THE EXCELLENT WAY, 7: LOVE IS NOT ENVIOUS
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 2, 2016; Non-lectionary sermon
Genesis 4:1-12; 1 Peter 1:22-2:3

“And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against
his brother Abel, and killed him”
Genesis 4:8b

If I were to ask you to name the oldest sin in the Bible, what would you say it is?

Go all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve, and you may well answer: “Pride.” Pride goeth before the Fall, as they say — and, in that Genesis account, Adam and Eve surely do fall. They eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Lord banishes them from Paradise.

It’s not long after that incident that we read in the Bible about another terrible sin. This time it’s not Adam and Eve that perpetrate it, but their son Cain. In a fit of rage, Cain murders his brother Abel.

We’d all agree that murder is a terrible, terrible sin. Even more heinous, though, is the sort of killing Cain committed: the murder of one’s brother.

It’s a crime so unnatural, it’s got its own terrible name: fratricide.

Brothers are not supposed to do that sort of thing to one another. They’re supposed to stand together, to protect each other, to say “I’ve got your back.”

So, what is it that causes a brother to perform such a vile act? The answer’s right there in the biblical story.

Cain is a tiller of the soil. Abel’s a herder of animals. When the time comes for them to perform a sacrifice to the Lord, as an act of worship, Cain shows up with the firstfruits of his harvest: probably a sheaf of grain — millet or wheat. Abel, for his part, brings the most flawless, unblemished lamb from his flock.

For whatever reason, the Lord is pleased with Abel’s sacrifice, but rejects Cain’s offering. Cain is so consumed by rage that he kills his brother.

What was it that made him so angry? One little word: the word is envy. Cain wanted his sacrifice, not his brother’s, to earn God’s favor. He couldn’t abide the thought that the Lord had judged Abel’s gift of higher value than his own.

*****

For the past several weeks when I’ve been with you, we’ve been studying 1 Corinthians 13, the famous Love Chapter. We’ve reached a point in that great list of love’s attributes when Paul starts mentioning a few negative attributes: things love is not, things that are in their own way the opposite of love. First on that list of opposites is envy.

Envy is famously listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Among all the sins on that list — Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy and Pride — envy is, quite frankly, the only one that’s not any fun.

Lust and gluttony are sensual pleasures.

Greed produces wealth: which certainly does make its recipients happy, after a fashion. Money may not buy happiness, but it surely does rent it for a little while.

As for sloth, who doesn’t enjoy a gentle swing in the hammock?

Anger may not seem at first like it brings any pleasure, but think back to a time when you felt righteously angry. Someone had harmed you, and it was wrong what they did, so you got really mad. When anger seems justified, it generates a powerful surge of adrenaline, and our anger seems, for a few moments, like it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. (We may think better of it later, but that’s what it feels like at the time.)

Last on the list of Deadly Sins is pride. To be prideful is to raise ourselves higher, in our own estimation, than other people. And that feels good, no doubt about it!

That leaves envy: that poor relation of the other Deadly Sins. Envy, by its very definition, means craving something we can never have: for, if we’re lucky enough to receive it eventually, then we no longer crave it. The envious are never, ever happy — as long as they feel envy. There’s no joy in it whatsoever. It is, in fact, a kind of self-torture.

Even so, envy is hard to resist! What makes it even harder to resist is all the advertising that’s out there. What is advertising, after all, but a very intentional stoking of the fires of envy? Those who buy TV commercials and ads in magazines and on the Internet want to make us envious. They want us to see that shiny new thing someone else has, and crave it. In a consumer culture like our own, there’s no sin more socially acceptable than envy!

But that doesn’t mean it’s right. 1 Corinthians 13 says “Love is not envious.” How can we love others at the same time we’re envying them? It can’t be done!

*****

I can think of a time in my own life when I was consumed by envy. I was quite a small child at the time, maybe in the first or second grade. One of my best friends was named Rich. He lived down the street. We played together all the time.

Rich’s family was Jewish, and it was Hanukkah. That meant, of course, that Christmas was coming, and all us kids were beside ourselves wondering what sort of presents we’d get. The thing about having a Jewish friend, though, was that he got one present a day for eight days, and it usually happened before our family opened a single one.

I was over at Rich’s house one December day, and he showed me his latest Hanukkah gift. We were big fans of the old Roy Rogers TV show that was on in reruns at the time, and anyone who remembers that show knows that Roy’s sidekick drove a chuckwagon.

Rich had been given a plastic chuckwagon toy: a wagon, a team of horses, a plastic canopy that went over the top of it, and a couple of cowboys that sat up in the seat, one of the holding the reins. The thing was huge, and artfully constructed. You could run it along the floor and make a turn, and the horses would turn first, then the wagon. It was a pretty expensive toy, I think.

Well, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I spent the whole afternoon playing with it, running it back and forth across the kitchen floor.

Rich’s mother noticed how much I liked it, and said to her son, “Why don’t you give that toy to your friend Carl?”

Rich didn’t want to do that, and told his mother so — but she insisted. She made him give me that toy.

I knew he didn’t want to give it to me, but I was so consumed with envy that I accepted his reluctant gift. I took it home, and my mother thought it was too nice a gift for Rich to have given me, that surely there was some mistake. I think she called Rich’s mother to make sure, but she said yes, Rich wanted to give it to me (even though I knew he didn’t).

But, do you know what? I had that toy for a long time, but I never enjoyed playing with it very much — certainly not the way I’d enjoyed playing with it when it wasn’t mine. You see, I knew deep down inside that my gain was Rich’s loss, and he was my friend. I had allowed envy to win out over love, and I wasn’t very happy about that. Love is not envious.

*****

There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’ novel, Voyage of the Dawn Treader — one of the Chronicles of Narnia books — that has something very powerful to teach about envy. In the novel, Lucy — the youngest sister — doesn’t have a positive self-image. She thinks she’s plain and unattractive. She’s in awe of her older sister, Susan, who’s got good looks, self-assurance — everything Lucy longs to be.

One day, in Narnia, Lucy comes across a Book of Incantations. She uses the book to cast a magical spell, to “Make me she whom I’d agree holds more beauty over me.”

As soon as she speaks the words of that spell, Lucy feels a powerful change come over her. She looks at her reflection, and realizes she now looks just like Susan. But she also realizes, to her horror, that she herself is gone — replaced by the image of the one she wanted to become.

Now, Lucy, in the book, is a young woman of faith. She’s a believer in Aslan, the Lion — who, as anyone who’s read the Narnia books knows, is a symbol for Jesus Christ. Aslan comes to her in her distress and tenderly questions her. When he hears Lucy explain what she’s done with the Book of Incantations, he tells her, “You wished yourself away, and so much more. You doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are.”

Of course — this being a happy-ending sort of novel — the magical spell is soon reversed, and Lucy becomes herself again: wiser now, and a good deal less envious of her big sister’s beauty.

That’s what envy does, you see. We think it’s all about finding a way to get that thing we crave, but in fact, envy doesn’t make that happen at all. It can’t. It doesn’t have that power. What envy does, in fact, do is to change us — and not for the better.

Envy is associated with the color green. You may have heard it described as “the green monster,” or you may have heard the expression, “she was green with envy.”

Green is a perfectly lovely color when it’s leaves on a tree, or a broad expanse of lawn on a sunny summer’s day. But when the word “green” is used to describe a human face, it means something’s terribly wrong. The person may be very ill, or may even have been poisoned. Envy is a sort of poison in just that way.

*****

So, what to do about envy: that emotion we all feel from time to time, that plays havoc with our relationships — and hollows out our very souls, if we let it?

It would be easy to respond with the simple answer that the antidote is love — and there’s a certain amount of truth to that, since after all, Paul says “love is not envious.” Yet, it’s not so easy to combat envy directly with love.

There’s a more effective course of action: a different antidote. That antidote is thanksgiving. Whenever you or I can manage to be properly thankful — whenever we can look around ourselves with sober assessment and recount the many ways we are already blessed, thanking God for them — it’s a lot harder for envy to gain a foothold in our lives.

Envy flourishes in an atmosphere of scarcity, emptiness and ravenous spiritual hunger. Thanksgiving, by contrast, builds our awareness of abundance — the good things our loving Lord has given to us. It’s so easy to set those good things aside in our minds, to forget they’re even there. It’s so easy to crave more and more and more. But if you and I learn to practice thanksgiving on a regular basis, that will go a long way toward keeping envy at arm’s length.

*****

There’s an old Jewish story about a man who’s visited one day by the angel of death. The angel told him he would die in just a few days.

“Answer just one question for me,” the man begged. “What will they ask me when I appear before the heavenly tribunal?”

“It is not for me to tell you what they will ask,” replied the angel of death, “but I am permitted to tell you what they will not ask. They will not ask: ‘Why weren’t you more like your neighbor or your co-worker or your brother?’”

God’s deepest desire, for you and for me, is that we become most fully ourselves: the people the Lord has created us to be. Envy interferes with that process of becoming. So, try to put it aside, as best you can. Celebrate with gratitude who you are, and what you have been given in this life. The more you can do that, the more you will discover what it means to love and be loved!
Let us pray:
‘Tis a gift to be simple, O Lord.
‘Tis a gift to be free.
‘Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
Keep us on that calm and level plain, O God.
Spare us from sliding backwards into fear of scarcity,
and keep us also from the long uphill slog of acquisitive desire.
Cause gratitude to swell in our hearts daily.
Make us content with what we have and with who we are,
for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.