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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Enemy Within

In modern English usage, the difference between jealousy and envy is not clear-cut, as this Merriam-Webster article helpfully points out. In fact, the two terms have become so muddled that three major language guides from the mid-20th century disagree about their respective meanings.

For convenience and to avoid making the confusion worse, I’ll use “jealous” to describe the anticipative emotions that arise over losing something you have, and “envious” to describe the desire to possess what belongs to someone else.

But I won’t pretend to have the final word on the subject.

Jealousy vs. Envy

Within the Christian frame of reference, jealousy so defined may be either a good or a bad thing: Jehovah is described in holy writ as a jealous God; in fact, “Jealous” is one of his many names. This being the case, it should be obvious that not all manifestations of jealousy are attributable to feelings of inferiority, insecurity or wrongful entitlement. In fact, when something rightfully belonging to you is externally threatened, jealousy may be a wholly appropriate emotion. The problem with jealousy is when it arises in circumstances where no such entitlement exists, and we cling to things that do not really belong to us.

On the other hand, viewed from the perspective of a faith that requires believers to be content with what we have, envy is quite a bit more difficult to rationalize.

Driven to Do Terrible Things

There are many instances in the Bible of people driven to do terrible things by their desire for what they didn’t have: I think of the chief priests and elders as they brought Jesus before Pilate to accuse him. Pilate knew that “it was out of envy that they had delivered him up”. They lacked the Lord’s popularity, authority and power, and it drove them batty.

Joseph’s brothers are another example, turned to evil by their inability to deal with their father’s lavish love for their brother and the prophecies of his future success.

The Self-Consuming Nature of Obsession

But if there is a more instructive and spot-on portrayal in all of scripture of the self-consuming nature of obsession than King Saul’s turbulent emotions toward David, whom God had designated his successor to the throne of Israel, I can’t think of it.

I would suggest Saul’s feelings tended more toward envy than jealousy, notwithstanding the text of some English versions of the Old Testament and, in fact, the not-inspired headings translators have inserted into my ESV. Why? Because the kingdom of Israel did not belong to Saul, and God had explicitly declared that it was to be taken away from him and from his household. Saul was nothing more than a historical placeholder until such time as God would bring his replacement to the throne. He had been told it, he knew it, and he refused to accept it.

Heart Cancer

During his time in Saul’s household and army, David seems largely oblivious to the fact that every move the king makes has something to do with him — that is, until Saul’s spear is flying through the air in his direction. This seems characteristic of envy: it does way more damage to the envious than it does to the one envied. From a Christian perspective, this is frequently true even when murder results from it: Abel suffered for mere moments before moving on to a blessed eternity. Cain said, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.”

Envy is heart cancer, and self-inflicted cancer to boot.

A Rivalry That Wasn’t

This Saul/David dynamic was no ordinary contest between rivals to a throne, primarily because David was not engaged in a contest. Contrast that with the relationship between Hannah and Peninnah, the two wives of Elkanah. Hannah was envious of Peninnah’s ability to conceive, a situation aggravated by Peninnah’s constant provocation of Hannah. While envy had led Hannah to view her rival as an enemyDavid was burdened by no such concern. He was able to go about doing God’s will without even thinking about Saul until Saul forced the issue.

The Obliteration of Joy

Envy manifests in the inability to appreciate the things we do have. Saul’s obsession with David was triggered by the joyful song of the women in the streets, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” Now admittedly being king is a bit of a zero-sum game: there can only be one at a time. One guy’s loss is the other guy’s gain. But Saul was not in that position yet. He was appreciated by his people: “Saul has slain his thousands.” Thanks, Saul.

But all Saul could see was that thousands are way less than ten thousands. His joy in the successes God had given him was entirely eclipsed by his insistence on remaining number one.

The Annihilation of Other Relationships

I’m quite sure Saul’s daughter Michal loved her dad, at least some of the time. Most daughters do. But again, Saul’s enjoyment of his relationship with his child was ruined by his fixation:
“When Saul saw … that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him, Saul was even more afraid of David. So Saul was David’s enemy continually.”
Such is the nature of envy. Saul had no capacity to enjoy the fact that his daughter had love in her life. He could not be happy for her. Her love for David became a source of fear and resentment in her father’s heart instead.

Projection and Fantasy

Envy also projects. When Saul saw that David had great success, scripture says, “He stood in fearful awe of him.” Saul’s fear was baseless. David had no designs on the kingdom. Even later, when on the run from Saul’s murderous rages and with Saul at his mercy, David tells his men, “Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?” David was rightly more concerned about the condition of his own spirit than even his safety. There was no danger from this loyal servant.

But could Saul see this and feel safe, let alone appreciate David’s stellar character? Not a chance. Why? Because if the tables were turned, he would have happily murdered David himself. The evil in Saul’s heart convinced him that his rival would behave the same way he would if given half a chance.

What an unpleasant way to live. And it was all in his head.

A Welcome Dose of Perspective

When I was in my early twenties, I spent a week helping out at a Christian camp ... and so did my tall, handsome cousin. It was a nice gesture on his part to come along, but I found myself quickly gritting my teeth every time he was around. Why? I’m almost ashamed to admit it: The previous summer when I had served at the same camp on my own, I had gotten a fair bit of attention from the girls working in the kitchen, something that at that age didn’t bother me a bit. This summer I couldn’t help but notice that all eyes were riveted on my cousin.

Guess what that led to?

My annoyance must have been written all over my face, though I didn’t say a word about my feelings to anyone. But I’ll always remember the camp director slipping up beside me while my cousin was holding court for a group of fawning admirers, and quietly saying to me, “Don’t resent him. He has temptations you and I will never face.”

That was about as well-put a one-liner as I’ve ever been zinged with. My envy vanished in an instant, not just because I was embarrassed to be caught fuming, but because his words entirely changed my perspective.

For those of us tempted to envy others, that’s exactly what we need.

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