me.
Your Hallowed Name, O may I bear with honor,
And may Your living Kingdom come in me.
The Bread of Life, O may I share with honor,
And may You feed a hungry world through me.