The deadly sin of envy

June 18, 2014 | Viewpoints | Number 13
Melissa Miller |

The green-eyed monster twined through my family tree in an almost funny way. It began with my 88-year-old grandmother. She was irritated because her older sister had just planted a garden. My grandmother was too unsteady on her feet that spring to do the same, and she fussed, “Why does she get a garden and I don’t?” Shades of jealousy. Shortly after my mother confessed that she was feeling envious of her younger sister, for reasons that had nothing to do with gardening. Simultaneously, I recognized the same insecurity within myself. My sisters had stuff that I didn’t, and I was jealous of them.

Occurring within a few days, these confessions were illuminating. First of all, I was surprised that other family members were struggling with the same feelings as me, and I was somewhat comforted to know of our common experiences. Secondly, I wondered about the duration of jealousies that are formed in families. Don’t we get to grow out of sibling rivalry? Well, apparently in my grandmother’s case, 88 years wasn’t long enough. And as I said before, it was kind of funny. With affection towards my relatives, I smiled, in recognition of our shared humanity.

We do learn from our families how to manage our emotions. Probably some of the jealousy I observed had been passed on through many generations. Still, while we are influenced by our families, we are not stuck in those early teachings, but are given the capacity to move past them towards health and wholeness.

The Bible offers alternatives to negative family patterns. It contains dozens of references warning against the dangers of jealousy, likely contributing to its inclusion in the seven deadly sins. Most familiar among the biblical references is the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” A comprehensive list then follows of what should not be coveted: the house, wife, slaves, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to one’s neighbour. The anything makes it pretty inclusive.

As an important aside, jealousy is not gender specific. The Bible has a bias towards the male-dominated society in which it was written, and its language reflects that perspective. Men are told not to covet their male neighbours’ wives; there isn’t a corresponding instruction to women. Similarly, though the participants were female in my family story, we can all think of examples that include men.

Back to the Bible, jealousy and envy often make it on to lists of sins. Jesus includes envy in his inventory of evil intentions that come from the heart (Mark 7:22). Both envy and jealousy are included in Galatians 5:19-21. (Some people make a distinction between the two. Envy is a negative feeling towards someone who has something that is desired and difficult to attain: power, strength, or wealth, for example. Jealousy is relationally oriented; a person is jealous that another will steal their lover’s affections. Most of us, though, use the terms interchangeably.)

The classic antidote to a covetous spirit is kindness. Acts of kindness help remove the blinders from our eyes, enabling us to see the other person’s humanity and vulnerability. When I see with God’s compassionate vision—holding both myself and others in that gaze—I am more prone to wholeness of heart. I am released from obsessive comparisons, and gnawing insecurity.

I also think of envy as a marker, pointing me towards something that is unfulfilled or in need of attention. If I am jealous of my sister’s children, might I need to develop relationships with youngsters? If I am envious of someone’s musical or artistic abilities, might I need to explore my own creative inclinations? Tending these yearnings frees me from the hold of the green-eyed monster.

Melissa Miller (familyties@mymts.net) lives in Winnipeg. She is wrapped in the family ties of daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend and pastor.

See Melissa’s other columns in her series on the deadly sins:
The deadly sin of gluttony
The deadly sin of sloth
The deadly sin of wrath
The deadly sin of lust
The deadly sin of greed
The deadly sin of pride
Talk of sin should start with forgiveness

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