The Bible describes moral life in terms of virtues, vices, and actions. Virtues and vices have to do with dispositions of character. Actions concern movements from the self toward the external environment. The English word virtue derives ultimately from a Latin word that means power, that is, a learned skill that enables one to act appropriately. And the English word vice comes from the Latin word for fault, defect, or failing. A vice is not a power but a weakness, a lack of power. Virtues complement each other and together create harmony within the soul and promote harmony with others. Vices contradict each other and pull the soul in many directions at once and they set the vicious person against others. A virtue like courage or love is called a power because it enables us to act in a self-determined way regardless of the circumstances. Vices or weaknesses of character make us vulnerable to losing control of our behavior and becoming emotional slaves to our circumstances.
We cannot generate from within ourselves everything we need to survive. We are possessed with a desire for life. To live we need things that nature supplies. And to live well we need the companionship and cooperation of other people. That is to say, we have desires and those desires are rooted in human nature. One of the four cardinal virtues is temperance. Temperance is the power to restrain and direct our desires so that they achieve their natural purposes but do not lead us into behaviors that are damaging to ourselves and others.
In many New Testament translations, desire (epithumia), when it is not moderated and directed by temperance, is translated “lust.” In older translations, it is sometimes translated “concupiscence”, and Christian moralists sometimes designate it “inordinate desire” or “unnatural desire.” Lust or intemperate desire is a very general concept. It is made specific by the type of object desired. Lust has come to mean inordinate desire for sexual gratification. Inordinate desire for money is called greed or avarice. Inordinate desire for food is called gluttony, and inordinate desire for rest is called indolence or sloth. Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Sloth are four of the traditional seven deadly sins. These four are simple extensions of desire for physical things. The other three, wrath, envy, and pride, are more complicated and have a personal and spiritual component.
Now I want to consider vice of envy because it combines inordinate desire with another vice that intensifies its destructive power. Envy is more than desire; it is desire for what rightfully belongs to someone else. The envious person doesn’t simply desire the girl or boy, the car, house, or diamond. Envy is more than desire for recognition and reward. Envy resents the person who possesses something we want. As it grows envy becomes less about the desirability of the thing we want and more about the fact that the other person has it and we don’t. Why should you have the girl, the gem, or the money, and not I? Why should you receive the honor and not I? Envy leads to all sorts of bitter thoughts and rationalizations, which in turn find expression in faultfinding, gossip, and lying. The cold wolf of envy often cloaks itself in the warm robes of righteousness, justice, and fairness. He can call on God and all that is holy to justify his bitter judgment. And words can spiral out of control, producing anger, rage, hatred, and even murder.
The vice of envy illustrates well how sin against the neighbor is also sin against God. The question, “Why should he or she have that thing and not I?” is really an accusation against God. “God, why did you give the girl or boy, the money, or honor to that person and not to me?” If we trusted and loved God we would be satisfied with what he gives us. If we believed God loved us, we’d be satisfied with how God distributes his good gifts. And if we loved our neighbors, we’d rejoice with them over their blessings. Our tendency to envy others shows that we resent God and consider him unfair. If we believed that God is just, we’d leave judgment about who deserves what and who rightfully owns what to him alone.
The word jealously is often used as a synonym for envy. In my view, we should reserve them for different vices; they have different objects. Jealousy like envy involves a desire, but in jealousy’s case the desire is to keep what one already possesses (or what one thinks he or she possesses) from falling into the hands of someone else. And the object over which one is jealous is almost always a person, not a physical object. It can be a spouse, friend or relative. I may think I am entitled to the exclusive attention of my friend or parent or spouse. A jealous husband or wife, for example, grows inordinately angry at the attention another man or woman pays to his or her spouse and resents the spouse’s apparent enjoyment of this attention.
Jealousy like envy has deep roots. If we feel insecure about the faithfulness of our spouse or friends, will we burn with jealousy when they give or receive attention from another person. Jealousy, too, is inordinate desire, not simply the desire for affection and faithfulness from the beloved, but selfish to the point of robbing the beloved of living their own life. The jealous person demands not only that the beloved love them but that she or he love no one else. From this description, we can conclude that jealousy also refuses to love and trust God. If we loved God above all things and trusted his love for us, we would not be so devastated at the thought of someone else robing us of our beloved. If we hold on to God, we will know that all good things come from God and that he will take care of us even if we are betrayed. God will be faithful even if the whole world becomes faithless.
Jealousy also violates the second greatest command. Jealousy as inordinate desire seeks to absorb the beloved and rob them of friendships with others. It is far from a jealous person’s thought to rejoice in the beloved’s joys and successes or to glory in his/her development toward maturity. Jealousy produces nothing good. Instead, it drives the beloved spouse or friend further away. Though on one level the beloved might mistake jealousy for love, on another level the beloved knows that they are not loved at all but only valued as a means to a selfish end.
The jealous person places the desire to be loved above the desire to love, and here the inordinate nature of jealousy comes clearly in to view. The proper order of love is to accept God’s love and return that love to God in praise, trust, and obedience. Jealousy can find no soil in such a heart. The jealous person loves no one but themselves, and even this self-love is an illusion because “to love one’s self in truth is to love God.” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love). If you don’t love God or your neighbor, you cannot love yourself truly. For you don’t desire or strive for the best for yourself.
Now we are in a position to see why the New Testament warns against such dispositions of the human heart. Envy and jealousy indicate disharmony in a person’s character. Hence when they are expressed and acted upon, they create conflict rather than promoting harmony among people. Whereas people that display contentment, self-control, gratitude, and love can live together in harmony, people who envy and are jealous cannot get along with each other.
I don’t think we can free our hearts of envy and jealousy by sheer will power. As I said above vices are weak, thoughtless, and defective. They are not things to root out but holes that need filling. So, instead of attempting futilely to change ourselves, we should contemplate God’s love for us, trust completely in God’s faithfulness, and meditate on the true order of love, which is God, neighbor, and self. At the same time, we must put the virtues into practice in our external actions. We will find that our hearts follow.