When Envy Tells

I received a kind inquiry recently, asking me to put some flesh on the bones of what I presented here. What does it look like in the actual midst of a mimetic snarl? In short, how can you tell the difference between you being the problem (attributing motives to others in self-flattering ways) and the other person being the problem (driven by mimetic envy, and so on)?

Let me begin with a couple principles, add a few criteria, and then describe an (imaginary) scenario.

First, how you can know this is related to how you can know anything. And the fundamental answer is this: walk with God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). The people who live with you (not necessarily the same people who see you twice a year at conferences) should be able to testify that you are someone who speaks and acts graciously, that you confess your sins as necessary, that you do not despise wisdom and instruction, and so on. Fear the Lord, and act like you do. If you do this, He will teach you things (Ps. 25:14). He will enable you to see things that you could not see before.

Second, dispense with the idea that envy is by definition invisible. Get rid of the idea that it can never be seen with the eyes. Like all sin, envy can be hidden and lied about. But also like all sin, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34). Hidden envy can become manifest just as hidden lust or hatred can be. Take a look at the picture here—is the envy invisible?

The malicious envy of the Jewish leaders was so plain that even Pilate could see it. “For he knew that for envy they had delivered him” (Matt. 27:18; Mk. 15:10).

“And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him” (Acts 7:9).

“But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming” (Acts 13:45).

In short, when you are learning to see envy, it is not the equivalent of trying to see Farley’s ghost. It is more like learning to read the story you are in, and applying to the events on the playground what we naturally and readily do when watching a movie. And speaking of the playground, one of the things we do is we train this natural instinct out of our children in a misguided attempt to be “spiritual.”

Say that a particular child is consistently rude and unkind to your child. Do you try to minimize it, telling your child that some people are “just bullies”? Or do you help your child to see why this is happening? Your child is cute and this child is not. Your child’s parents love each other and this other child’s parents are in the middle of a nasty divorce. Your child is on the honor roll and this other child isn’t.

And all these things seem to us (automatically) like special pleading, cooking up imaginary explanations for why this other person must be envious. How do you know that? Here it is, a real kick in the teeth. Once you learn to see envy you will realize (after the fact) that three out of four times the person concerned will have told you what the issue is. Has the bully said to your child anything like, “You think you’re so pretty . . .”

No kidding. The person will usually tell you or will tell somebody.

“Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Gen. 37:20).

They knew they hated Joseph, they knew why they hated Joseph, and they said.

Everybody assumes that since envy is invisible that it must remain that way, no matter how much you talk. But it is frequently right there, out on the table. You are counseling someone, and they never say my sister. They always say my older sister. Pay close attention to what people say. Then when you ask questions accordingly, they think you are psychic.

So here are some criteria to use, if you need to decide whether to start looking for this kind of thing.

First, you should start running diagnostics in this area when you find yourself in the middle of a conflict that makes no sense. When the difficulty is inexplicable, and you have the question “where could this conflict have come from,” consider the possibility that James 4, which contains this question (Jas. 4:1), also contains the answer (Jas. 4:5). The spirit in us veers toward envy, like the front end of an automobile that needs to be aligned.

Second, you should evaluate this possibility when you find yourself in conflict with someone you used to be very close to. Conflict arises between close friends as much or as more as between strangers. You used to be the best of friends. What happened? You were not driven apart by the fact that you had nothing in common. You were driven apart because you had so much in common. Take it this way.  When you were in college, you were peers. Everything was the same. Now, ten years after college, say that you are well ahead—married to a beautiful woman, three kids, great job, etc. If you are walking in humility, you are likely not to have noticed these things because you were not keeping score. People who are that far ahead don’t need to keep score. But the fact that you don’t think it is a big deal doesn’t mean that your former peer doesn’t think it is a big deal.

Third, you should begin to think this way if you start noticing random comments, comments that don’t fit with your understanding of your earlier narrative with that person. If, when you are 35, your younger brother says, mostly jokingly, that your dad always liked you best, take notice of it. The fact that this is the first time you have heard this does not mean that it is the first time it was said. And even if it is the first time it was said, it is most certainly not the first time it was thought. If you are in a conflict, or if it looks like it is something that might become a conflict, act like you have eyes in your head. Look for clues. And by clues, I do not mean things that could be consistent with mimetic envy if you squint at them in a dim light. I mean things that reveal what is going on. There is often a lame attempt to camouflage the envy by projecting an accusation of pride in the revelatory comment. “Your problem is that you think you are above correction” might well mean “Your problem is that you wouldn’t listen if I tried to tear you down.”

Special note: The fact that you now see something plainly is not God’s invitation to share it with everybody. You might be making things far, far worse. “Are you saying I’m jealous? Of you?” One has felt, reading through Genesis, on more than one occasion, that Joseph ought to have been a little less exuberant in the relating of his dreams.

So take this for our scenario. A couple of young men are working together on staff for a church. They get along well together, and are very close for a couple of years. One of them then marries the pastor’s daughter. Six months later, the pastor mentions from the pulpit that he has begun to think about retirement, maybe “in a few years.” Three months after that, the married fellow finds himself in a snarl with the deacons over what software the church should buy for running the office. The unmarried church staffer is very close with two of the deacons.

Here is your pencil. Connect the dots. You have ten minutes.

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Rob Steele
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Rob Steele

Who wouldn’t hate young Joseph? God painted a giant target on him.

Billtownphysics
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Billtownphysics

Yes, and God used his sin and the sinful response of his brothers to do some amazing things, and paint a family picture of the gospel. Pretty cool stuff.

Farinata degli Uberti
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Farinata degli Uberti

Careful – no honest reading of the text puts Joseph in sin. He was a prophet and he delivered his prophecies – that worthless fellows were angry at God’s word is not his fault. More importantly, he is a type of Christ – if he suffers because he is guilty, the analogy breaks down.

Jason Terpsma
Member

But… being a type of Christ surely doesn’t meet one isn’t guilty of sin, right? David was also a type of Christ but he sinned pretty egregiously..

Farinata degli Uberti
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Farinata degli Uberti

That’s the gist, although I agree the full argument is more complex. David is a type of Christ in shepherding and delivering God’s people, most prominently in the slaying of Goliath. It would pose a typological problem if David’s actions on the battlefield were denounced in the text as prideful or self-serving. Likewise, Joseph provides one of the earliest models in Scripture of salvation through the death of the innocent. If he is thrown into the pit because of his boasting (or, in the same way, if Potiphar casts him into the dungeon because he actually tried to rape his… Read more »

Jane
Member

In order to be the type in the sense of being unjustly hated and envied, though, I think he needed to be innocent of any actual provocation. But I’m with Farinata’s main point — the text gives us no reason to charge Joseph with sin in this instance.

I can’t think of a way David sinned with respect to any way in which he was a type of Christ, either. I mean I’m sure he did in the process but that is not recorded for us so typologically, he is “clean.”

insanitybytes22
Member

I think it is extremely important to completely disregard such things. Someone could be a complete pompous ass, and still they do not deserve to be tossed in a pit and sold into slavery. Nor is their pride an excuse for someone else’s envy.

Not saying those things were true of Joseph,but many people do have this idea that he shouldn’t have been parading around in his many colored coat or sharing his dreams with his brothers, as if Joseph and ultimately God Himself are to blame for other’s envy, as if he thought too highly of himself.

adad0
Member

Young David, just before Goliath, received similar contempt from at least one of his brothers.
Sometimes the result of honest goodness is such contempt.
Our host here draws a fair amount of contempt himself! ????

duellsquimby
Member

I wonder, is it that God painted a target on him, or that Joseph talked himself into trouble. Not that, that justifies what his brothers did. No that’s a non sequitur. But Josephs exuberance would get him into trouble in the same way today.

Jane
Member

God gave him a revelation and he wasn’t supposed to share it? Everyone assumes that Joseph related the revelation in a way that “made his brothers mad,” as opposed to relating the revelation, and his brothers got mad (owing in part to his father’s unabashed favoritism.) Lacking any evidence from the text referring to his heart being lifted up, I’d be slow to impute provocation to his manner, and even more reluctant to suggest that when God gives you prophecy you’re supposed to keep it yourself lest your family get annoyed.

duellsquimby
Member

You raise a very good point, and you phrase how I feel about this better than I wrote. I myself was thinking back about situations with my 2 brothers growing up. The only point I was thinking was that its not that ‘God painted a giant target on him’, and that’s why it happened. It wasn’t deterministic, his brothers reacted, and did so in jealousy, and sin. It wasn’t deterministic, but inevitable. I just didn’t like the idea or phrase “God painted a giant target on him”. As a young boy I can just see Joseph running to tell his… Read more »

Farinata degli Uberti
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Farinata degli Uberti

Except that if you read Genesis 37, you’ll see that the brothers weren’t so great: Joseph reported their bad behavior to his father. Given that, and especially in light of subsequent events, I submit that Jacob’s so-called favoritism is entirely justified. He gives Joseph special tokens of esteem because Joseph is obviously his best son.

duellsquimby
Member

Its a mixed bag for sure. I’ll agree that the brothers seemed like many grumbling workers I’ve been around.

Jane
Member

It may be some of each. It does say that Jacob loved Joseph best because he was the son of the favorite wife. It’s not all about his relative merit. There was apparently some baked-in favoritism that happened the day Joseph was born; it didn’t wait until he proved himself less recalcitrant than his brothers.

Farinata degli Uberti
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Farinata degli Uberti

Fair point.

duellsquimby
Member

Except I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘so-called ‘. It’s pretty much out there and always causes trouble in a family. One take away here is that everyone in the story had their moments, even Joseph, but all were also responsible/culpable for their actions as well.
This is not to paint them as ogres’ but just to acknowledge that they are all cracked vessels. Some more than others.

Farinata degli Uberti
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Farinata degli Uberti

On the other hand, we should be hesitant to judge where the text does not. Joseph is nowhere established as culpable; those who make him out to be so have to rely on the imaginary charge of “Sharing the divine oracle in a haughty tone of voice.” As for Jacob, I think the text is far less invested in his relative blamelessness. I merely observe that to prefer your best son seems in retrospect like a pretty good decision. Then too, ancient Palestine was not known for its egalitarian family culture. It isn’t like the brothers were objecting to favoritism… Read more »

Jane
Member

Granted, it wasn’t deterministic, but God set him up knowing how his brothers would react, too. When God puts us through trials, He’s fully aware that often the source of the trials will be the predictable sins of others — yet He’s still setting us up, so to speak, because He has a purpose in those trials.

duellsquimby
Member

I agree completely with you.

Kilgore T. Durden
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Kilgore T. Durden

My extended family, and to a lesser degree my close family, have been consumed by this. I used to chock it up to us being dirt poor for decades, but after a while, I simply had to concede it was just open sin. The problem is what to do about it. My approach, which got me in a number of fights that almost, or actually did a few times, come to blows, is not one I would recommend. I wouldn’t usually ask if they were jealous, I would rather bluntly just tell them to knock it off and work harder… Read more »

John
Member

I think that no matter what career we pursue that our sinful nature always leads us to envy. I have seen physicians envious because they only make 1 million while the doc across town make 1.5 million. Or their wife is envious because her hubby is an internist and not a surgeon. Thanks for sharing and glad you are continuing in sanctification.

Kilgore T. Durden
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Kilgore T. Durden

There but for the grace of God go I.

Ginny Yeager
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Ginny Yeager

Wise as serpents, harmless as doves. We aren’t allowed to dissect that, favoring either side.

Nathan Smith
Member

I would comment but Pastor Wilson thinks he is above correction.

JK JK.

Capndweeb
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Capndweeb

Yes, and all this is true and we should indeed keep our eyes and ears open, BUT we should also be aware that it may not be so easy to tell exactly what is going on by the words said. Case in point: Some time ago, I had turned my shampoo bottle upside down in the shower to be able to get the last little bit out. My lovely wife mentioned that she had seen this as a not-so-subtle hint that I expected her to go buy me more shampoo. That thought had never entered my head. It was something… Read more »

Nathan Smith
Member

Hah. Marriage is great.

Capndweeb
Guest
Capndweeb

My wife is a wonderful person and I love her very much. She’s not perfect, but she’s a better person than I am.

John
Member

Were you wearing your cap in the shower? That could explain a lot.

Capndweeb
Guest
Capndweeb

Heheh, No.

adad0
Member

Hmmmm, a nervous laugh and a denial.
I’ll be on the lookout for more dots to connect!

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Or singing “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” at the top of his lungs. That was my shower song for a number of decades.

adad0
Member

Well, now we know what your mean streak is Jilly!????
I suppose there are worse things than an overwrought Kenny Rodgers song!

Frank_in_Spokane
Guest
Frank_in_Spokane

“underline, italic, bold last four words”

PROTIP: It’s really, REALLY easy to do that for reals: underline, italic, bold

See http://www.simplehtmlguide.com/cheatsheet.php

And look under the “Text Formatting” heading.

Capndweeb
Guest
Capndweeb

Thanks!

insanitybytes22
Member

Ha! Now see, that makes perfect sense to me. I would take that as a not so subtle hint that hubby wanted more shampoo and be rather annoyed that he has resorted to such passive aggressive attempts at communication. In truth, I doubt the man is even capable of passive/aggressive communication, but that would be my first thought. :)

Capndweeb
Guest
Capndweeb

Some people do automatically jump to the worst conclusion sometimes. For several years, I conducted an on-going social experiment simply by saying, “Nice day” to people. (When it was, in fact, a nice day.) The MAJORITY of people reply with, “Yah, but it’s supposed to be crappy tomorrow” or something of that nature.

adad0
Member

Those responses sound like “hat envy” to me! ; – )

Capndweeb
Guest
Capndweeb

Some of it has to do with being Minnesotan where it is said, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes. It’ll change.” But mostly it has to do with our basic sin nature. We are a stiff-necked people who resist giving God the praise and glory he so rightly deserves. He can rain down manna from heaven every morning in the middle of the desert and we’ll still whine that we have no meat. The older I get, the harder it is to deny that capital T in the tulip.

John
Member

I think it’s the total package. The hat the beard the rugged outdoorsman Where do I stop!!!!! We all envy “The Hat.”

duellsquimby
Member

Capndweeb, I do think you’d be a fun guy to hang out with. :) :) Well done.

Bryan Moffitt
Guest
Bryan Moffitt

How poignant that James, the brother of Jesus, is the one to reveal the truth of envy. I suspect he knew it very, very well.

Jennifer Alwine Miller
Member

Insightful post! Thank you. One minor correction in paragraph 6–“Marley’s ghost,” not “Farley’s.”

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

Marley didn’t like that. He’s been rattling his chains again.

insanitybytes22
Member

This was really well said, much appreciated. Unfortunately I was taught not to see envy, that even to recognize it was almost worst then the sin itself. I can’t begin to tell you how disabling this was, how much confusion and muddied waters I was left standing in over the years, scratching my head. It’s like having this giant elephant in the room you can sense but you aren’t allowed to name or see and nothing makes any sense to you. Total confusion.

Jill Smith
Member
Jill Smith

I think envy is one of the seven deadlies that gives the sinner not even a flickering moment of pleasure. It just leads to shame. I agree it is important to learn to identify it in others (and even more in ourselves), but I think we should also teach our children not to go out of their way to excite envy in others. There is a reason why well brought up people don’t boast about their possessions, trips, and accomplishments.

Wendy Dibble-Lohr
Guest
Wendy Dibble-Lohr

The original mentioned Rene Girard, and for those of us who might read one of his books but not many, would you recommend one? (Or at least one to start with, or perhaps a study of what he says?)
–Andrew, husband of Wendy

Emilee
Guest
Emilee

Fair point ????