Essay / Theology

On Envy and Temperance

The medieval author Richard of St. Victor wrote, “The duty of the true preacher consists of two things; instruction in truth and exhortation to virtue” (The Mystical Ark, Appendix). In this post I hope to do the latter by continuing my musings on the vices and the virtues. Please recall that a virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good; specifically, to pursue good and to choose it in all concrete actions. The goal of the virtuous life is to become like God. A vice is the opposite of a virtue: doing what is bad instead of what is good, pursuing that which is against good and choosing to do it. The result of a vice is alienation from God. The virtues are those characteristics of a godly life that we must highly desire and greatly esteem. As Francis of Assisi states, we must praise and prize the virtues:

Hail, Queen Wisdom! The Lord save you,
with your sister, pure, holy Humility.
Lady Holy Poverty, God keep you,
with your sister, holy Simplicity.
Lady Holy Love, God keep you,
with your sister, holy Obedience.
All holy virtues,
God keep you, God from Whom you proceed and come.
In all the world there is not a person
who can possess any one of you without first dying to themselves.
The person who practices one and does not offend against the others
possesses all;
The person who offends against one,
possesses none and violates all.
Each and every one of you
puts vice and sin to shame.
Holy Wisdom puts Satan
and all his wiles to shame.
Pure and holy Simplicity puts
all the learning of this world, all natural wisdom, to shame.
Holy Poverty puts to shame
all greed, avarice, and all the anxieties of this life.
Holy Humility puts pride to shame,
and all the inhabitants of this world and all that is in the world.
Holy Love puts to shame all the temptations
of the devil and the flesh and all natural fear.
Holy Obedience puts to shame
all natural and selfish desires.
It mortifies our lower nature
and makes it obey the spirit and our fellow people.
Obedience subjects a person
to everyone on earth,
And not only to people,
but to all the beasts as well and to the wild animals,
So that they can do what they like with the person,
as far as God allows them. (The Praise of the Virtues)

In this blog I am going to examine the vice of envy and its corresponding virtue — temperance. Envy refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly. The apocryphal book of The Wisdom of Solomon stresses how destructive the vice of envy is, “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (2:24). Further, the Bible gives us several vivid examples of envy. In 2 Samuel 12:1-4 the prophet Nathan wanted to spur King David to repentance because of the king’s sin with Bathsheba. To do this, he told him the story about the poor man who had only one ewe lamb that he treated like his own daughter and the rich man who, despite the great number of his flocks, envied the poor man and ended by stealing his lamb. This is envy.

The first example of envy in the Bible (and perhaps the first instance of envy after God’s creation) is that of the envy of Cain had for this brother’s favor before the Lord: “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:3-5). Though envy is not mentioned directly, it is obvious that Cain was envious of Abel’s acceptance in God’s eyes. Envy is also illustrated well in 1 Kings 21:1-29:

Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.” But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat. His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?” He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.'” Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.” So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned and is dead.” As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!'” Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!” “I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free. I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.’ “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’ “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country.” (There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel.) When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”

Finally, the results of envy are something that we should not desire. Proverbs 14:30 tells us that “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Further, Job 5:2 says, “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple.” In light of this, what should be our response? Simply put, we need to obey the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). By not coveting we do not give in to the vice of envy for “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Also, we need to counter the vice of envy with the virtue of temperance.

Temperance is the virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the appetites of the flesh toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion. As one ancient writer said, “Do not yield to every impulse you can gratify or follow the desires of your heart” (Ecclesiasticus 5:2) and “Do not let your passions be your guide, but restrain your desires” (18:30). In the New Testament, temperance is often called “moderation” or “sobriety.” For example, in his letter to Titus, Paul commands us “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world” (2:12). Likewise, 1 Corinthians 15:34a says, “Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning” and 2 Timothy 4:5a says, “But you, be sober in all things.”

But how do we develop temperance? The answer, I believe, is found in these words from John Chrysostom, “Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother’s progress and you will immediately give glory to God. Because his servant could conquer envy by rejoicing in the merits of others, God will be praised” (Homilies on Romans 71.5). That is, temperance is developed when we rejoice in another’s progress or when we rejoice in the merits of others. Philippians 4:4 instructs us to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Likewise, Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Our lives as Christians should be characterized by rejoicing. We must rejoice in God and all that he has given us in Christ: “Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name” (Psalm 97:12). To develop temperance, we must rejoice when a fellow person, whether Christian or non-Christian, experiences or acquires something that we do not possess ourselves. This keeps us from becoming envious. Instead of looking upon our neighbor’s “things” as something that we need also, we should rejoice that the Lord has been good to our neighbor and ask that he look upon and bless us in a similar way. Further, when the Lord does bless us we need to “rejoice in all the good things the Lord [our] God has given to [us] and [our] household” (Deut. 26:11).

Perhaps the best illustration of this principle is found in 1 Kings 10:1-13 (cf. 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). Recorded here is the account of the queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon after hearing of the magnificence of the temple that Solomon had constructed. The queen was so amazed at what she saw that “she was overwhelmed” (v. 5). It is obvious from this passage that the queen herself was a very wealthy monarch. Yet, she was overwhelmed at Solomon’s temple. Surely, her temptation could have been to desire to have such a temple for herself. Or, out of desire, to attack the Israelite’s and make the temple her own property. Interestingly, she chose neither of these envious actions. Rather, she praised the Lord (v. 9) and “she left and returned with her retinue to her own country” (v. 13). You see, the queen of Sheba rejoiced with Solomon for the Lord’s blessing upon him and the nation of Israel. She did not become envious, she became expressively joyful. This is the attitude that we are to have when others are blessed by God. Instead of envying those whom God chooses to bless, we must rejoice with them. This demonstrates that we are temperate persons who are not giving in to the vice of envy.

It likely is not too much of an overstatement to say that envy is one of the greatest vices that tempts us as western, North American men and women. We are constantly surrounded by people who have things that we do not possess yet feel that we should have. Perhaps for some it is a nicer car, for others a nicer boat and still, for others, a better job though the list of “things” is endless. Regardless of what it is that we envy, envy is a sin that must be conquered by temperance if we are to make true spiritual progress. To do this, we must rejoice with others when God blesses them and find our peace and comfort in God, not in the pleasures of this world.

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