Monday, August 26, 2019

Anonymous Asks (55)

“Why is envy one of the seven deadly sins?”

The “seven deadlies” date back to the late sixth century and Gregory the Great. At the time, he was engaged in reducing Roman Catholicism’s list of most odious offenses a person could commit to something more manageable. The former list had included such questionables as sadness and acedia, which is basically apathy.

In short, the list of seven deadly sins is a human construct, not something taught explicitly in the Bible. Opinions as to which sins should be considered the very worst tend to vary, obviously. For example, the ninth and most awful circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno is reserved for the treacherous, who didn’t even make Gregory’s list.

Some Sins are Bigger than Others

That said, some sins are genuinely more offensive to God than others; that much scripture makes clear. Moses referred to idolatry as a “great sin”. The Lord Jesus taught that people who shipwreck the faith of children would be better off drowned in the sea with a great millstone around their necks. He also referred to “the weightier matters of the law”. So while in one sense all sin is deadly, some sins are deadlier than others. But let’s leave aside whether Gregory got the list right. The Bible gives us no way to confirm that.

Still, envy is indeed a very bad thing, and it’s probably worth a few lines to consider why that is. For one thing, envy is a sin made up of other components: ingratitude, lust and greed, all of which are offensive to God in their own way.

Saul’s Envy of David

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

Saul’s feelings tended more toward envy than jealousy, notwithstanding the text of some English versions of the Old Testament. 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 seemed largely oblivious to the fact that every move the king made had something to do with him — that is, until Saul’s spear started 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 envy results in murder: 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.

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.

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