Impulse: Envy

This is the third essay of a five part series. The last two essays published on this website are about the impulses of greed and pride. This essay is about the impulse of envy. When asked, most of us know that envy is not a desirable character trait. Many of us who seldom struggle with greed or pride, more easily acquiesce to the subtle impulse of envy.

When I was a young preacher, I was asked by an influential church leader if a friend and former seminary student of mine would be a good choice for the national Youth President position in our church denomination. I responded, well he’s kind of young and not sure if he would be a good fit. I am so ashamed as I look back at this because I’m sure that envy clouded my judgment. I really felt marginalized – passed over for the position. The church leader could have recommended me – I’m a candidate, I thought. This was envy plain and simple. I could have been better. When we feel marginalized envy can creep in very easily.

Unrealized expectations often enlivens envy in our hearts. In itself, expectation coupled with realistic ambition is not bad for us. They motivate us. The problem comes in when we look around and see people who are doing better than us, or so it seems, and get really jealous. Jealously is a close sibling of envy. The teacher expects to be Teacher of the Year but it doesn’t happen and it happen to you know who, twice!  My girlfriend and her husband make a lot more money than we do; yeah their nice people and seem generous but I’m sure glad my husband and I are not snobs like them. My younger sister got a better education because my parents made more money as they got older, I’ve never felt good about this. I love my sister but I can’t say I’m not a little envious. Maybe if she stopped talking about the good job she has – that might help.

Can’t believe our friend’s kid got that scholarship, or job, or that academic award – our kid is struggling and seems unmotivated. Her parents have more resources and connections anyway, probably something to do with that. It does grind me though. Kid envy is very subtle because our expectations for our children and acceptance of who they are and how they are progressing in life are drawn out of the same deep cistern – our love for them. Then what about small business owners, non-profit directors, middle managers, tradespersons, and blue collar workers who struggle with envy because they see others who are more respected, successful or promoted more often; bigger business owners, high level executives or local politicians – people like the husband of a friend of your wife’s! Although just an observation, it seems these types of impulses are more common among men because of our outsized egos and male sensitivities as providers and bread winners – although that’s changing. When these impulses do show up in women it seems more often about I wanted or want a better life. This is not what I expected. Unfortunately, a fair amount of divorces are initiated because of unrealized marital expectations. All of these examples have common denominators – unrealized expectations and a touch of envy. 

It’s not easy sometimes because our culture inordinately values fame, power and financial success. We live in a time where ambition and high expectation is high-flown, yet heavy psychologically. It’s incessantly on display; implied in our conversation and overtly praised in the media. It’s in our face all the time and everywhere; really wealthy executives, professional athletes, entertainment celebrities, charismatic politicians and billionaire young people. And if their men, more often than not with beautiful young model girlfriends and spouses. To be fair there are many enriched and advantaged people who live meaningful, self-controlled and generous lives. But even so, envy can still creep in to those who feel cheated in life or to a lesser extent short-changed. There are no easy answers to this, it seems clear however, that we are much healthier if we accept our lot-in-life than envy what others have been allotted. 

When our relationship with God is rich and full we are not nearly as sensitive about how good others are doing in life; their success or progress in life. In fact, when something good happens to someone we are able to rejoice when they rejoice. It comes down to daily Quite Time and Christian Discipleship. When we have daily rich and meaningful Quiet Time with God we leave His Presence with assurance that He knows who we are and more importantly loves us anyway. God does expect discipleship so if any changes need to be made God will eventually let us know and give us guidance and strength so that we can be the best we can be. Spiritual self-actualized is the result of daily Quite Time coupled with Christian Discipleship. We will feel good about who we are and what we are doing in life; most often smothering the impulse to envy. 

We should also accept that God has a master plan that will unfold regardless or what we think or thought our life would be like; for most of us this is not easy. John Bunyan who wrote the spiritual classic Pilgrim Progress (at one time the most read book outside of the Bible) once said while preaching to his church congregation, I know that some of you in the congregation do not understand why I spent 12 years in prison for religious dissidence (a relatively minor infraction), well I don’t know why either – it’s a mystery to me too. Sometimes we just don’t get the why’s of life. They simply have to be accepted. In Bunyan’s case he slowed down long enough while incarcerated to write many encouraging and impactful books including Pilgrims Progress; this ageless and impactful spiritual prose that’s proved to be a blessing to so many. Yet, Bunyan did not see the impact of this timeless work in his lifetime. 

Some of us will never reach the proverbial Promise Land that we had hoped for when we started out in life for a multiplicity of reasons – some in our control and some out of our control. This is not a popular message today – but it is realistic and honest. Why did my father, mother or child die so young? I never thought I would be divorced? Why did I do so lousy in college; I could have a better job now. How could I have made so many mistakes in the past, these poor choices  made my life less than what I expected. And the list goes on… 

Moses unexpectedly, did not enter the Promise Land. Joseph spent years in prison. I’m sure that was not what he expected. David was not as blameless as he thought he would be, never expecting to fall so far into disrepute. Jonah never expected to be thrown over board and end up in the belly of a whale. So many more are recorded in Scripture, an oversized-load of unrealized expectations and ambitions, spiritual and otherwise. These were all faithful men and women of noteworthy spiritual stature. They all had a purpose and were part of Gods’s master plan. They all eventually accepted it. It did not always make life predictable and without disappointment for them and it doesn’t for us either. Maybe like Moses we may not always walk into the Promise Land in life or a specific part of our life, but in the likeness of his example we will plant our feet in the City of God!

Leave a Reply