When I was ten years old we moved to a new neighborhood. Before the move I had earned a place for myself in the minds of my peers. I wasn’t the most outgoing, but enough to surprise people. I wasn’t the most athletic, but made plays when people didn’t expect it. I wasn’t the class clown but I was cool and respected. I was involved, in the conversation, and had friends.
Not so in my new neighborhood. The pecking order had been established, the cliques were tough to break into and I had to be something I wasn’t. I tried with the popular crowd but I felt insecure. I tried the burnout crew but my conscience wouldn’t let me do drugs. I felt lost in a sea of friendlessness for a year.
Then Barry moved into the house directly across the street. Barry was everything I was looking for in a friend. He was cool, my parents liked him, he had leadership abilities, and seemed to know a lot more about things than I did. If I was a diamond in the rough, he was cut and polished. He stirred interests in me I didn’t know I had and most of all he reached out to me and became my friend. Deep down I couldn’t figure out why he wanted to be my friend, and our friendship to this day is something I reflect on as one of the biggest demonstrations of God’s grace in my childhood.
One of the things we did together was build model airplanes. His father was an F-86 pilot in Korea and he had all kinds of stories to tell. His basement was our laboratory and after school or on weekends we would go to Clippers toy store and buy the same model to build. To do them right, the models would often take a couple of weeks to make with the taping, spray painting and drying involved, and we would leave them in his basement until the next meeting. We tried to go at the same pace, but since the planes were at his house, he would sometimes get ahead of me by slipping down into the basement and work on them. I didn’t mind that he got ahead of me so much as something else that bothered me.
Slowly, over time another dynamic came into play. He was simply better than me. We would spend hours together, painting and gluing the same parts, and I would watch him like a hawk, doing everything he did. But his work was simply superior. When I pulled the masking tape away from the fuselage of my aircraft, my lines would be runny and his were perfect. When I glued parts together, mine would have globs of glue sticking out and his wouldn’t. I couldn’t figure it out; no matter how hard I tried, he had a greater attention to detail.
After we both completed an aircraft, we would take pictures of them together flying from strings in formation. Even in the pictures, it was always clear which plane was mine and which was his. We must have made nine or ten planes together before a wicked dynamic of my heart oozed out and slowly began the destruction of our friendship. On one occasion we were building F-4 Phantoms and it was time to wrap things up. Barry went upstairs and I told him I’d be there in a minute. The envy by this time had been building, but I never fully expressed it because he was such a good friend to me. After he went upstairs, for some reason I saw my chance to level the playing field with his abilities and mine. I walked over to his table, squeezed out some glue, smeared it on the canopy of his jet and placed it down in such a way that it looked like an accident. A few days later we both resumed our session, and after about 15 minutes he bellowed, “hey there’s glue on my canopy!”
His tone had as much surprise as frustration. I’m not sure he made the connection right away, but I knew over time as he reflected that he wouldn’t have made such a rookie mistake. He knew it was me even though I couldn’t pinpoint when exactly he realized it. Looking back on the whole tenor of our friendship, that was about the time our relationship died a slow death. I made several attempts to keep it alive, but I think his heart was hurt and became hardened towards me. The bottom line is this: envy killed that friendship, expressed in this case by putting glue on my best friend’s canopy. Glue on a canopy wasn’t enough to cause a friendship to deteriorate, it was the trust that was violated.
Envy is a killer. It often stems from an innocent need but becomes a twisted way to fill an insecurity. It’s listed as one of the seven deadly sins in Catholic theology and is a core sin that leads to many others. Envy is a strange fog that creeps in almost undetected between two people who otherwise really like each other and have much in common. Envy destroys neighbors, careers, and families. Envy is a sin we never talk about perhaps because it’s so nebulous and difficult to quantify. We hear sermons on sexual immorality, stealing, lying, even pride. But we never hear about envy nor confess it to others in prayer groups. Stealing for example is tangible, and so is immorality and other sins. But how do you clamp down on envy? Solomon observed this dynamic of the human heart when he wrote in Ecclesiastes 4:4:
“Then I observed that most people are motivated to success by the envy of their neighbors. But this too is meaningless.”
He said “most people” are ensnared by envy. That includes us. I call it the envy principle: achieving something to exalt oneself or bring another down. The activity may not even be a core interest, but there is a lust to do something because of inferiority or a comparing with someone else. In my case, it was building fighter jets. Though this eventually became a legitimate interest of my own, why couldn’t I be happy with Barry building superior jets? Why couldn’t someone help me understand that I was good at things in areas Barry wasn’t and I could rejoice in his success?
According to Solomon, “most people are motivated to success” because of power associated with the achievement of someone else. It could be a license, certification, degree, title, possession, or status symbol. The phrase, “keeping up with the Jones'” entrenched in American vernacular is rooted in envy. I knew a man who studied to be a money manager for the rigorous series of exams only to quit just before the tests. He realized managing money wasn’t for him and was motivated by what someone else was doing. It’s staggering how much envy causes career and identity confusion.
There’s is nothing wrong with studying the lives of others who have accomplished great things for inspiration. But we do need to search our motives. We may need to spend less energy with blind ambition and more time understanding how God made us and his call for our lives. God wants to do a unique work through us; leave a unique signature on the world. As Howard Hendricks says, “If you’re just like someone else, we don’t need you.” When we are where we are supposed to be, we have no rivals. Nobody has the unique combination of gifts we have, so why are we so insecure that we have to be like somebody else?
If envy is hard to quanatify, it can have tangible results. Solomon, being such a high achiever himself, was obviously well aquainted with envy because he also says with precision that “envy rots the bones” in Proverbs. What an interesting insight. Not only does envy deteriorate the inner man, but it also affects the physical health, great evidence for the cause and effect relationship between the spiritual and physical realms. I believe envy is a core sin for many sicknesses, especially the mystery ailments that are so prevalent today such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Lupus. The immune attacks itself because the spirit has turned on itself. Some people are so sick with envy that if they can get you to think they’re happy, even though they’re empty, then they’re happy. How sick is that?
Envy causes a person to deteriorate and miss out not only on crucial observations for skillful living, but life itself. It steals a person’s best years and keeps one from life giving relationships.
It’s been my observation that those riddled with envy leave a trail of litigation everywhere they go. You never know where you stand with an envious person; they’re always changing the rules and the basis of the relationship to hold something over on you. In fact, it was the envy that caused the religious leaders of 1st century Palestine to murder Jesus.
We need to take some time and examine ourselves, maybe through a forced sickness, furlough, or sabbatical, or negative circumstances think about why we do what we do. Is it out of envy for someone else? Who cares what they do. Let them go and purge the envy form the system even if it hurts, for our sakes as much as anyone else. Like a laser in cataract surgery, lets deal spot on with this deadly foe.
Copyright 2010 by Scott Chandler. All rights reserved.