The spiritual hazard of envying others’ lives

Posted Oct 30, 2019

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This week we are memorizing:

Do not desire your neighbor’s possessions.

Daily Scripture

Psalm 73:2-14, 21-23

2 But me? My feet had almost stumbled;
    my steps had nearly slipped
3  because I envied the arrogant;
    I observed how the wicked are well off:
4 They suffer no pain;
    their bodies are fit and strong.
5 They are never in trouble;
    they aren’t weighed down like other people.
6 That’s why they wear arrogance like a necklace,
    why violence covers them like clothes.
7 Their eyes bulge out from eating so well;
    their hearts overflow with delusions.
8 They scoff and talk so cruel;
    from their privileged positions
    they plan oppression.
9 Their mouths dare to speak against heaven!
    Their tongues roam the earth!
10 That’s why people keep going back to them,
    keep approving what they say.
11 And what they say is this: “How could God possibly know!
    Does the Most High know anything at all!”
12 Look at these wicked ones,
    always relaxed, piling up the wealth!
13 Meanwhile, I’ve kept my heart pure for no good reason;
I’ve washed my hands to stay innocent for nothing.
14 I’m weighed down all day long.
    I’m punished every morning.

...

21 When my heart was bitter,
    when I was all cut up inside,
22 I was stupid and ignorant.
    I acted like nothing but an animal toward you.
23 But I was still always with you!
    You held my strong hand!

Reflection Questions

Envy is practically a synonym for wanting what someone else has. Thomas Aquinas reportedly said that envy grieves when something good happens to our neighbor. This psalmist said envy warped his perceptions, and nearly led him to spiritual ruin. It made the lives of others seem ideal—they seemed to have no troubles at all (verses 3-5). It looked only at current conditions, and made serving God seem futile (verses 11, 13). But God never abandoned him (verse 23)!

  • For this psalmist, “the prosperity of the wicked” nearly caused him to give up faith in God. But envy can also strike when we compare ourselves to any others who seem to have more than we do (see Mark 10:35-41). At what times in your life, if any, has the “success” of the wicked led you to ask, “Does the Most High know anything?” (verse 11) Whose position, possessions or prospects do you envy? How much does it matter to you how you or others reach “success”?
  • The traditional King James Version translated Psalm 23:1 as “I shall not want.” Modern versions say, “I have all I need,” or “I lack nothing.” Because that psalm seemed to reflect David’s young days as a shepherd, rather than his later status as King of Israel, how do you believe it defined “need”? How often can you honestly say you feel that you have all you need?

Prayer

Yes, Lord—I’ve had times of envying the apparent success of “the wicked,” however I defined that. Thank you for never leaving me, and for guiding me toward a wiser understanding of the long-term benefits of serving you. Amen.

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Dr. Amy Oden

Dr. Amy Oden

Dr. Amy Oden is Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality, teaching at several seminaries. Teaching is her calling, and she looks forward to every day with students. Her latest book (Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness, Abingdon Press, 2017) traces ancient mindfulness practice for Christians today.

For some of us, envy is a constant companion, a set of lenses through which we see each experience, each person. It compels us to compare ourselves, our lives, our partners, children and jobs, with others and always come up short. 

Envy plants seeds of dissatisfaction that take root and grow into resentments. It fuels our insecurities that we are not enough and feeds our fears that we have missed out on the good things that everyone else seems to have. It can lead us to hide our real lives behind carefully crafted versions of ourselves on Facebook and social media. And it turns our hearts against other people as envy takes the form of gossip or criticism. 

The big lie that envy tells is that we don’t have enough, we don’t do enough, and we are not enough. 

The spiritual danger here is clear: envy is corrosive to our souls, destroying our sense of our sacred worth as children of God, created in the image of God. It distorts community, too, skewing our ability to see the sacred worth of others as also children of God. 

How can we guard against this spiritual hazard? One very effective practice from our spiritual tradition comes to mind: gratitude -- regular, focused attention to concrete things, experiences or people for which we are grateful. These are usually small, ordinary pieces of daily life: a majestic tree that catches the eye, that first, sharp taste of morning coffee, the comfort of a pet. 

To start, pick something you already do every day like put on your pajamas or listen to a podcast. Set that as the time for your gratitude moment to pause and make a mental note of 3 or 4 things you’re grateful for that day. Keep it simple as you begin and watch it grow. Gratitude will start to infuse other moments of daily life unbidden. The more we train our awareness toward gratitude, the more we see our lives anew. It is a self-reinforcing practice that protects us against envy.

Today, right now: name one thing you are grateful for today. You’ve already started!

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