Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Sad Face of Envy

As a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a man.
                                            St. John Chrysostom

St. Thomas Aquinas defines the capital sin of envy as "sorrow at another's good". No wonder very few people admit to envy... even the definition sounds terrible. It's hard to believe we actually may become sorrowful when good things happen to others, or if others have special gifts and talents, but most of us have been here at some point. As a child and young adult I remember envying others a lot. I would actually feel sad and wish that they did not have the gifts they had. Envy is one of the first things that God worked out of me and he did this by showing me his love. Once we understand the greatness of God's love for us envy tends to fall by the wayside because we understand the one true need in our life is God himself and that this gift is given to everyone without exception. Many of the seven deadly sins are fear based and envy is one of these. The problem with envy is that it is completely lacking in charity. It not only sorrows because someone else has been blessed in some way, it wishes the person had not received the gift or blessing. It  may even wish ill on others. I started this post with the quote from St. John Chrysostom because of the truth it contains... envy consumes a person from within if it is not stopped in its tracks.

Envy is a sin against charity. Love seeks good for others, envy the opposite. One common sign that envy is at play is when you hear someone praise a person and then proceed to rip them apart. For instance:
"Don't you just love Mabel?! She is so talented! Still, it's just terrible that she doesn't know how to keep those children of hers in line. As smart as she is you would think that her mothering skills would be better. And did you see that AWFUL dress she wore to the wedding? It matched that plaid sofa she's got in her living room! Bless her heart! That woman has no taste...(yap, yap, yap)." The conversation goes on and by the end it is clear that Mabel is one slothful/ugly/mean/crazy/ungrateful, but don't forget talented, woman in the eyes of the speaker. Gossip often has its roots in envy.

Spiritual envy goes one step further. It actually sorrows over another's relationship with God. I found this quote by St. John of the Cross at Portiuncula: the Little Portion and it gives an example of just how unloving envy can be:
"Certain beginners feel disappointed when they perceive the goodness of another. They suffer from profound envy and can hardly bear it when they realize that someone else is ahead of them on the spiritual path. They would rather not hear another be praised. When they find that another's virtues are being celebrated, they can't stand it and are compelled to contradict them. Because no one is saying such great things about them, their annoyance grows; they yearn for preference in all things."
                                                                                         St. John of the Cross
Envy is dangerous because it leads to so many other sins - detraction, calumny, lies, uncontrolled anger, and other sins against charity.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of envy:
~ bitterness
~ fault finding
~ resentment
~ fear
~ low self-esteem
~ depression (a note: depression can have physical causes too so this takes discernment)
~ judgmental attitude toward others
~ contempt for others
~ lying
~ gossiping
~ detraction
~ slander
~ ingratitude
~ a lack of peace and joy

Similar to the distortion pride brings, those who struggle with envy have a warped view of God, themselves, and others. All the deadly sins distort truth in some way and envy does it with a vengeance. If sloth makes it seem as if one is constantly trudging through water, envy is like stumbling through the rough waters after a storm and then throwing down stones in hopes of making the way more difficult for others. I say this because sloth has no storms whereas envy is filled with them. One is more apathetic than the other. Those who are envious end up walking alone because envy (like pride) is against unity and God is all about unity. Sloth may not even notice that someone is next to them while envy is perfectly aware that someone is with them and resents it. Sloth is more apt to sin through omission, envy - commission. Both are deadly. You can find out more about the sin of sloth in my post, The Joy Thief.

It probably comes as no surprise that envy's opposing virtue is charity. This in itself shows the deadliness of envy. In my post, Facing off with Envy, you can find some practical ways to tackle envy.  Practicing the virtue of charity is helpful but what I found most helpful in this area is meditating on the love of God. Gratitude is another powerful weapon against envy and I speak more about this in Facing off with Envy. I also speak about what envy is not because this deadly sin can be confusing at times.


  1. Mabel told me that the reason her dress matches the sofa is for camouflage. It helps her hide from people who envy her.

    But you're right Mary. Envy can be very corrosive especially when it leads one to malign another person.

    God bless.

  2. Hi Mary,

    Your post reminded me of a thought I had when Thomas died. I was sure no one was envying us. No one wanted to be us at all. It was a strange thought. I didn't even want to be us. Did I envy other families with their beautiful healthy newborns? Yes, at first. Later, as you said, knowing God's love for me, not at all. I was so very glad to be me and to have Thomas and to realise how much God loves us. How could I envy another person when I'd been blessed with so much?

    Thank you for your post, Mary.
    God bless.

  3. Victor,
    Yes, Mabel is a smart woman ;) Her drapes match too!

  4. Sue,
    Thomas is blessed to have a mother like you :) From reading your posts about him it's clear that you wouldn't have missed the chance to know him and love him for anything in the world. I was touched by your words here. Love truly is the answer and you love well. God bless.

  5. Victor's comment made me laugh out loud!
    These posts of yours have been giving me some food for thought....does that make me guilty of gluttony?

  6. Mary, I should ask you to be my spiritual director ;-) Thank you for this post!!!

  7. I so agree with all you said. Most of us succumb to envy at time; I know I have.

    You are so right that envy kills charity in us; but the reverse is true: charity kills envy.

    God bless you.


  8. Once again I want to quote you! Mary, these posts are SO very good.:)

  9. Good work here, I like it! Keep it up!

  10. Kathleen,
    Well, you just said "some" food for thought so maybe just a teeny-tiny bit of gluttony! Lol! Oh well, we are all going to get our "just desserts" someday anyway so we've got something to look forward to, don't we? Hmmm...just desserts sounds rather tasty...

    Victor always cracks me up too :)

  11. Esther,
    Lol! Jesus would be furious with me if I tampered with your spiritual life! Let's reverse that and maybe you've got a deal ;)

  12. Hi Susan,
    Good thing charity trumps everything else, isn't it? After doing these posts and realizing that I'm still full of **** (insert word of choice here...please note that mine begins with y as in yuck not s or c - I'm rotten but not that rotten. Uhm...I mean they crossed my mind but I ignored them...lol.)I find myself becoming happier and happier that love covers a multitude of sins. I've also become more grateful for mercy.

  13. Hi Colleen,
    I'm glad they are helpful to you. I was going to say that I'm glad you like them but I don't think "like" fits. They are helping me too as long as I can see past myself enough not to get discouraged ;) So far, so good! Remind me to wait five years before I tackle this subject again though...

  14. BG,
    Sigh. I'm not sure I dare to look at your link. Well, here goes nothing. After all, I'm bound to be pleasantly surprised one of these times, right?

  15. If anyone is wondering why I sighed it's because the last time I clicked on a blogger's link with a similar title it took me to a porn site. I'm pretty gullible like that :) You'd think I would have learned something after being on Blogger for over two years, wouldn't you?

  16. Mary,
    I had never thought about the connection between gossip and envy, but reading what you have written here I can see how it is.
    The spiritual envy that St John of the Cross speaks about, I think is even more deadly than "secular envy". To be envious about someone's spiritual gifts or progress is to ignore our own which in turn stumps our own growth.
    Thanks for more insight on this little talked about deadly sin.

  17. Your post matches with the prayer at the end of today's meditation in Divine Intimacy:

    Without Your help, indeed, how can I obtain a treasure as precious as charity? O my God, if You want my whole life to be one of charity, it is absolutely necessary that You, charity itself, come to transform my poor soul. My faults - selfishness, pride, sensuality, coldness, avarice, sloth -- all are obstacles to Your charity which should triumph in me. Give me grace to remove these obstacles with generosity, so that Your infinite charity may take entire possession of my nothingness.

    I think that when we envy others and engage in those sins you mentioned above, we are judging others. I know that any time I ever criticized somebody else, I was judging them.

    Being a whiney pants, my thing was not that I didn't wish others to be deprived of what God gave them but rather, "Why couldn't You give that to me, too?" Now I understand a lot better that God has a unique job for each of us and He gives us what we need to do that job. So now I try to Mind My Own Business.

  18. Karin,
    I think you're right that it stumps growth. Shows a lack of humility too. It's scary how the seven deadly sins are often intertwined with other sins, isn't it? No wonder all the saints are big on practicing virtues.

  19. Barb,
    Love the prayer from Divine Intimacy! I'm going to pray it - thank you!

    You bring up an area where envy can actually be helpful to us in some ways because it's not necessarily envy but rather wishing good things for ourselves without sorrow that others have them. There's a fine line. Peter Kreeft deals with this point well in Back to Virtue.

    I like your comment on God's unique mission for each of us. When we all realize his personal love and know that we have a mission that can't be accomplished by anyone else envy pretty much slips away.

    Great comment, Barb. You always give me something to think about :)

  20. Looking forward to your next post on how to help overcome this dreadful sin! Yikes-am in need of a spiritual overhaul!

    I have to add that I keep thinking of you and smiling every time I get a word verification that seems so close to a real word-your posts are certainly memorable and I am so grateful for all of the wisdom and joy that you exude!

  21. You're funny, Anne! Can I say "yikes" too? I am writing these posts and seeing how much work still needs to be done. I said to the Lord, "Can I have a "holy cheat" when it comes to these sins?" Lol! I'm always looking for a shortcut! It's the sloth thing for sure! Yikes is right!

    On the other hand, I am certainly learning a lot about both myself and God's mercy and that's always a good thing :)

    Was the word verification "stinky" by any chance? Because that's the word that comes to mind when I think of myself and the seven deadly sins ;) (I don't know why I winked when it's true.)

  22. This post is VERY helpful! Thank you so much.

  23. You're welcome, Rayanne! I'm glad you found it helpful :)

  24. Great post!! I am learning so much from your posts about the deadly sins and am looking forward to your next one. I really need help with each one of these sins!

    I also love the prayer from Divine Intimacy Barb! I will pray it too.

  25. Hi Kathryn,
    How about we keep praying for each other about sloth and add the others, too? Lol! We can pray that we overcome all of them! What do you think? (Yes, I'm serious.) Because, since starting this series I'm realizing that I may have a problem with more than just sloth!

    It's really not surprising that we see the seven deadly sins in ourselves. I guess I'd be more worried if we didn't, wouldn't you? I have a much clearer picture now of the work I need to do with the help of God's grace and that's a good thing.

    The article by Michael O'Brien you linked to was excellent by the way. I saved it to favorites.

  26. Mary, after surgery ended my dreams of every conceiving a child, I was overcome with envy whenever I saw anyone who was pregnant. I just couldn't help it.

    My neighbor became pregnant, and I would see her working in her garden whenever I drove past. I forced myself to pray for her and her baby. It was hard at first, but got easier as time went on.

    And guess what...only a few months later, God totally surprised my husband and me with our adopted son. My neighbor's baby and our son ended up being almost the same age! How good God is when we make even a feeble effort!

    I have used "overcome envy by force" many other times, and it really works. At first it's a bitter pill, but then it goes down much easier...and then it transforms into joy over the happiness and good fortune of others.

    Truly God is faithful, if we just make an effort! (Now watch me get a real big temptation to envy tomorrow! : )

    Blessings, Mary. Your posts are giving us all a spiritual workout!

    Love to you,

  27. Patricia,
    Praying for those we envy is one of the best things to do. If I see envy creeping up on me that's what I do too. It really works! I guess you can't pray for a person and envy them at the same time :)

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. Both my tubes were blocked for many years and my daughter is a miracle so I can understand both the sorrow of infertility and the joy of being blessed with a child. God is good!

    Lol! I laughed about the temptation to envy comment! While writing this post I've been waiting for the same thing to happen to me!

    Hugs to you, Patricia!

  28. Mary, you are the miracle lady! I've lost count...

    How wonderful that you were blessed with your daughter, after the crushing cross of infertiity.

    Laughed that you've been there waiting for the Lord to send some temptations about all the things you've been writing about : )

    So far, I'm okay....but a couple of weeks ago, I was "lecturing" my sister about worrying about what other people thought of her..telling her to just let it go.

    Boom! I accidentally sent out a personal email meant for a family member, to several other people on my list. At first I was mortified, but then I just had to laugh. "Okay, God, You are so funny!" Then He kindly took away the little sting.

    But I learned the lesson that we have never really "arrived." : )

    All Glory to Him alone!


  29. Mary,

    I have been thinking about your words addressed here to me, for some days now. They are so beautiful. Thank you!

  30. Mary, I'm so glad Connie posted this on CSBN. I really, really needed to read this. I like it so much I'm sharing it today. BTW, how do you know my Aunt Mabel? I'll tell her you said hello!(among other things) ;)