May 13, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Love does not envy.
1 Corinthians 13:4
As we’ve said in these pages before, what’s new about the so-called New Atheists is not their protest against Christianity—or any religious conviction for that matter—but the strident tone with which they express it. Some observers note, however, that another novelty of this newest incarnation of unbelievers is a mind-bogglingly superficial understanding of their adversaries’ position. They may be articulate in their acerbity, but their arguments belie an impoverished understanding of history, logic, and theology.
Take for instance one argument from the most artful of the New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens. In his traveling debate with pastor Doug Wilson (the subject of the documentary Collision), Hitchens pointed to covetousness as one example of human nature that the Judeo-Christian faith had sadly reframed as sinful. To him, what the Decalogue calls coveting is a “perfectly healthy thing to do” because “the ambition of jealousy and emulation [is] the necessary spur to innovation and progress.” That people are “made to feel guilty” about coveting adds another plank to Hitchens’s case that Christianity is not good for the world.
What of his assessment? Why impugn coveting when its outcomes seem to have proven so fruitful? For that matter, why impugn envy, as Mark did last Sunday, since envy is itself a species of coveting? At the surface, coveting and envy may seem beneficial. But what lies beneath them reveals both their inherent danger and Hitchens’s fundamental misunderstanding of their nature.
Envy begins innocuously with comparison—of attributes, achievements, or acquisitions, of past or present circumstances, or of future prospects. But the innocuous turns invidious when the comparison becomes a complaint. “He doesn’t deserve (what I want),” or “I’m entitled to (what I don’t have)” are the thoughts envy sprouts. If the sprout is allowed to grow, the complaint blossoms into distress. Here the thoughts become “I’m nothing without (what I don’t have which they have)” or “I must have that and will pay any price to obtain it.”
Envy isn’t just bare desire. It’s discontentedness with the status quo that at first leads to dread, and then to a despising of the person with the sought-after attribute. Premised on powerful beliefs that one is entitled to what one doesn’t have—or worse, that one is unacceptable until they have it—envy often leads to obsessive pursuit. No, envy is not the harmless interest in acquisition that Hitchens portrays. It is an expression of the most profound self-deception. It represents an unsustainable motivation toward change.
Worst of all, envy is entirely devoid of love. You cannot love those you envy, because by definition envy refuses to rejoice in the good of another. (This point further undercuts Hitchens’s position, since his basis for morality in the absence of God is “human solidarity.” How can there be solidarity when we should encourage the coveting and envy that alienate humans?)
In defense of Hitchens, there is such a thing as a healthy competitive spirit that elicits determination and diligence. We must allow and encourage the kinds of human interactions that prompt a quest for excellence. Even the Proverbs acknowledge that “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (27:17). But envying cannot be the solution because of how it delivers discord instead of the love that keeps our pursuits from becoming obsessions.
Since love cannot exist where envy compels us, what can ensure that our pursuits are life-giving? The gospel of God in Christ—specifically these two aspects of its message:
- You are entitled to nothing but Hell.
- The only thing that can really make you acceptable is what Jesus has done for you.
Those may seem like awfully stark beliefs employed to ward off envy. But as they are embraced (how else can you explain the Cross if they are not true?) envy is turned back. You find reason to rejoice in what your neighbor is that you aren’t or what he or she has that you lack. And even where you seek to become what you are not or obtain what you have not, the gospel enables you to direct your energies in ways that are life-giving. You are no longer compelled by an arrogant view of yourself or of a desperate desire to be accepted. You give your entire self to something with the understanding that both your greatest need and your greatest good are found in God alone. Then love reigns.
It’s Thursday. Last Sunday, Mark challenged you to prayerfully consider whom you envy and what about them you envy—and then to reflect upon the Cross to see the irrationality of your envy—and, let’s be honest, its odiousness. Have you followed your pastor’s lead?