Sometime in the past year, I actually felt envious of Fr. Richard Conlin. I can’t remember exactly why, but it was either because people were leaving St. Anthony’s to go to his parish, Corpus Christi, or because he was getting more YouTube views. In one moment, it dawned on me: I’m insecure; he’s doing better than I am, he’s 15 years my junior, and he’s not even that good! Anyway, it wasn’t a big deal, but I bring it up because everyone can be tempted to envy, and, just as I’m being vulnerable right now (because it’s petty for an older priest to be envious of a younger one), I hope you can be, too, in your heart.
What kinds of blessings in other people’s lives make you sad? About whom do you gossip? Is it with someone in your family, a friend, co-worker? Do you resent any category of people: professionals, performers, company executives, married people, singles, children, retirees?
Envy strikes us in areas that are important to us. I don’t care if people make more money than I, because it’s not important to me. But apparently I do care about YouTube views! If beauty is really important to you, then you’re probably sad concerning people who are attractive. If you’re lonely, you may feel envious when it comes to other people’s relationships.
The Letter of St. James today teaches that envy stems from ourselves: “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind… Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (Jas 3:16; 4:).
He connects envy with ‘selfish ambition’ and our ‘cravings.’ We want something, but don’t have it. Therefore, because others do, we can’t be happy for them. Consequently, we act differently around them, and then there’s disorder in our relationships.
Andy Stanley, the famous evangelical leader, says this verse also exposes our pettiness: We want something but don’t get it. “If you have children then you’re very familiar with what James is talking about. When you hear your children arguing, you know instinctively that the real issue isn’t the toy, the DVD, or who gets to sit in which seat; the real issue is that two people want their way, and one’s not getting it” (Enemies of the Heart, 162-3).
Whenever his three children are arguing, he actually draws on this Scripture passage, and, instead of trying to figure who’s at fault, he first has them all repeat: “Do you know what the problem is? I’m not getting what I want.” He says, “My kids hate it. But something very interesting happens: The energy level and volume immediately drop by about half” (165).
St. James then writes, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jas 4:2). Here’s the centre of the message today: Bring your desires to God the Father. When we’re envious, we’re focusing on other people. But St. James is telling us to focus on God the Father, to talk to Him about what we want. He’s our Father, and will listen to us. “If it’s important to you, then it’s important to God” (167). He wants what’s best for us. “Keep bringing it to him until you find… peace… and [can] face the day confident in the knowledge that he cares for you” (167-168).
But God may still not give us what we want. St. James says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (Jas 4:2-3). We sometimes ‘ask wrongly,’ in the sense that we ask for things that aren’t necessary, that we be taller, fix that part of our body that we don’t like, or get a raise. Getting a better car, or more likes on social media may even ruin our soul and character. These things are for our own ‘pleasure.’ And He could give them to us, but has chosen not to, for His own reasons.
Think about this: “Our disappointment with not getting what we want… pales in significance next to the fact that we’ve been given what we most needed. In the shadow of the cross, it’s clear: God doesn’t owe us anything. We owe him everything. Including an apology.” God the Father gave us the one thing necessary, the thing for which most people don’t ask, but which we need the most, and that’s the salvation offered us by Jesus.
If we start to appreciate that we’ve been offered eternal love and eternal life because we are loved by our Father, then that’ll tame our envy. But, if we don’t appreciate this, that’s a sign that we’re still thinking and asking wrongly.
This is the wisdom about which St. James talks: “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits” (Jas 3:17). Pure wisdom focuses on God, sees everything from His perspective, and talks to Him—this is the first thing we need to do.
The second thing we need to do is celebrate others’ gifts. Wisdom is also ‘willing to yield,’ and this has to do with other people!
“You’ve got to celebrate the success… of those you’ve tended to envy. You need to go out of your way to verbally express your congratulations over their accomplishments” (176). Andy Stanley celebrates one of his best friends, another preacher, of whom he’s tempted to be envious, and says, “I’m his biggest fan!” And, whenever another boy pitches better in baseball than Andy’s sons, he goes out of his way to find that boy’s parents and congratulate them! This helps conquer our emotions of envy.
So, tell your sister that she looks good in that dress, that your brother-in-law has a great car, that your co-worker did well in that presentation, that your friend has the house of your dreams!
If this seems impossible for you, that might be a sign of a big wound. You need to take this back to God the Father. There might be a pain in your heart that He wants to heal. Dr. Bob Schuchts, on this point, asks us to consider if we have a deep sense of unworthiness. Are we beset by shame? (Be Healed, 96).
An easier step than celebrating might be for you to confess envy and, without going into too much detail, just name the nature of your envy, for example, “I don’t want my sister to have what I don’t have.”
If you can’t find it in yourself to do it for God, then do it for yourself, otherwise you’ll always be sad and resentful. God wants you to be peaceful, joyful, and free of envy.
These two actions are what I did with Fr. Richard. I talked to God about his YouTube success, and, after I vomited, I told Fr. Richard that I celebrated what God’s doing through him.
I’ve always wanted younger priests to be better than I am, and now, having been tested, I really mean it, and I’m happy they will be. Instead of focusing on me, I’m focused on God the Father and others.