I was driving to church. At a traffic light a brand-new Chevy Cavalier pulled up alongside me. When I spotted the driver I suddenly felt a lump in my throat so thick that I gasped for breath.
My vision blurred. I thought I was going to black out. My wife nudged me just as the light turned green. I pressed the gas pedal so hard that my 1978 Chevy Monte Carlo shot forward, but still fell behind the Cavalier. As I slowed down I realized I had suffered a massive envy attack.
The driver of the Cavalier was a fellow African student who had gotten to Andrews University a semester after me and bought an old rusty Buick. Yet here he was a month later driving a brand new car! I was stunned. It took me only a glance to recall, factor, and trigger an avalanche of toxic emotions. Such is the power of the devil’s great weapon: envy.
Envy is the weapon that stuns me when I’m hurt by someone else’s success, possessions, or qualities: “We are envious of what is another’s. . . ; Envy is pained at seeing another have that which [self] wants for itself.”1 The weapon is wielded through invidious comparison, and its pain comes from impotence, from the inability to obtain the good someone else has. The pain is sharpest when I desire another’s very essence or being. “Our strongest most vital hatred,” wrote Paul Valéry, “goes to those who are what we would like to be ourselves;”2 whose “very existence . . . is an eternal silent reproach.”3 Or, as differently put by Lord Chesterfield, people hate those who make them feel inferior.4
Indeed, according to Ellen White, “to envy a person is to admit that he is a superior.” But she added, “Pride will not permit any concession.”5 The bind of simultaneously admitting superiority and denying it creates inner turmoil. It causes “not merely a perverseness of temper, but a distemper, which disorders all the faculties.”6 One becomes dominated by ressentiment, a persistent feeling of hatred, described by Max Scheler as “a self-poisoning of the mind.”7
There’s a progression here: envy resents; resentment hates; and hatred is murder (1 John 3:15).
This progression from envy to murder is evinced in multiple biblical narratives: Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, Saul and David, Daniel and his rivals in Darius’ court, Jesus and the Pharisees, Paul and the diaspora Jews.
In the case of Jesus, Mark explicitly notes that Pilate “knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy” (Mark 15:10, NKJV).
Envy is given as the font of the Diaspora Jews’ various violent frenzies against Paul in Antioch: “When the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy” (Acts 13:45, NKJV); in Iconium: “The same thing occurred in Iconium” (Acts 14:1, NRSV);9 in Thessalonica: “The Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5, NKJV). The charges against Jesus and Paul were masks for deep-seated envy.
Envy is a secret weapon: it batters us inside. It is so hidden that many are not aware of what keeps bludgeoning them and disrupting their efforts to be nice. Consider the wise man’s pessimistic remark: “All toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another” (Eccl. 4:4, NRSV). But then, “envy being too ugly a feeling to admit . . . , the care one takes . . . usually ends in disguising it from oneself.”10 In short, envy consistently couples with a strong self-delusion. The effect is not only to deny the good of the envied other, but to vilify and misrepresent, while masking the malice under a cloak of righteousness.
A classic case of this vilification is the charge that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons (Luke 11:15). Tellingly, much magic, superstition, and gossip derive their dynamic from envy. Demonizing those who are innocent yet envied allows hate, slander—indeed murder—in good conscience.
Envious malice is a weapon of mass destruction: via gossip, “the envious man,” wrote Ellen White, “diffuses poison wherever he goes, alienating friends and stirring up hatred and rebellion.”11 Modernity’s material abundance, multiplicity of careers, and diverse avenues for self-advancement now allow us to envy and ape the Joneses without resorting to physical violence.
Not so with ancient societies. They, including the Greeks, dreaded envy with its violent propensities. They were also aware of its close link with pride. “Those who love honor,” wrote Aristotle, “are more envious.”12 And Plato decried the feeling of pride united to envy that “reduces . . . rivals to despair by . . . unjust slanders.”13 Significantly, “according to the Greeks, envy was inherent in human nature and not simply the result of environment.”14
True. Our sinful nature is rooted in the Fall, in the envious desire to be God (Gen. 3:5). Interestingly, extrapolating from mythological and anthropological texts, René Girard has argued that “the origin . . . of all human culture is ultimately the devil.” If through envious or “mimetic” rivalry, the devil foments violence, he restores peace by causing antagonists to project their hatred and violence on innocent or surrogate victims.15
Hatred of “the other” proves a powerful means of uniting human groups; they sustain their cohesion by uniting against some external enemy. This scapegoating is always attended by delusions, Girard says. Innocent-sounding myths and fairy tales are sometimes rationalizations or distorted stories of actual events told from the perspective of deluded persecutors.16
Girard’s interpretation of the demonic origins of human culture and the key role of scapegoating mirrors Ellen White’s account of the origin of evil. “Envy,” she wrote, “began with Satan. He desired to be first in heaven.”17 To dispossess God, he misrepresented Him, “attributing to him the desire for self-exaltation. With his own evil characteristics he sought to invest the loving Creator. Thus he deceived angels. Thus he deceived men.”18 The psychological projection that denies evil in oneself while attributing it to another “originated in the father of lies and has been exhibited by all sons and daughters of Adam.”19
The crux here is to grasp our blindness, our unwillingness to face up to our envy: “If you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not . . . deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:14-16). Note how James links envy to violence: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). If you want something but don’t get it, then “you kill. You covet . . . , you quarrel and fight” (verse 2).
James warns us not to deny the envy and pride in our hearts. His counsel exposes the modern conceit of a rational objective self. Simultaneously he reveals how envy and pride insinuate themselves into our fights and quarrels, making them insoluble. Disagreements rooted in differences of opinion and perceptions may be mediated and settled. But envy denies the truth it sees and is impervious to reason. In the end only love can achieve the otherwise impossible feat of infiltrating envy’s dark realm. Only love can reveal envy’s self-deception and our unjustified malice. But envy can also rebuff love’s entreaties, respond with hatred, and expose itself as hatred “without reason” (John 15:25).
David felt this hatred without reason acutely
, and mourned those who hated him without cause.20
Jesus died reciting Psalm 22. At the cross “the pent-up fires of envy and malice, hatred and revenge, burst forth . . . against the Son of God.”21 Yet Christ “did not retaliate; . . . he made no threats” (1 Peter 2:23). His meekness exposed the devil as an enemy without cause, an irrational hater. Evil was seen to be “an intruder for whose presence no reason can be given.”22 The cross subverted the devil’s system of control, violence, “the pagan way of organizing the world.”
Brutality was not new. But until the cross “it remained concealed in the infrastructure of mythology.”23 By His undying love that exposed sin’s murderous functioning, God, at and through the cross, liberated humans from envy and hatred, violent reciprocity, and blood feuds, and started a wave that overwhelmed pagan Rome. The cross continues to set people free as they come to know the Son (John 8:36). His love frees us to acknowledge the blows of envy the devil has dealt us (Jer. 17:9). His love rescues us from the power of that evil weapon.
In exchange He gives us His own wondrous instrument, His spirit of self-sacrificing love. No longer does the sight of a brand-new Cavalier torment us so, especially one that, it turns out, was just a rented car.
Elijah Mvundura writes from Canada. He is a member of the Garden Road Seventh-day Adventist Church in Calgary, Alberta.