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05.29.11 Deadly Sin of Envy, Genesis 4:1-16 Sermon Summary

by on May 31, 2011

Summary Points

  • Envy and the Ten Commandments
  • What Envy is and 5 ways it becomes deadly
  • 6 ways to combat Envy
  • How God is always with us

The story of Cain and Abel masterfully exemplifies why and how envy is a deadly sin. Envy is sin because it because it alienates us from one another, from ourselves, and from God (see the theology of Paul Tillich). Cain’s murder of Abel alienates the two brothers. That Cain can no longer successfully till the ground alienates him from himself, his calling. And that Cain is exiled to the land of “Nod” (Hebrew for “wander”), even further East of Eden than his parents were exiled, shows his alienation from God.

Envy has a parallel in the 10th Commandment against coveting. I like to think of the 10 Commandments in going from worst to less bad from God’s perspective, but from bad to worse from the human perspective. This places Envy as the worst commandment to break from the human perspective. Envy can easily lead to the breaking of Commandments 6, 7, and 8; it is often related to Commandments 5 and 9; and of course it is itself Commandment 10.

In the movie Se7en, we learn that the deadly sin that set John Doe’s septenary murders was his envy of Detective David Mills’ “normal life.” We cannot afford to underestimate the deadly sin of Envy.

What is Envy? Envy is different than jealousy, biblically speaking. Jealousy refers to one’s zeal in protecting what is one’s own. This is why God is a jealous God. Envy may start out as benign, as when we discover something we want for ourselves. At its best, Envy can inspire achievement. But Envy becomes dangerous when it evolves into resenting someone for having something we want. A further step is wishing someone else didn’t have what we want. A further development is the taking of or prohibiting someone from having what we want.

Envy is deadly for many reasons. (1) It prohibits the intimacy God created us to have. Genesis 4:2 describes the birth of Abel not as Eve’s second child, not as Adam’s son, but as Cain’s brother. Cain and Abel were identified vis-à-vis one another. This leads to an important observation: Envy works best in close proximity. We Envy not the people who are quite different than we are (I don’t really envy Rick Warren); we envy people we actually relate to (I envy a pastoral colleague here in town—a couple of them, actually).

Envy prohibits intimacy in our relationships when we can’t rejoice with others. Aristotle said, “Envy is pain at others’ good fortune.” Sometimes we actually rejoice over others misfortunes. Intimacy is prohibited when we belittle others’ achievements. “How many guitar players does it take to change a light bulb,” the joke begins. “Four. One to change it, and three to sit around saying, ‘I could do that.’”

(2) Envy also distorts reality. It inaccurately sees our neighbor’s grass as green and ours as brown. In fact, God’s providence in our lives is more generous than we acknowledge. (3) Envy blinds us to the many good things God has given us. And so (4) Envy robs our lives of gratitude and joy. Because of this, Envy is an introverted, internalized sin. It creates its own hell and confines us to it. Other sins have fun moments—Gluttony, Lust, Greed. Envy is its own punishment and offers no “compensation.”

Worst of all, (5) Envy causes us to forget our baptismal identity. In his baptism, the Voice of heaven declared over Jesus, “You my child, with you I am well pleased.” These words would have limited value if their only purpose was to identify Jesus as the Son of God. Rather, their value is in the disclosure that we also, in our baptism into Christ, in our identification with Christ in baptism, are “God’s beloved children with whom he is well pleased.” When we Envy, we either don’t understand this or don’t believe it.

Help in Overcoming Envy: Turning on the porch lights. God tells Cain that “sin crouches at his door, desiring to have him.” Metaphorically speaking, sin crouches in darkness outside our doors. We need to turn on the porch lights to dispel it. (1) Praying for those we envy will help. Jesus said to pray for and love our “enemies.” Envying those we should have intimacy with recasts them as enemies. Jesus commands us to love and prayer because he knows we can’t, for long, hate someone we love and pray for. Contrary to Cain’s assumption, we are, in fact, to become our “brothers and sisters’ keepers.”

In loving and praying for those we envy, we can then (2) become friends with those we envy. We don’t get to know them to discover their dirty laundry or the skeletons in their closets. But as we experience intimacy with those we envy, our perspective evens out. No longer is their grass greener and ours browner. We realize all of us have things to be grateful for, and things we’d rather not have.

(3) Making a habit and practice out of gratitude will help us overcome Envy. We celebrate Eucharist (Greek = thanksgiving) every week to remind us and train us to be grateful people throughout our lives. This discipline will lead us (4) to trust God’s providence and timing. The things we envy in others may be things God has ordained for us as well, just not now. As we pray for others, we can pray for ourselves, and in submission to God’s providence and timing, come to envy others less.

One force that opposes Envy is love. The Corinthian churches were full of envy. They competed with one another for financial resources and spiritual prestige. In Paul’s letter to them, he reminds them that “love does not envy and does not rejoice in evil.” (5) Memorizing Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 can help us with Envy.

Finally (6) we can remember our baptism to help us overcome Envy. When Cain despaired that his exile would overwhelm him, God placed a protective mark on him. In baptism we are marked, “sealed” with God’s Spirit, so that we can live as God’s children no matter where that leads us. Jesus said God is like a good father who gives good things. He also taught that as we exercise good and faithful stewardship over what we have (and don’t envy others) God will make us responsible for more things. This is the God of whom we are children in baptism. Meditating on God and our baptismal identity as his children will help with Envy.

In the story of Cain and Abel, God never abandons Cain. God was there when Cain made his offering. He warned Cain against his Envy and Anger. After Cain killed Abel, God came to him and gave him the opportunity to take responsibility, show remorse, and repent. Cain did none of these things. And when God exiled Cain to a life of wandering, God marked him to protect him. God does not abandon us, even when we fail to master sin, take responsibility, show remorse, or repent. God is always with us. But let us not abuse God’s faithfulness by choosing to wander in Nod. Let us master the sin that crouches at the door of our hearts. May God help us overcome the deadly sin of Envy.

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