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.