The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy

This post is the third in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

“Gr-r-r–there go, my heart’s abhorrence!” Thus begins Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. The poem gives an hilarious insight into the envious thoughts and plots of one monk against another. It is a funny and disconcerting skewering of the envious. And that first word — or whatever it is grammatically — says it all: Grrrr. If vanity cries out, Look at me! Envy gnashes its teeth at others’ success and says, Grrrrr.

The Offerings of Cain and Abel - Jan van Eyck, 1425-1429

The Offerings of Cain and Abel – Jan van Eyck, 1425-1429

Saint Gregory the Great observes that the deadly sins are so closely related that “one springs from the other.” Thus, vanity begets envy. By vanity we set ourselves up as the standard and, when we run into the gifts and talents of others, we become envious. Our inordinate desire to be noticed, known, and praised does enough damage on its own. But when that desire encounters others who are (or are perceived to be) better, then it morphs into envy. Vanity’s excessive self-focus becomes envy’s excessive other-focus.

Envy is sadness or discontent at the blessings, success, or talents of another. It involves a sense of injustice — as if we have been cheated because another person has more. Envy views reality as competition and God’s blessings as a zero-sum game. “If someone else has more,” it reasons, “I must have less.” We typically describe this attitude as jealousy. But that word better describes not the resentment of another’s gifts but the refusal to share our own.

The word “envy” comes from the Latin “invidere” — to look at someone with an evil eye, to look askance. This root word captures the suspicious attitude of the envious man. He is always watching others to see what they have that he does not. He is haughty when he finds them inferior and insecure when he finds them better. His heart has no rest or peace. He suffers the constant, nagging fear that somewhere, somehow, someone has more than he.

Although Browning’s skewering of an envious monk might be great fun, the vice itself is no laughing matter. Scripture reveals its seriousness: “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (Wis 2:24). Thus, Saint Augustine calls it “the diabolical sin.” It serves as a leitmotif throughout salvation history: out of envy, Cain rises up against Abel, Joseph is betrayed by his brothers, the Apostles argue among themselves, and the Sanhedrin delivers Jesus up to Pilate.

The Catechism gives a sobering list of sins that flow from this capital vice: “From envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor…” (CCC 2539). Hatred…because we feel as though another has deprived us of something. Detraction…because we are always on the look out (looking with an evil eye…) to discover and report the faults of others, lest they get ahead of us. Calumny…because we will even lie about another person in order to get ahead, or just to even the score a little. Joy at another’s misfortune…because, although our enemy’s problems do not make us any better…they sure do make us feel better, don’t they?

Worst of all, envy judges God. “Are you envious because I am generous?” the landowner asks the workers (Mt 20:15). And God asks the same. When we yield to envy, we pass judgment on God’s generosity. We find fault with His distribution of gifts and talents, condemning His decision to give some more and others less. We look upon His Providence with an evil eye, concluding that He messed up by making others better.

A good way to combat the vice is to give thanks. Envy focuses on and obsesses about what others have. It makes us believe that God has somehow denied us something, that He has not been good to us. By giving thanks, we see things clearly and acknowledge the profound reality of God’s goodness to us. The more we give thanks, the more aware we become of our own unworthiness and God’s unmerited goodness to us. By thanksgiving we cease our peevish pouting about what others have and cultivate the childlike habit of treasuring even the smallest gift He has given us.

In Paradiso, as Dante and Beatrice make their way up the levels of heaven, they come upon two souls in conversation. Turning, the souls see the poet pilgrim and exclaim: Behold, here is one who will increase our love! They do not think that the arrival and blessings of another will in any way cut into their happiness and beatitude. Quite the opposite. They see another’s blessings as an increase for all souls in heaven. The soul in union with God knows that God’s goodness is inexhaustible, not a zero-sum game. The soul in union with God rejoices that His goodness is not restricted but is shown in many ways, in many blessings, for many people. To know that is to be free of envy and, in a certain sense, to be in heaven already.

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