135. Last of the Seven Deadly Sins: Envy, Part Two – How to Recover

“What a gnawing worm of the soul it is – to envy someone for his virtue or for his happiness; to make others’ good into our own evil; to be tortured by the prosperity of the famous. To the envious, no food brings joy, no drink is cheerful. They are always sighing, groaning, and weeping. And since the envious never set their envy aside, the heart possessed by envy is ripped apart day and night without a pause. Other evils have their limits. Whatever wrong is done, it ends when the crime is finished. Adultery ends when the act is done. Murder is finished when the homi­cide is committed. Once the fraud is finished, the cheater is through. But envy has no limit. It goes on and on, a sin without end. The more successful the person we envy is, the hotter the fire of envy burns in us.” Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Who wouldn’t want to recover from that?

And difficult though that may be, we can. Last week we ended by quoting Saint Paul: “Once we lived in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared… he saved us [from all this].” Titus 3:2,3 

Yes, Christ gave us hope, a reason to trust in God’s goodness and love and power and victory – not only for them but for us and for me and for all. The message of Christ’s teachings and of the Cross and the Resurrection is this: Despite appearances sometimes, God is in charge here, and he knows what he’s doing, and in the End, sooner or later, in one way or another, “his will” will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, by his grace, we can get on with our business of living and overcoming our own sins and failings, instead of resenting other peoples’ virtues and successes.

How to be rescued from Envy

These are my suggestions. Some of them were stolen long ago from sources I’ve now forgotten. (If I’ve plagiarized, please let me know and I will apologize.) Some are just common sense. Some may be my own ideas – I can’t remember. Take them for whatever you think they’re worth.

1 By the practice of thanksgiving. I think this is most important, so we’ll spend some time on it.

Every night before you go to sleep (or every morning when you awake, or whenever you pray best) thank God for the gifts he has given you in the previous day. Every morning when you first step out of bed, make the sign of the Cross and say “Thank you, Lord, for letting me see another day.” (At my age I’m now always a little surprised by that!) This can change your whole mindset.

Don’t forget to thank him for the things we so often take for granted: For the love of others. And that bombs are not going off outside our homes. For the gift of hearing: that vibrations can bring the voices of those we love directly into our ears and into our souls. And that by turning a knob or pushing an icon (secular type!) we have access to music that our recent ancestors could hear only by going to a concert hall – music that can move us to tears or laughter or joy.

For sight and for light, for the beauty we see around us every day. When is the last time you thanked God for colors? At this time of year here in Wisconsin I love to look around (I’ll bet the neighbors wonder why I keep staring out the windows) and thank God for blue sky and clouds and flowers – and this morning, as I write, for rain. Even for the seemingly-everlasting white of Wisconsin winter.

And for the heavenly smell of incense as we walk into a church! And… this list could go on almost forever. These are gifts which we all possess. Don’t take them for granted.

Above all, thank God for the gift of life, of your existence. You might not have had any of these things. You might not even have been.

Instead of envying what others have or being miserable because of what you do not have, go out of your way to be grateful for what you do have.

Up at the top we had a quote from Saint Cyprian. Now let’s try Irving Berlin. Do you know this old song below, sung in a 1950s movie by Doris Day?  *

  • My old heart-throb, to the right. (Forgive me. I couldn’t resist. I’d have made a terrible monk.) If you wish, hear her sing it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KPhwmDKq9A  Then be sure to come back to the Blog Post!
Taking stock of what I have and what I haven’t
What do I find? The things I've got will keep me satisfied.
Checking up on what I have and what I haven’t
What do I find? A healthy balance on the credit side.

Got no diamonds, got no pearls
Still I think I’m a lucky girl.
I’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.
Got no mansion, got no yacht
Still I’m happy with what I’ve got.
I’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.
Sunshine gives me a lovely day.
Moonlight gives me the Milky Way.
Got no cheque books, got no banks.
Still I’d like to express my thanks.
I’ve got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.
And with the sun in the morning and the moon in the 
evening I’m all right. 

OK, so Saint Cyprian is more profound. The song makes no mention of God, although there is only One Person (actually Three) to whom one can “express my thanks”. And it would be nice to have a little food, too! However, being satisfied, grateful, not jealous of others is a common human ideal, not confined to Orthodox Christians or to Christians. (Irving Berlin was a Jewish refugee. His family came to America in 1905 to escape from persecution by, well… Orthodox Russians. He had a lot to be thankful for.)

And if you think of it, the Holy Elder Paisios (from last week) didn’t have a whole lot more than “the sun” and “the moon”, and his health was terrible. The witness of the monastics is that people can get by on very little and be very happy. I suspect you have a lot more than that, dear ones. Be thankful.

Finally, to state the obvious: How do we Orthodox express our gratitude? By worshiping at and receiving the Holy Eucharist. I trust you know the Greek word ευχαριστία means “thanksgiving”.

2  Challenge your assumptions. Remember again from last week how Envy distorts our perceptions. Do you know for a fact that those of whom you are jealous are happier, better off than you? You do not. It may be quite the opposite. For example, do you envy the rich? Consider that rich people never know who their friends are. They are never sure whether people give them attention and are good to them because they love them or because of their money. Is that what you really want for yourself? The poor and middle class know at least that they are not being loved for their money!  

Also: Many people appear to have a trouble-free, happy life when they do not. When I was pastor I sometimes looked through our parish address list to see if I could find anyone who was not dealing with a major problem. Usually I could not, and I am sure people had far more troubles than I knew but were bravely, quietly bearing with them. You may look at others with Envy, but perhaps if you knew the truth about their lives you would not.

3 Treat the person you envy like a fellow human being. Pray for that person daily as one who needs God’s grace and love just as you do – someone who, for all you know, may be envious of you and people like you. And then go deeper: Thank God for the gifts the other person possesses. Saint Thalassios the Libyan wrote, “If you share secretly in the joy of someone you envy, you will be freed from your jealousy; [likewise] if you keep silent about the person you envy.” The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 2)    This is why Saint Paul advised, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with them that weep.” Romans 12:15 That surely would help us overcome jealousy.

4  Work on your faith in God. Do you really believe what we say in the Creed, that God is Creator of all? Do you believe what we hear every Sunday at Liturgy, that “all good giving and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from thee, the Father of lights”? James 1:17 Do you really believe that he is your Father who loves you, who will never give bad things to those who ask him for good? Luke 11:13 Saint John Chrysostom wrote: “What do you envy? that your brother has received a… gift? But from whom did he receive it, tell me; was it not from God? That means you are at enmity with him who gave it to him. God gives one thing to one, and another thing to another for his own good reasons.”  Envy is ultimate unfaith: belief that God does not know what he is doing or that he does not care.     

5 Go after it for yourself. If there is something missing in your life that is truly good and needful (not a million dollars or a facelift or your neighbor’s wife), don’t waste your time secretly looking with malice at those who have it. Seek it for yourself.

This means you will need to do two things, in this order:

Pray for it. Ask God for it. But very carefully. The Lord’s brother below wrote: “You desire and you do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and make war. Yet you do not have them because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” James 4:1-3  So, if you desire something good, not just for your own pleasure but so you can serve God and others, then ask. Pray much, like the poor widow shouting at the judge’s window, until he answers you – and then trust. God is almighty, he “is good and loves mankind”.

Work. Orthodoxy does not teach that we should sit back and wait for God to hand us what we want. Our doctrine is Synergy, cooperation with God in all things, even our eternal salvation. If someone else has a productive garden and you want one, get to work and grow your own! Use your God-given brains, have a plan, learn God’s system for growing things. Then cooperate with him: Plant the seeds at the right time, water them, wait patiently, pull out the weeds. That’s how to get a garden and a harvest. Saint Maximos the Confessor wrote, particularly regarding Envy of those we think are better than ourselves, “The person who out of jealousy envies those who practice the virtues is more than misguided, for the choice of believing and acting, and of receiving grace according to the measure of his faith clearly depends on him and not on anybody else.” Third Century of Various Texts.35

And in the end, after you prayed your hardest, worked and tried your hardest – if God does not give you what you desire, then: Glory to God for all things! It must be that he has something better in mind for you, even if you do not yet understand his purposes. So give thanks in anticipation!

I really believe this works. Let me tell you a personal story: Many years ago when I was an Episcopal priest, I had a good parish but I was almost always dissatisfied, unsettled, restless. (Now I now what I was restless for: the Holy Orthodox Church.) For a while I thought a “bigger and better” parish would be the answer. Suddenly this large, really fine parish in another state called me to interview. (That’s how priests get new churches in the Episcopal Church.) So I did, and I loved the church and the people, and it seemed to me a perfect fit, the place for me. So I prayed and prayed and prayed some more, as hard as I could, morning, noon and night. And then a letter came in the mail: They had chosen someone else. My reaction? Was I dejected? Did I envy the other guy? To my amazement I didn’t feel bad at all. Since I had prayed as hard as I could, I felt that God must have something better in mind for me. And so he did: Not long after that I discovered Holy Orthodoxy, and now I have been Orthodox for thirty years and happy as can be the whole time. This is what God was saving for me, though I didn’t know it. What I wanted for myself would have been a major detour, maybe a dead end. 

If you believe God truly loves you and truly answers prayer, you will be able to put aside the dissatisfaction and Envy – and someday, in this life or the next, you will understand.

You know this passage from Saint Paul: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” I Corinthians 13:4-7, 11-12 

The End

I can’t believe this series on the Seven Sins is finally over.

Why did I stretch it out, with many interludes, from before the dawn of time till now? Because I figured twelve straight weeks on sin would be seriously depressing! both for you and for me.

Have I enjoyed it? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I have learned much from it. It has pulled my thinking together in many ways. At least I know better in my heart and mind what I should not be doing and what to look out for.

Has it made me a better person? I doubt it.

No, I take that back. It has occasionally stopped me lest I embarrass myself in the sight of God and anyone who knows me personally – like my family. Several times when a temptation has come at me, then I’ve remembered what I’ve written and thought to myself: “I just told all my readers (and anybody in the universe who ever comes across this) what not to do – and now I must take my own advice.” And sometimes I actually did. Not a very positive motivation, I grant you!

God bless all of you who have hung in here through this series. I hope it has also been helpful to you in some way.

For the future: The next series will be on “The Divine Liturgy”. It will begin in a few weeks, and like this one will probably go on “now and ever and unto ages of ages”. Almost.

 Next Week: Nine Old Testament Saints of August plus Two More

Week after Next: The Transfiguration of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ

2 comments:

  1. I have “enjoyed” the series and think you would have got over Doris Day and made a pretty good Monk!

    Serbán

    1. I’m over Doris Day, except when I hear her sing again, and then… (Don’t tell my wife.) Long ago I thought maybe I would make a good monk. Actually I’m a much better grandfather.

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