Thrive Over Sin (3 of 4): Do Not Envy or Be Angry
Over the past two weeks, we have been exploring together classic and modern insights regarding The Seven Deadly Sins. This list of seven sins, which have been called the deadly sins, represents a framework for understanding some of the dangers that befall all human persons, as we struggle to find our place in the world, a foundation for meaning and purpose, and a sense of connection to a superior being that may or may not make claims on our lives. At its core, then, this list of seven sins draws our attention to what it truly means to be a Christian.
To be a "Christian", in the truest sense of this term, is to re-orient our lives after the teachings, and the example of the life, of Jesus. In so doing, a Christian discovers a new power for living —or, we might call it a motivation or a strength— a power that comes from beyond himself, enabling him to do what he cannot do on his own; a power whose source is the Holy Spirit, that now indwells because he has invited her to. That Spirit becomes available more fully as one increasingly believes and trusts in God. It is in this way that we can have a relationship with God, insofar as we believe that God is real and trust that God is with us and enables a full and abundant life in us.
If that definition of the Christian life sounds appealling to you, then you will understand why it saddens me greatly when I see so-called "Christians" not reflecting this increasingly perfect lifestyle. As Dallas Willard, author of The Divine Conspiracy, pointed out recently, at a conference that I attended, there is a big difference between professing, believing and knowing. Each of these states produces very different kinds of Christians.
The "professing Christian" pays 'lip service' to believing that which the group to which they belong believes, but they do not necessarily act or practice what that group believes. Their life is not changed in any way by what they pretend to believe. They say one thing and act another way, and it is obvious to everyone but they.
The "believing Christian" does actually accept as true that which they are taught by the group to which they belong and they act as if those things are true. Belief, then, is much better than profession; yet, even belief, may give way in the face of the trials of living. There must be a different experience possible.
The "knowing Christian" is one who not only professes their belief, they also believe that what they believe is true because they know it to be true. Their life is not only guided by their belief but is determined by their knowing. It is the "knowing Christian" who really exemplifies the disciple of Jesus because it is she alone who is empowered by the Spirit to overcome sin in her life.
For the professing and believing kinds of Christians, sin remains a powerful temptation because they cannot and do not thrive spiritually. They fail to thrive spiritually because they do not really trust God and do not really invite the Spirit into their life. Their lives are not re-oriented after the teaching and lifestyle of Jesus, a lifestyle which assumes the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit; so, the point that "every one of the historic Seven deadly Sins has, in fact, become an essential element of some aspect of modern life" (James Taylor, Sin: A New Understanding of Virtue and Vice) becomes an overwhelming and painful reality for the professing and believing kinds of Christians.
Along this line of thought, J. Vernon McGee argues that
Sin is a concept worth saving, but I must insist also that sin has in no way changed. What the Bible calls sin is still sin. Human nature is still human nature [...] The church and its officers must hold to New Testament doctrine, calling sin the sins which are clearly labeled as such in the Word of God. —J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary.
So let us be honest with ourselves and consider how able we are to withstand the pressures, both within us and without us, that tempt us to slide the slippery slope of sin, rather than live the abundant with-God life, as we investigate two more of the sins called deadly.
Do Not Envy
Let us first, today, address the sin of envy. Envy rises in our soul when we notice another person's good —whether the good of their fortune or fame or beauty or any other possession— and we experience grief or displeasure at their good. Envy is also present when the reverse occurs: we feel delight or satisfaction at another person's evil —whether their failure or illness or any other kind of calamity.
Envy is not to be confused, however, with other emotions that seem similar to envy, but actually contain within them some elements of virture. Emulation is one example: when we are excited by another person's good, but, rather than fall into despair over the point that they have it and we don't, we instead feel admiration and seek to imitate, or even excel, that which we desire, not at the other person's expense, but for our own good.
There are also the feelings that arise from the success or downfall of a person that we might think of as a nemesis: another person whose efforts and actions bring harm to other persons or even to the greater good. If we grieve at such a person's success or celebrate at their failure, these feelings have within them a core of virtue, being a forerunner to righteous anger, a point which we will explore further in a moment.
Envy, then, is about our attitudes toward other people. There is something very mean and base about the soul who is unhappy or disappointed at another person's success, or feels delight at another's misfortune. Let us not think that we are above envy, as its very subtlety belies its capacity as the source of some of the worst crimes in history: The second sin of humanity, for instance, which resulted in the murder of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain, was, in fact, envy because God was more pleased with one brother's sacrifice (Genesis 4:1-8).
Indeed, how much damage has been caused by the envy latent in casual conversations which end up spewing forth gossip? What a sad state of affairs when we envy another person's position or character or beauty or talent, and, not being able to rid ourselves or the world of their presence, we instead choose to disparage and demean them without their knowledge, all in the name of "I'm sorry to have to say this, but ..."
Envy is evident as much in the strong and the moderately able, as well as the weak and the lazy. It is surprising when a person who has much begins to envy those who might share in their glory. It is said that Alexander the Great would not tolerate any praise being directed towards his generals, believing that this somehow distracted from that which he deserved.
Envy is most noticeable in those who are weak, who have been beaten in the competitions of life. They grow increasingly sick with disappointment, even to the point of resenting God. Or, the person of moderate abilities, having grand ambitions, who resents that they do not receive the same level or quality of praise received by their superiors.
Even worse, though, is the envy of the idle and lazy, having talents sufficient for producing and receiving praise; but, they squander their efforts and instead murmur against those who strive and achieve over them.
As with all the vices, there are remedies for envy, which begin with learning to love excellence for its own sake. God has created each one of us with purpose and intention —we were certainly created to achieve great things of which we are capable— and therefore we can think on and appreciate all things which are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8), whether we were involved in their creation or not and it belongs to us or not. This is a worthwhile discipline.
A proverb of Martin Luther goes like this:
I love a thing that’s fine
Ev’n when it is not mine,
And, though it never mine can be,
Yet it delights and gladdens me.
Maintaining a proper perspective of appreciation for all that is good in this world does our soul a great service. This is to recognise that God's grace is commonly available in and through the world in which we live, which leads us to the final remedy: count your mercies.
Wisdom reminds us
Do not fret because of evildoers.
Do not envy the wicked;
for the evil have no future;
the lamp of the wicked will go out.
What we each have is to be enjoyed for what it is and for how it enhances our life, rather than sulking that it is not enough to satisfy our ambitions or is not as much as that enjoyed by the next person. Fretting and envy do nothing to add to our state, but only slide us further away from abundant life and into sin. "[Our] Father [in heaven] knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:8), so do not envy, but "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all [that you need —and sometimes what you want—] will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).
Do Not Be Angry
The other deadly sin that I would like us to investigate today is anger.
Anger is a natural and basic reaction to a unique or overwhelming event. Typically, we would express this as "fight or flight". Some situation challenges us and our emotions stimulate us to make a response. We feel fear and anger as our body prepares its response.
So, it is correct to say that anger, in and of itself, is not a sin. When the apostle Paul encourages us to, "Be angry but do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26), the implication is that one can be angry without falling into sin. The most notable expression of this is the biblical concept of righteous anger.
In many places, the Bible refers to the "wrath of God", as well as to expressions of anger by Jesus. Thus, righteous anger can be understood to be a legitimate response to unrighteousness and injustice, even to the point of acting against those systems which perpetuate injustice and evil in this world.
There is a place for righteous anger: in such instances, being tame or silent is the sin. James Stalker, author of the classic booklet, The Seven Deadly Sins, recounts an article entitled, "The Christian of the Twentieth Century", in which was stated
There will be more and more need of great hatreds. Our talk of charity and tolerance must not blind us to the call for bitterness and wrath against all unrighteousness and ungodliness. The Christian of the Twentieth Century will know how to feel contempt as well as admiration, and detestation as well as love [...] Soft and easy toleration of everything will be called by the honest names of treason and dishonour. No feeling of love for the pure can long survive a decadence of the feeling of hatred for the impure.
Like envy, anger is primarily an attitude, which may degenerate further into action. Anger proceeds into dangerous territory in four situations:
1. When it is directed against wrong objects. The legitimate objects of anger are injustice and foolishness, but anger may be roused by the opposite. Indeed, we can become inappropriately angry when we feel that our rights are being trod upon, forgetting, of course, the rights of others. Or we can become angry in response to another person's anger.
2. Anger becomes sinful by excess. Regardless of the cause, anger quickly escalates far out of proportion to the offence.
3. Anger becomes sinful when it acts unlawfully. For instance, anger leads to cursing and vulgar language. Also, anger too often leads to actions which a calmer man would never dream of committing. How many in prison are incarcerated simply because of actions committed 'in the heat of the moment'?
4. Temper is a form of anger to avoid. While some persons may be disposed to a quick temper, such confession does not excuse one from the sins committed in moments lacking self-control.
Frederick Buechner had this to say about anger:
Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savour to the last toothsome morsel —both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back— in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. —quoted in R. B. Zuck's The Speaker's Quote Book.
There are remedies for anger:
1. Bring to mind how you look when you are angry — red in the face and eyes, distorted features, shaking —and you may hesitate to allow yourself to become so ugly in the future, as anger is "a triumph of the lower nature over the higher— a triumph of the beast over the angel" (Stalker). Indeed, self-reflection is one significant characteristic which separates us from the animals. Let us use this skill to keep us from sin.
2. The wisdom of the writer of The Epistle of James is an appropriate remedy:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. —James 1:19-20
Taking time to think before acting can keep us becoming inappropriately angry and doing something that we may regret later.
3. An adjunct remedy to thinking before acting is to pray and call on the power and/or guidance of the Holy Spirit. If indeed the Spirit can accomplish in us what we cannot do of our own effort, then overcoming our temper by and in the power of the Holy Spirit is a natural course of action.
What does it mean to thrive spiritually?
Living a life with-God enables a re-orientation of our values towards virtue, rather than vice. In seeking virtue, there is power! In living powerfully, there is glory. If we want to overcome sin and live the abundant life promised to us by Jesus, then let us rely on His help to that end.
Not surprisingly, it is a fact that all persons inherently want to live virtuously. Where there have been lists of sins promoted throughout history, there have also been attempts at promoting virtue. Let's consider the following modern examples:
1. Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most influential figures in modern social and political activism, considered the following traits to be the most spiritually detrimental:
- Wealth without Work
- Pleasure without Conscience
- Science without Humanity
- Knowledge without Character
- Politics without Principle
- Commerce without Morality
- Worship without Sacrifice
I think that you, and most people, would agree that these insights are 'spot on'.
2. A department of the Vatican recently published a document called "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road" (19 June 2007) in ten commandments for car drivers were suggested:
- I. You shall not kill.
- II. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.
- III. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.
- IV. Be charitable and help your neighbour in need, especially victims of accidents.
- V. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.
- VI. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.
- VII. Support the families of accident victims.
- VIII. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.
- IX. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.
- X. Feel responsible towards others.
While many media outlets found the publication of these commandments rather comical, I don't believe that I anywhere read opposition to this initiative.
Both of these modern lists resonate with the human condition, one depicting a sinful life in 'modern' terms, another depicting a holy life in 'modern' and 'practical' terms. Let us realise and accept that virtue has a place in our society and everyone accepts that sin is to be avoided. They may not use that term, "sin", but they are not so naïve as we assume they are: they know that attitudes lead to actions which hurt themselves, their families and society.
May we, as disciples of Jesus, rely on the Spirit of God to exemplify high and holy living on God's terms in us, which leads to abundant life (John 10:10) and a witness to the same.
So, in our pursuit of wholeness, let us deal with the issues appropriately. We might think that we are able to overcome temptation on our own, but, as the writer of The Epistle to Jude reminds us, it is God alone who is able to help us overcome sin.
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)
To accept and believe and trust the points made by these two simple little verses from the Bible will indeed require a total re-orientation of our life and values, our attitudes and our actions. Are you up for it?