A short while back we read from First Samuel at daily Mass and encountered 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 today as merely a synonym for jealously. But traditionally, 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 in traditional theology envy is very different (cf Summa II IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness or anger at the the goodness or excellence of someone else, because I take it to lessen my own excellence. And 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 (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316), 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 there 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).” Some hated students like this since  they made them look bad. So what did some of them do? They sought to pressure the “teacher’s pet” to conform to their mediocrity. In effect they sought to destroy the goodness or excellence in A student. They would taunt them with names and pelt them with spit balls. If ridicule and isolation didn’t work sometimes they’d just plain beat them up. This is envy. Sorrowful and angry at the goodness of another student, because they made them look bad, they 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 unreflective 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 is 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) hundreds 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 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. And 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 misguided kindness and fairness. 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.

In Snow White, the wicked Queen had envy for Snow White, the fairest of them all. Considering Snow White’s beauty as a threat to her standing, the evil queen cast a spell on snow white to remove her beauty from the scene. Envy consumes the evil queen.

Painting above by Marta Dahlig

44 Responses

  1. Bender says:

    But, but, but . . . isn’t it social justice that everyone have the same, doesn’t social justice demand that we resent it when others have more, and if they do have more, that we deprive them of it?

  2. Nick says:

    I pray you don’t receive too much hate mail for speaking out on an evil which people consider a good, Msgr.

  3. Colleen Hammond says:

    And then there’s bitter zeal… Sharing, as I do most of your columns!

    • Bitter zeal? Not sure of what you mean here. I am surely happy if you will widely share what I write here!

      • Colleen Hammond says:

        What I mean by bitter zeal is that action that is contrary to righteous zeal, which is itself motivated by charity. Envy can easily lead to bitter zeal.

        We might see this in, for example, people who recognize the crisis in the Church and are zealous for the Faith–specifically Sacred Tradition. It can lead to anger at the faults of others within the Church, and then to detraction, calumny, backbiting, etc… In some cases, I’ve even observed people become “home aloners” who refuse to attend Mass because they’re afraid the Sacraments aren’t valid.

  4. Howard says:

    I always thought pride was THE diabolical sin, but obviously the two are closely related.

    Also, there is something that is not quite the same thing as envy, but which is near enough to merit concern, and that is displeasure at seeing the wicked rewarded — either rewarded for their wickedness directly (e.g. becoming rich due to unethical business practices) or rewarded for some accomplishment they would not have achieved had they been properly punished (several successful pro athletes who have had run-ins with the law come to mind). Properly speaking, this is a desire for justice, but it can too easily slide over into mere hateful envy.

    • I think pride is surely the primordial sin under every other sin. As for your second point, I think what you describe should be distinguished from envy as you suggest since we should seek and appreciate justice.

      • Howard says:

        The problem, of course, is that I can tell myself I’m interested in justice when I’m really trying to rationalize envy. In some cases the distinction is pretty clear-cut, but in many everyday situations the line is somewhat blurry and requires some real self-examination. It’s sort of like the distinction between justice and vengeance.

  5. MarkA says:

    It’s probably just me, but the painting of Envy by Marta Dahlig at the top of the article bears some semblance of Sandra Bernhard.

  6. Doug says:

    “Envy can be subtle”

    Indeed. In fact, it’s the only one of “The Ten” that’s not detectable in its early stages. (By the time Saul’s spear reached the wall, though, David had an idea that …)

    In fact, it’s one indicator that the Bible is from Somewhere Higher than man: Why would Moses make a law that he couldn’t enforce? A scream in the night means murder, a missing bracelet proves theft, etc., but envy goes unseen and unpunished – until it works out death. (James 1:12-15) A working example of the hackneyed “God only knows …”

  7. lizaanne says:

    Excellent article – thank you Msgr. Pope!

  8. o c bryant says:

    Iago-shakespeare`s worst villian

  9. Theresa says:

    An eye opening message Msgr. We encounter envy all day long and most often justify it. Thanks for
    such insight!

  10. Reggie Wills says:

    I agree with you, Monsignor, that some schools have over-reacted to their concerns regarding children feeling sad when they do not receive awards. Consequently, when these kids enter into the “real world” where people are rewarded for their achievements for excellent performance, many of these kids are unable to adjust to this standard. I think that one of the most important lessons that we can teach all children is how to win with honor and to accept defeat with honor and grace while sincerely congratulating those who emerged victorious. Some schools refer to this as “character education”. I just refer to it as good, old fashion, common-sense, child rearing.

  11. Kim says:

    So how does one know when one wants something unreasonable or inordinate? Is it inordinate to feel sad because everyone around you is having children while you remain barren, to want a baby though it seems like it will never happen and perhaps God doesn’t will it, at least at this time, even though one is married and therefore capable? Or to congratulate those who announce their pregnancy, but only with great difficulty? Or if I see something in a catalog or store that would be nice to have but I don’t absolutely need, and I admire its beauty but don’t feel sadness over not being able to obtain it, thus I think remain unattached. Is that inordinate? Just wondering because sometimes the line seems a little blurry.

    • Ah blurry….welcome to life. If you are looking for a mathematical formula I am not sure one is there. Moral reflection is best made in a spirit of docility, noting the human problem and tendency we all can have, avoiding scrupulosity, and trusting in God’s mercy. Generally speaking I would like to note with you that sorrow (except the godly sorrow that is negatively produced in relation to sin and injustice…e.g. blessed are those who mourn), is not of God. Gratitude for what you have, joy at the good thing others have and enjoy, and zeal to imitate the goodness exemplified by others where possible, are all of God. Think on these things.

  12. Cynthia BC says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t use The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The story is an ode to envy.

  13. Richard Connell says:

    “Teach me to hear mermaids singing or to keep off envy’s stinging.”–John Dunne

  14. Michael says:

    The short story “Harrison Bergeron”, by Kurt Vonnegut, is an excellent illustration of what you are talking about, when taken to the absurd extreme.

  15. Gerald says:

    Thomas Mann, who struggled with homosexual inclinations all of his life, once wrote that he thought that envy was the moral cause of homosexualty. W. H. Auden, a homosexual himself, once voiced the same opinion. Reread Mann’s “Death in Venice” in that light, or his masterful “Doctor Faustus,” and you may see those stories in a new light. Or, for that matter, just go back to the original German legend about Faust. Any sin that is “diabolical” indicates not only a sort of addiction, but a sort of diabolical possession.

  16. Ann says:

    Great points, Msgr.Pope. I would like to use some of them at the school where I teach. At our sports banquets, everyone on the team gets a plaque. It has become so meaningless that attendance has dropped tremendously. In order to improve student behavior we are planning a program where any and all positive behavior is rewarded equally. We work so hard to avoid making any distinctions that students have absolutely no coping skills when they aren’t successful.

  17. Peter Wolczuk says:

    An excellent commentary on both the timeless and the current aspects of envy. What first struck me was the hypothetical teacher saying, “Why can’t the rest of you be like Johnny? (or Susie).” Is this teacher deliberately trying (consciously or subconciously) to push the “C” or the “D” or lower students toward destrucive envious actions? Is the teacher somehow been taught that it’s a good thing? So much of what I hear of in the schools and see increasing in the social service system appears to be an attempt to grow a sort of tyranny of the masses to level off human achievement; except for maybe the power elite and their families; to an enforced mediocrity.
    An implied guilt trip could be meant to push students who have the ability to do better but, what of those who are more intelligent than their grade standings indicate but are doing their best in the subjects pointed to? Perhaps they’re in the wrong program or their talents are more artistic than scholastic. Perhaps the educational system should be insuring a good understanding of the scholastic because of its basic worthiness but, finding the major talent direction and inspiring the young people to achieve in that direction.
    As a comparison; take the scholastic student who excells in science, economics or other data based talents and browbeat them for not making art as beautiful as that which Michelangelo put on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or for not having the sort of spiritual awareness that made anti Catholics and non Christians admire John Paul II. If an agenda like this didn’t fall apart right away due to the blatent absurdity of it maybe the scholastic students heap abuse as an outlet from the discouragement they felt. And, in the meantime, lets not forget the creativity that opens the door to better understanding of the “scholastic” subjects.
    God gave us all unique and special qualities, but it would seem that a long standing agenda to blunt and deprive society of the contributions and to stifle and leave unfulfilled the possessors of these graces seems to be growing in an increasingly co-ordinated way that uses more deadly sins than envy.
    Combine this with a game without anyone keeping track of points (is this where the term “pointless” comes from?) an award ceremony where everyone gets an award, whether they’ve earned one or not and I’m reminded me of the warning in Revelation 3:16-19. And let’s not forget verse 19 in an effort to tell all students that they’re always doing good to the point where these compliments have no value.
    Place most students on their destined track and you will find them well motivated and, perhaps the undeserving hatred toward Monday (or whichever is the starting day of a person’s work week or school week) will fade away along with a desire for the aforementioned award and be replaced by an eagerness to use natural gift(s) that each us has been graced with and which fits as if it is personally tailored for each of us by the Perfect Craftsman, Who’s called the Potter. Isaiah 29:16 41:25 45:9 64:8
    I’ve experienced and met people who have experienced work which is that fulfilling.

  18. Mary says:

    Monsignor, can you recommend some practical remedies for envy? Frequent confession, surely, but what are some tangible ways we can conquer this somewhat intangible sin?

  19. Bender says:

    Cultivating an attitude of minding your own business, worrying about yourself rather than concerning yourself with what others have or do, works too. Not only with envy, but with judgmentalism too.

    Jesus recommended it as well. He even told Peter to mind his own business —

    Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”
    Peter turned and saw the disciple following whom Jesus loved, the one who had also reclined upon his chest during the supper and had said, “Master, who is the one who will betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
    Jesus said to him, “What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You follow me.”
    –Jn 21:19-22
    ________________

    Cultivating an attitude of love works too. If Jesus says that we should even love our enemies, should we not then love those who are not our enemies, but who merely have more than we do? Love means not constantly dividing ourselves into haves vs. have-nots, us vs. them, rich vs. poor. Having a “preferential option” for the poor does not mean having a preferential resentment for the rich.

  20. Jessie says:

    Father, Mgr, is it possible to be married to a spouse who is envious of you?

    He constantly belittles me and isolates me with silence.

    • Well certainly it is possible. It is not pleasant I am sure. I would surely recommend that you find spiritual and emotional support especially in the “silent periods.” I hope there are good clergy and friends to help you. Even going to alanon meetings can be a help, there is also a 12 program called “emotions anonymous.”

  21. estradiol says:

    Another winner Sandi. I love Fifth Avenue Floral and I’m looking forward to copying your take on this one.

  22. muriel schnierow says:

    i was always a straight A student and very musical and pretty.In grammar school my sister was asked if she would be a “genius’ like me. ofcourse i dont think i was a “genius” eventually i was punished and ignored by my family, my first husband who left me with 2 babies for all sorts of “failures” and “lack” that i am not sure existed.
    i worked hard,remarried a supportive man,and when he died ( i was in my 50’s ) there was an explosion of verbal abuse that continued to this day. i just moved to a retirement building at 85 ands there is a woman who knows my family and my in laws. She wants to convince everyone that i have “done something awful’ i am successful, musical, still well dressed and sharp. i think afterreading this it mustt have been atype of bullying from envy. my brother in law tried to choke me for being “too equal” I have great faith in God but it is an awful experience.my sister at this age haas called me terrible names so did my father before he died. I hopeothers never go through this. Blessings Muriel

  23. Jennifer says:

    Msgr. Pope, it’s true–envy can be very subtle. In reading this post, I realize that envy and pride have tripped me up time and again. And I also see others’ envy of me, and how hurtful it’s been.

    Thank you for your blog, which is more helpful than a self-help book!

  24. [...] the other hand, is a very dark sorrow rooted in sin. I have written more extensively on envy here: ENVY. For this reflection let it suffice to say that envy is a form of sorrow, or anger at the [...]

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