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The Evil of Envy

January 21, 2010

As we continue to read from First Samuel at daily Mass we encounter an envious Saul. Upon David’s return from slaying Goliath the women sang a song praising him. Saul should rejoice with all Israel but he is resentful and envies David as he hears the song: Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought: “They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul looked upon David with a glarring  eye. Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants. (1 Sam 18:6-9).  His reaction is way over the top but this is what envy does.

What is envy? Unfortunately most people use the word wrongly as a synonym for jealously. But jealously is not the same as envy. When I am jealous of you, you have something I want and I wish to possess it inordinately. But the key point is that there is something good about you or something good you have and I want to have it for myself. When jealousy is sinful I want it inordinately or unreasonably. But envy is very different. Envy is sorrow, sadness or anger at the the goodness or excellence of someone else because I take it to lessen my own excellence. But the key difference with envy is that (unlike jealousy) I do not want to possess the good or excellence you have. I want to destroy it.

Notice in the reading above that Saul wants to kill David. He wants to do this because he thinks David’s excellence makes him look less excellent, less great. Saul SHOULD rejoice in David’s gifts for they are gifts to all Israel. David is a fine soldier and this is a blessing for everyone. The proper response to David’s excellence should be to rejoice, be thankful to God and, where possible imitate David’s courage and excellence. Instead Saul sulks and sees David stealing the limelight from  him and possibly even the kingdom. Envy rears  its ugly head when Saul concludes David must die. The good that is in David must be destroyed.

Envy is diabolical – St. Augustine called Envy THE diabolical sin since it seeks to minimize, end or destroy what is good. Scripture says By the envy of the Devil death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve had, made in the image of God, and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his, or so he thought, and he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Envy is very ugly and it is diabolical.

Examples of Envy – I remember experiencing envy in my early years. Picture the scene. In every classroom their was always one student, sometimes a few, who got A’s on every test. They always behaved and the teacher would sometimes praise them saying, “Why can’t the rest of you be like Johnny? (or Susie).” We hated students like this. They made us look bad. So what did some of us do? We sought to pressure the “teacher’s pet” to conform to mediocrity. In effect we sought to destroy the goodness or excellence in them. We would taunt them with names and pelt them with spit balls.  If ridicule and isolation didn’t work sometimes we’d just plain beat them up. This is envy. Sorrowful and angry at the goodness of another student because they made us look bad, we set out to destroy what was good in them.

The Virtues which cancel envy – The proper response to observing goodness or excellence in another is joy and zeal. We rejoice that they are blessed because, when they are blessed, we are blessed. Further we respond with a zeal that seeks to imitate where possible their goodness or excellence. Perhaps we can learn from them or their good example. But envy rejects joy and zeal and with sorrow and anger sets out to destroy what is good.

Envy can be subtle – Envy isn’t isn’t always this obvious. Sometimes it is more subtle and something we do almost without thinking. When someone at work is a rising star we may easily engage in gossip and defamation to undermine their reputation or tarnish their image. We may do this at times in an unreflectove manner. Almost without thinking, we diminish and belittle others and their accomplishments by careless and insensitive remarks. We often do this because we need to knock others down to feel better about ourselves. This is envy. Sometimes we show envy passively by omitting to praise or encourage others or by failing to call attention to their accomplishments.

Envy concealed with a smile – Finally there is an odd form of envy out there that is particularly annoying because it masquerades as sensitivity and kindness. Go with me to a typical neighborhood soccer game or baseball game. The children are on the field and playing their hearts out. But on the sidelines a decision has been made not to keep score. Why? Because the kids little egos might be damaged by losing. Frankly, it isn’t the egos of the children we’re probably protecting here, it is the parents. The fact it that the kids know the score in most cases. But God forbid that on the sports field there should be winners or losers! The losers might “feel bad.” The solution is to destroy or to refuse to acknowledge goodness and excellence in some children because it is taken to lessen the goodness or excellence of the “losers.” This is envy and it teaches terrible things by omission. First of all it fails to teach that there are winners and losers in life. This is a fact. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. Either way I should be gracious.  Secondly it fails to reward excellence and this is unjust for excellence should be rewarded and the reward should motivate others to be excellent. Much is lost when we fail to praise what is good. Another example of this envious practice is at school award ceremonies where sometimes (literally) hundred of awards are given out. There are the traditional Honor Roll awards but then a plethora of made up awards so that everyone gets something. I’ve even witnessed awards given for the nicest smile. But the problem is that when every one is awarded no one is awarded. Once again envy rears it ugly head but this time it’s wearing a smiley face. God forbid that some kids little ego might be bruised it he doesn’t get something. God forbid that someone else’s excellence might make me look less excellent by comparison. The bottom line is that it is envy: sorrow at someone else’s excellence because I take it to lessen my own. And frankly this isn’t the kids issue, it’s usually  parents and teachers projecting their own struggle with envy on the kids. But the fact is, there are simply some people who are better than I am a certain things. But that’s OK. I don’t have all the gifts, you  don’t have all the gifts. But together we have all the gifts.

Envy is ugly, even when it masquerades as kindness. It diminishes and often seeks to destroy goodness and excellence. The proper response to excellence and goodness is and should always be joy and zeal.

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Comments (27)

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  1. Nick says:

    The jealous love of God has overcome the envy of the devil: Hallelujah!

    O Lord, please make us zealous and joyful for the good of others, for love of You.

  2. Loreen Lee says:

    I am grateful that I am able to come back from mass and read a homily on the readings that occur during the week. With this one, however, I have one question. This may be disturbing for me to suggest; by my reading of the scripture is that David is not completely innocent in the relationship. Indeed, he cuts the cloak, and then possibly realizes that he can’t go through with the opportunity, said to have been given by God, and even returns to scold his men for the idea. Later, if this is a correct interpretation, he would be involved within some sort of self-deception, if he hasn’t gone through some sort of personal contrition, and actually presents to Saul, a reasoning for cutting the cloak that puts him in better light. My suggestion, is that it is possible, if not in this case, but in some cases, that envy towards us could be further provoked, by our inability to deal with it by the grace of God. But what to you do when you are the object of envy, and don’t know what or how to deal with it, except as I have found in my life, by reactive behavior, and a return of the sorrow and anger.
    Envy may occur also, perhaps, in addition to the reasons given, because one has not been given the capacities in a certain area that have been given to another. Each one of us wants to be ‘just as good’ and if not, ‘better, at certain times in our lives.
    In any case, you have once again given me insight, for my writing. I have the saying in the book ‘Genius without talent is laughter without a smile’. Don’t worry people, this is copyrite protected. It means nothing without context, in any case, and that will be my job. Kierkegaard also showed how the demoniac was aversion to the good, and this fits in very well for me, to a better understanding of your homily. These homilies are a gift of understanding for me. Thank you.

  3. Loreen Lee says:

    Actually, I had to reread. My response still bears memory even of reactive behavior. The word that got me was ‘Stealthily’ cut off the cloak. But then before he spoke to his men, the text notes: ‘Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak’. Contrition here? Anyway it explains how I acted in the times that I’m writing about. The book is not going to be ‘Psalms’, however! But maybe that’s what Heidegger means when he says we have got to learn how to think. That the poetical thought, analogical reason, which has created for us the tower of babel in the past needs to find a way of passage from the ‘internal’ world of the personal, so that our logic is empowered with a diction of thanks and praise. Thanks again for making me think.

  4. russ says:

    In regards to previous post on Martin Luther King:

    How is a man whom was baptized,called himself a minister and denied jeuss Christ a hero- a hero to Christians??

    How is a man who went to his death sleeping with women(and chasing them naked as in a hotel in oslo) a hero?

    We do not have to wait until 2027 when the FBI files are release(wife went to court to stop them from becoming public because it would ruin his image) how is he a hero???

    • Russ,

      Looks like this comment belongs at the MLK site and I see you posted there too. I am not sure what you mean that he denied Jesus Christ. As for his womanizing that seems alas, to be true at least to some extent. I don’t know what to say about the last part except that this seems a frequent problem with male leaders. I do not say this by way of approval but only to indicate that many “heros” would vanish from the “pantheon” if perfect monogamy had to be proved beforehand. I am aware that there is evidence as to MLKs womanizing. I don’t know the extent of it. I don’t know the state of his soul when he died either and have to leave that up to God. Beyond this I can say little more as to his possible sins. Please note I do not make light of this sin and if MLK committed I gues I have to say with St Paul: In hoc non laudo (in this matter I do not praise you). Still It remains true that MLK made a great contribution to racial justice in this land and also did a very remarkable work in applying Christ’s principle of non-violent resistance effectively. That principle was articulated in the sermon on the Mount and has it’s limits (i.e. I am no radical pacifist and I don’t think Christ taught this either) but to show on a large scale how that teaching can be effectively applied and that it is not simply a theory was a great service both to the Church and to the Country.

      • russ says:

        Dear Father,
        Martin Luther King Jr. publicly denied (including his writings) that Jesus rose from the dead-he denied that Jesus is BOTH man and GOD.

        Now there have been people whom have done even greater things in history,but they are not looked upon as a hero-not by Christians. Why now?? What good is it to gain the world and loose your soul? How many by looking upon him as a hero(and,or,preached such) consciously,and or,unconsciously are affected by his not having preached the Christian message?? I know many at soup kitchens.Many whom it does not bother that he denied Christ-many that are not bothered that atre current president stands for the killing of children.
        Is this helping souls-persons called to commit themselves to the Lord? is this helping those of the present faithful?
        Did he really practice non-violence. Are we when we do not speak for the truth-and making known the dangers to others of this liberalism that Newman made known would sweep away souls and nations?

        As for Mr. Gandhi:he seemed to say accoring to a friend of his that he would be a Christian if those who professed being such were. A point made-a soul lost???

  5. Jacqueline says:

    Envy / Jealousy: these subjects invite me turn to a few of the lines of Cardinal Merry del Val’s Litany of Humility:
    From the desire of being honored,
    From the desire of being praised,
    ………..
    Deliver me, Jesus.

    That others may be loved more than I,
    That others may be chosen and I set aside,
    That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
    That others may be preferred to me in everything,
    …………
    Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

  6. anon says:

    It’s funny what parents do in what they say is the name of love when really the parent’s self-worth is defined by the deeds of their kids…

    There was a push a little while back to do away with sports awards at my kids’ school. Truth be told, it was because some dads were more bothered than their sons about their boys not receiving top athlete honors. Then, there was a season when my daughter played on a team where she outplayed the coach’s daughter. That year, the coach refused to give the award to the best athlete and instead gave an award for effort to the player who had the least amount of game time. Several of the parents of other players commented to me that the wife of the coach was the source of that decision. It seemed to me that they were teaching their children to be envious in situations when I truly believe those kids would have been naturally gracious.

  7. Crouchback says:

    Monsignor,

    Where are you getting your definitions of the words jealousy and envy? I’ve never come across the ones that you use. Can you support your particular definitions with reference to a reputable dictionary? Generally, I think, readers appreciate having such dictionary information provided up front.

    Guy

    • The definition I am using is drawn from St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa II IIae 36.1 in the respondeo dicenum quod to wit:

      “I answer that, The object of a man’s sorrow is his own evil. Now it may happen that another’s good is apprehended as one’s own evil, and in this way sorrow can be about another’s good. But this happens in two ways: first, when a man is sorry about another’s good, in so far as it threatens to be an occasion of harm to himself, as when a man grieves for his enemy’s prosperity, for fear lest he may do him some harm: such like sorrow is not envy, but rather an effect of fear, as the Philosopher states (Rhet. ii, 9). Secondly, another’s good may be reckoned as being one’s own evil, in so far as it conduces to the lessening of one’s own good name or excellence. It is in this way that envy grieves for another’s good: and consequently men are envious of those goods in which a good name consists, and about which men like to be honored and esteemed, as the Philosopher remarks (Rhet. ii, 10).

  8. Loreen Lee says:

    The Philosopher I understand to be Aristotle whom St. Thomas elucidates, (after the Islamic philosophers (Avicenna, and Averroes) reintroduced his thought during their occupancy of Europe). I usually check out these things in the dictionary, and Webster’s New World Dictionary gives a quotation which is not inconsistent with the above: invidus, having hatred or ill will Latin: invidia, to look askance at; upon + videre to look see. l. A feeling of discontent and ill will because of another’s advantages, possessions, etc; resentful dislike of another who has something desirable. 2. desire for some advantage or possession belonging to another (covetness?) 3. an object of envious feeling; as, he was the envy of other boys because he had a bicycle. 4. (obs.) a) ill will spite, (b) odius. (it’s definition) hatred, 2. disgrace of infamy brought on being hated. (Looks like here too it’s a ‘two way’ street) (also for invidious) giving offense by discriminating unfairly, which was the source of my perceived ‘hurt’. (i.e. sorrow.)

  9. Margaret says:

    You are completely confused in your explanation of the difference between envy and jealousy! These words are often misused and there are quite a few webpages devoted to explaining the difference.

    It is always good to start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jealousy#Jealousy_vs_Envy

    Here is a lengthy explanation at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/envy/#1.2

    EnglishPlus also has a helpful entry: http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000301.htm

    Basically, envy means wanting what someone else has. Jealousy means being protective of what you have. We call a man a “jealous husband” if he is nervous about his wife’s fidelity. An “envious husband” would be a man who was coveting his neighbor’s wife.

    God is described in the Bible as a jealous god. That would make no sense using your definition of jealous. But it makes perfect sense when you take it to mean that God is very concerned that we should worship only him.

    I wouldn’t nitpick, but you made your mistaken understanding of these words into the foundation of the point you were trying to make!

    • Wade St. Onge says:

      Margaret says: “You are completely confused in your explanation of the difference between envy and jealousy! . . . It is always good to start with Wikipedia”.

      I disagree. I do not think it is ever good to start with Wikipedia! I have corrected a few of their errors, such as “both married and unmarried men can be ordained deacons at 25, but in the US, married men must be at least 35 before they can be ordained”. Also, the terms “envy” and “jealousy” are usually understood differently in Catholic teaching vs. the secular world. For instance, the word “faith” means something much different in Catholic teaching than it means according to Webster or to the common man. As for “jealousy”, I know Pieper for one distinguishes between “good jealousy” and “bad jealousy”. Finally, language is fluid. Thomas would not distinguish between “envy” and “jealousy”, per se. However, there were some situations that were somewhat akin to envy, but were not sinful, and these he would not call envy at all – but today, we would use the term “jealousy” here.

      Instead of Wikipedia, one is generally better off starting with the Catholic Encyclopedia – at least as regards online sources. But there are many good old-fashioned “books” (at least that is what I think they used to call them lol) that one should refer to before anything else.

  10. You may be right about jealousy. But what did you think about envy? That is waht the article is about. I used a Thomistic defintiion of Envy which I cite eslewhere in these comments. Your citations are largely secular and it is precisely secular and modern notions that I am distinstiguishing from the traditional religious one. My point wasn’t tp propose a definition for jealousy except to say that envy and jealously are not the same. So what do you think of the defintition that St. Thomas Aquinas proposes. He would differ with your defintiion that envy is just wnating what someone else has. Other later philopsophers such as Kant et al also make more distinctions than you.

    Finally, I would avoid saying things like, “You are completely confused….” Not generally a good conversation starter and it also opens you up to possibly being shown a few kinks in your own argument. You are not flawless in your refutation.

    I do not think that rooting a definition in St. Thomas Aquinas is being “completely confused.” You are free to differ with me and also with St. Thomas Aquinas but the “completely confused” hardly seems warrented. For the record here is what Thomas Says:

    St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa II IIae 36.1 in the respondeo dicenum quod to wit:

    “I answer that, The object of a man’s sorrow is his own evil. Now it may happen that another’s good is apprehended as one’s own evil, and in this way sorrow can be about another’s good. But this happens in two ways: first, when a man is sorry about another’s good, in so far as it threatens to be an occasion of harm to himself, as when a man grieves for his enemy’s prosperity, for fear lest he may do him some harm: such like sorrow is not envy, but rather an effect of fear, as the Philosopher states (Rhet. ii, 9). Secondly, another’s good may be reckoned as being one’s own evil, in so far as it conduces to the lessening of one’s own good name or excellence. It is in this way that envy grieves for another’s good: and consequently men are envious of those goods in which a good name consists, and about which men like to be honored and esteemed, as the Philosopher remarks (Rhet. ii, 10).

  11. anon says:

    “You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” – James 4:1-3

    I’ve often wondered if envy isn’t a product of entitlement. Not only do we want what another has, but we think we deserve to have it. We don’t want to humble ourselves to God’s plan for us because we want God’s plan for Johnny who lives in that big house over there, and, darn it, we’d do a better job with Johnny’s blessings anyway!!

    It seems to me that the cure for envy could be gratitude. Gratitude requires that I look inward (and then upward) rather than compare outward. When I am grateful, my life as it is, is enough and I do not want what others have.

    • Carla says:

      AMEN, to that! and Msgr. offers an excellent reply to the person that called him ‘completely confused’.

      • Carla says:

        I should have added that the scripture offered from St. James (4:1-3) reminds me of the story of Caan and Able also regarding envy…and to say that gratitude is a good remedy is brilliant. thank you.

  12. Patrick says:

    Wrath springs from Envy like a quarrel from a bow.

    I am reminded of the actions of the Leninists of Bolshevik Russia. They were not satisfied with dispossessing the landowners and wealthy, they demanded that these people were to die, horribly. If I remember correctly, they were left with only the clothing on their backs, starving in the streets. Should anyone offer even a crust of bread to these wretches, they would share in the same cruel punishment. I fear this sin is deeper and more prevalent than in school sports.

  13. Maggie says:

    The blog and the video were successful and very helpful in presenting envy as a multi-layered sin so I was a bit disappointed to see only two remedies “virtues that cancel envy.” Jacqueline already added the Litany of Humility and I’d like to add two more remedies to the list: Self-Knowledge and Personal Purpose. If Saul would have had the courage to repent and go back to do God’s will for the honor of serving Him – Personal Purpose- he could have been friends with David. If Saul would have learned the lesson from Samuel, when Saul was first rejected by God as the king, he could have suspected God was preparing someone else to be king and -although is hard to imagine- Saul could have found something else to do.

    With the grace of the Holy Spirit available like it is today, it is easy for us to judge these biblical characters, don’t you think. I mean, Saul did not have the grace of going to the sacrament of reconciliation. But we do! So if we want to follow the way of perfection like St. Teresa of Avila or Catherine of Siena advice, if we want to reflect the light of Christ in our lives, we could ask ourselves: How am I acting like Saul – self centered and insecure? Where do I find difficult to recognize the talents of others? Or how can I imitate David: have I found my purpose in life? Do I know what God wants from me? When we are happy and content with God’s plan for us, it becomes easier to overcome the temptation to envy others, or at least we can go to God in prayer to ask for his grace. Remember David cut the corner of the clock and surely Saul had gotten on his nerves! But he stopped himself before attacking “God’s anointed.” Prayer and examination of conscience are necessary here. And of course, a prayerful reading of the scriptures through the light of Christ’s revelation and the constant commitment of our lives to his will and his providence.

    I hope this helps.

  14. namatsi says:

    Some time ago I was studying management. We were told that a good manager learns the job of his/her superior as he/she teaches his/her juniors his/her own job. When I was employed I learnt that everyone in the office was deeply protective of his/her job and position. May be Saul knew David would take his job and like my manager/superior took measures to save his job. Those kings had power to take and give.

  15. Brian Z. says:

    Msgr. you mentioned that envy was the sin used against Adam and Eve. Was Envy also the sin used against Jesus before his crucifixion? Did the Jews see an excellence in our Lord that they felt was demeaning the excellence in them and, therefore, they had to discredit Jesus and crucify him? In other words, instead of rejoicing in him they decided to destroy him? If so, as diabolical as Envy is, can it not also be a quite divine form of suffering? To suffer at the hands of the same sin our first parents and our Savior suffered is, in my opinion, a sign from God that he is over us. Let me know if I am on the right track. I have had much suffering in my life and thanks to your article I realized Envy was a big part of it not only in my professional life but personal life aswell. It took me a while to realize that there is a benefit associated with our suffering. It’s usually, as I understand it, a way to get us to turn to our Lord. It certainly has made me do that and, as a result, my faith has grown immensley. God Bless you Father.

  16. Barbara Rick, Out of The Blue Films, Inc. says:

    Fascinating discussion! We are in the process of creating an extraordinary documentary & interactive
    initiative on ENVY. The film will look at the causes and consequences of this most corrosive human emotion.
    I encourage you and your readers to take a look at our work on this at blog.envydoc.com and our website
    which is under construction: http://www.envydoc.com We are on Twitter.com at @ENVYthedoc. Here’s a link to our company, film, and our first video teaser for the project. http://envydoc.com/eblast/envyeblast0110x9.html Thank you very much!