I want you to work with me on a thought experiment, and it is a thought experiment with two constituent parts. Weighed rightly, this leads naturally to a consideration of real gospel, permeated throughout with real grace.
The first thing is that with this imaginary humanity that I am about to construct—in the second part—the heart of man is absolutely unchanged. The fall still happened, sin is still sin, and people are still people. Human nature stands unaffected by what I am about to suggest.
The second part of this is where I mess around with stuff. What do I mean? In this thought experiment of mine, I change all circumstances so that everything about human existence is virtually level. Not entirely level, mind you, but virtually level. In other words, I am not creating a world of clones, but rather a world where everybody is almost the same as everyone else.
To Be Specific
Say the average weight for women was 130 pounds—in this world, no woman would be over 135, and no woman would be under 125. If the average height for men was 6 foot 1, no man would be over 6’2” and no man would be under 6 foot. All high school students would be able to take and pass a standard calculus course. The lowest grade would be a B minus, and the highest a strong A. The average income would not vary by more than 10K annually. You get the picture. There would still be a social hierarchy, but the strata in this hierarchy would be, per hypothesis, greatly compressed.
And remember, the heart of man would be exactly what it is now.
What would be the result?
The result would be that all these minor differences would assume the role of sorting out the superiors and inferiors that our comparatively major differences do now. We would still have the cool kids and we would still have the nerds. The sneers would be just as pronounced, the clashes just as malicious, the put downs just as savage, the exclusions just as demanding. If there were any difference to be seen in this new world o’ mine, I would predict that the conceit would be even more swollen, and the envy even more rancid.
My reason for saying this is that pride and envy—the concave and convex forms of this particular lust—are largely consumed with the mere existence and relative position of others. We are born casting sidelong glances, and a world like the one I have been describing would do nothing to retard or slow down that tendency. If anything, it would accentuate it, leading to ever-increasing strife over ever-decreasing differentials.
Two More Thought Experiments
Here are a couple more thought experiments. Careful—they will test your heart.
You have a button in front of you, and you have it on good authority that if you push that button, it will totally alter the amount and distribution of wealth in your town. Here’s what would happen. Every person of ordinary means, middle class and below, will have their wealth doubled overnight, in real terms. Salaries will double, savings will double, value of houses will double, same with the cars, and so on. What’s the catch? you wonder. Bless them all. Bless all those people. Push the button.
Here’s the catch. Every rich person in town will have the same thing happen, only it will be by a factor of ten times better off.
Say you push the button. You have immeasurably blessed everyone who lives in that town. Everybody is better off, in real terms. Nothing but improvement. At the same time, you have made the problem of income inequality manifestly worse. And what does that mean? It means that, for Christians, income inequality isn’t really a problem. It is only a problem for the envious.
Now suppose someone wants to argue with me and my thought experiments. They say that the real problem is how the rich got that way in the first place, robber barons all of them, and why the poor in that town were in their lowly place to begin with—having been oppressed by all those robber barons.
Sure, let me give it to you. Stealing, when it occurs, is bad. We should form a task force to identify and deal with the true robber barons, but the very first thing we shall have to do is exclude from our task force anyone who refused to push that button. Robber barons are sneaky enough as it is, and so if you send envious people after them, they will only get man-handled and co-opted. The robber barons will just grab them by that tell-tale crackle in their brains, and get them to propose something entirely counterproductive. The best example of that kind of thing would be “kind” proposals—brought forward by true economic goobers—to hike the minimum wage, thus pricing the poorest of the poor out of the labor market.
Here is another thought experiment, similar to the second one. But this time you make all the rich people ten times richer, just like before, and you make all the people of ordinary means worth ninety percent of that. All the rich people are now ultra-rich, and all the regular people are almost ultra-rich. Would you push that button?
I am pretty sure that Mao would not push it, nor Pol Pot, nor Lenin, nor Marx, nor Che, nor Castro, nor the head of the diversity office at Boise State. It would disrupt their revolutionary program of making everyone better off. It would disrupt their program of making everyone well-off by making everyone actually well-off, and we can’t have that. Let’s just—for the sake of precision—call these people commies and be done with it.
But there is another group who probably would push the button, but would have pangs in their conscience for having done so. We shall call this group earnest evangelicals. They would have pangs in their conscience for two reasons. First, that is what evangelicals do, they have pangs. Second, they have been badly taught. On economics, they have read too much Francis Chan and too little Henry Hazlitt. They know that we are supposed to give bread to the poor, but how bread actually comes into existence, they haven’t an earthly. Behind every Safeway, they think there is some kind of loaves and fishes thing going on.
The Ressentiment Rag
But the root problem in all of this is not economic ignorance, but rather the sin of envy. Only envy sees the simple fact of a difference in material possessions as a problem. Only envy does that. Only envy lends itself to the kind of economic confusion that is rampant in evangelical circles.
Nietzsche is usually associated with the term ressentiment, and if you think about it, he should know. The word resentment was too weak to convey the kind of aching hatred he was talking about, and so he opted for the stronger term, one that had a bit more seething inferiority in it.
If we go to the Lord’s parable about workers for the vineyard hired at different times of the day (Matt. 20:1-16), it is too little observed that the Lord has the owner of that vineyard contributing to the problem of income inequality. Right again, thus making income inequality NOT A PROBLEM.
Envy is the sin that everyone is still ashamed of. But even Nietzsche, spitting out his hatred of ressentiment, alleging that the compassion ethic of the Christians was driven by envy of the strong, was in the grip of little man syndrome. A little man with a compensatory mustache. He so wanted to be the ubermensch, but at the end of the day he was just a frightened little German. He didn’t end his philosophical career by attempting some sort of “consistent” lurch into madness; he began his career in that madness. But he certainly knew how to write vigorous and angry and vivid prose, another compensatory move.
The point here is that no one in the grip of envy wants to admit that they are in the grip of envy. Men can be proud of any number of vices—how drunk they got, how much money they wasted, how many women they have had. But no one is proud of that sick inferiority ache, and so the compensatory move is always the name of the game. In our modern era, this diseased anger at normal people—meaning those men with suburban lawns who enjoy mowing them—has been sublimated into a zeal for social justice and socialism.
Nietzsche himself went in for a distraction move—accusing the Christians of being eaten up by the vice that was eating him up. Just think—the history of philosophical thought could have been entirely different if Nietzsche had only encountered a good sturdy, evangelical cliche. “If you think being meek is weak, try being being meek for a week.”
A lot of people would like to be able to sit down a a piano, and like Scott Joplin, play The Ressentiment Rag. But nobody wants to be the person that the song is about.
Someone might suggest that I have perhaps fallen into Bulverism—in that I have been explaining that envy is the driving force behind all demands for social justice and socialism instead of refuting these schools of thought on the merits. And is that not Bulverism?
No, because these intellectual pathologies have been refuted on the merits hundreds of times. I could supply a reading list if requested. You can’t mandate the selling of bread at a price below the cost of making bread and still have bread, and black lives actually don’t matter the way you think they do. So much is obvious, right?
If a shrink has a patient who thinks he is a cow, at some point he needs to stop arguing the case on the merits, and look into some possible root causes. Even if he runs the risk of being accused of Bulverism.
The Death of All Envy
There have been a number of times in the past when I have concluded a post like this one with an appeal to the crucifixion of Christ. I am going to do the same thing again now, but this is not because I want to drag in some extraneous religious doctrine, in order to address a worldly problem of a completely different nature, and all because I have some kind of an a priori commitment to Jesus being the answer, regardless of the question.
No. Our modern unregenerate world runs on envy, not because it is modern, but because it is unregenerate. It is the way of the world. Our secular rulers today run on the same fuel that Caesar, Pharaoh, and Shalmaneser did. They have a bad case of the gimmes, they want to be lords on the earth, and they want all of us, with all appropriate gratitude, to call them benefactors (Luke 22:25).
These rulers and leaders and pundits and shapers and molders all wish they could be like Jesus. He makes it look so easy. They wish they could speak with his authority. They wish they could heal like He could. They wish they could live under the divine favor they way He did. They wish they could be worthy of the title Lord.
Pilate recognized that the Judeans had turned Jesus over to him out of envy (Matt. 27:18), which meant they murdered Jesus because they wanted to be like Him—but on their own terms, of course. Now God has fashioned a way for us to become like Jesus, but it entails the crucifixion of that little lizard-self inside us that wants to rule the cosmos. Much too high a price to pay, obviously.
As Ben Merkle has pointed out, in John 10, when they picked up stones to kill Jesus, they were reprising their devilish role as Cain, coming after the new Abel. Their religious apparatus of sacrifice had been rejected, and Christ’s final offering was about to be accepted. The devil was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44), inspiring Cain in the same way (1 John 3:12), and so it was driven by envy from the beginning. And they picked up stones to stone Him (John 10:31).
The Only Possible Reversal
But here is the glory. Because it was envy that put Christ on the cross, it was the purpose of the Father, through Christ, to put envy on the cross. And when Christ came back from the grave, the envy didn’t come back. Envy stayed in the grave.
The children of Israel were once afflicted with biting, poisonous seraphim (Num. 21:6). The chastisement was a fitting one, for what had they been doing just prior? They had been murmuring, complaining, grumbling, and accusing—the kind of soil that envy flourishes in (Num 21: 5). And so God sent the serpents, and the people were dying. They cried out and confessed their sin, so God told Moses to make a bronze image of an impaled seraph (Num. 21:8), and to lift it up on a pole.
Anyone who looked on it, anyone who saw that twisted carcass of envy, was healed. And Jesus taught us that this entire episode was a type of His death on the cross (John 3:14). Anyone who looks to Him there in faith will have the venom of envy neutralized. This is the venom that is currently killing America, and the reason this is happening is that our preachers are not declaring, with authority, that Christ really did die for sinners. And what I mean is . . .
Envious sinners. Snarling sinners. Biting sinners. Snapping sinners. Venomous sinners. Vitriolic sinners. Sinners full of wrath. Poisonous sinners. Self-righteous sinners. Accusative sinners. Scratching sinners. Clawing sinners. Treacherous sinners. Self-pitying sinners. Victim sinners. Condescending sinners. Patronizing sinners. Trolling sinners. Look up to the cross, and there you will can see the death of all of it.
Our republic cannot be saved unless there is a massive reformation in the church, and there will not be a reformation in the church unless her preachers start declaring authoritatively the substitutionary and vicarious death of Christ on the cross, and doing so in such a way as to apply it unmistakably to the sins our people are currently committing—from the greatest to the least.
The only way you can look to the cross and see your salvation there is if you look to the cross and see your damnation there. The message is repent and believe. That means unless you see the wracked serpent there (repentance), you are not really seeing Jesus there (belief).
But if you do, everything will be different. Rightly received, understood in real faith, hearing the gospel is like getting punched in the mouth.