Tag Archives: envy

Eight Things You CANNOT do with 248.5 Billion Dollars

I just read that the combined net worth of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos is greater than the net worth of the poorer half of the population of the United States. These three men possess as much 160 million Americans, that is, $248,500,000,000. Should we be outraged at the injustice? Or, do we have to fight our temptation to envy? Do we resent them or admire them? Do we feel sorry for the poorer half of the nation, or do we make moral heroes of them? All of these and more are possible reactions. But I had another thought this morning.

Sometimes I think of what I could do with Gates-level wealth. I dream of the good I could do and, I admitted it, of the stuff I could buy, the fame I could have, and the influence I could exert. But not today. Today, I thought of all the things I COULD NOT do with $248,500,000,000. Here are my top eight things we cannot buy with any amount of money, not necessarily in order of priority:

  1. We cannot acquire the love of another person. Love must be freely given. If you want to be loved, you must love, love with no expectation of having that love returned. Attempt to purchase it and it will turn to dust at your touch.
  2. We cannot become good people. Virtue is acquired through God’s grace, reason, practice, and humility. Virtue consists in power over oneself to direct the self single-mindedly toward the highest good. It’s not for sale.
  3. We cannot buy God’s approval or sway his judgment. God does not judge as human beings judge. God knows and judges according to truth, and the standard by which he judges is his own perfect justice and love. In relation to God, all we can say is “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Receiving God’s approval should be our supreme desire. And you can’t order it from Amazon.com.
  4. You cannot buy an education. You can buy a teacher’s time, computers, and libraries of books. You may avoid having to spend your time working. You can afford to attend an expensive university. But rich or poor, learning is acquired by study. You can’t get it by writing a check.
  5. We cannot buy health. Being able to purchase excellent medical care is an advantage, for sure. But everyone dies, and cold viruses, cancer, heart decease, and genetic disorders do not distinguish rich from poor. Accidents do not check the financial position of their victims. We need other resources to deal with sickness and death: courage and faith and love. And you can’t charge them to your platinum VISA card.
  6. No amount of money can buy happiness, peace, or joy. In these states of mind we have a sense of fullness, of having everything we need, of wanting nothing beyond what we have. But no finite thing can establish these states as permanent. True and lasting happiness, peace and joy must be grounded in the knowledge of possessing and being possessed by the infinite source of everything good, God. And God is as close to you as your heartbeat. The one who has God has everything, but the one who lacks God will sooner or later find everything else worthless. And God’s purchase price cannot be translated into Dollars, Euros, or Pounds Sterling.
  7. You cannot change the past or buy forgiveness. Only God can work all things, bad and good, for good. Only God can forgive sin and heal sin’s evil consequences. You cannot absolve yourself of your sins; nor can you erase the memory of your guilt. The ghost of regret is immune to bribery.
  8. Banishing anxiety about the future is not within our power. Whatever safeguards you put into place, you cannot exorcize the specter of what could be. The possibilities for evil are as rich as our imaginations, or even greater. There is only one ground of hope, the faithful Creator. And there is only one way to benefit from this Ground, to surrender all hope in yourself and to trust God in life and in death. God’s reliability bears no relationship to our net worth, and trust is not a financial transaction.

I could have turned these eight points around and written about

“Eight Supremely Valuable Things You Can Enjoy Right Now Free of Charge.”

You can love and be loved.

You can become a good person.

You can enjoy God’s approval.

You can learn about God and God’s creation.

You can appreciate the health you have.

You can experience happiness, peace, and joy.

You can experience God’s forgiveness.

You can let go anxiety about the future.

At what price, you say? We don’t have to give up anything of real value. Quite the contrary, we get to trade in our worthless stuff, our pain, sadness, disappointment, despair, self-deception, pride, shame, and fear…. God will take those worthless things in exchange for things valuable beyond reckoning.

Perhaps envying, resenting or vilifying the rich or pitying, praising, or excusing the poor—understandable though they are—are not the most Christian, or even the most rational, responses to economic disparity. Perhaps we ought to learn to make our judgments according to the value system determined by God’s economy.

Ron Highfield’s Amazon author page:

https://www.amazon.com/Ron-Highfield/e/B001JS5TK8/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

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A Study in Vice

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.

Envy

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.

Jealousy

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.

A God to Envy: God and the Modern Self (Part 5)

Many of our contemporaries have been convinced that freedom is doing what you please, that dignity is indexed to autonomy and that happiness depends on pursuing unique desires and designing an identity that pleases you. How do such people react when hear that God is the creator and lord of all, that he is omnipotent, knows all and is present everywhere and that his laws must be obeyed? In earlier posts we explored three common reactions to God: defiance, subservience and indifference. In this post I want to reconstruct the image of God that exists in the mind of the modern self, so that we can see why it reacts so negatively to the thought of God.

 It may surprise us to discover that the image of God that evokes such a negative reaction in the modern self is an exact replica of the modern self’s image of itself. The modern self thinks its freedom, dignity and happiness depend on accomplishing its will, and it doesn’t readily tolerate competitors and limits. Put a bit more philosophically, the modern self understands its essential nature as pure, arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand itself without limits. It does not want to be limited by nature or law or lack of power; that is to say, the modern self wants to be as much like God as possible.

The modern self sees God’s nature also as arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand without limits. In the mind of the modern self, God and human beings have the same essential nature. Each is a will that desires to expand itself to encompass all things. And this understanding of the divine and human selves creates conditions that cause the modern self to react in defiance, subservience or indifference. Both God and human beings enjoy freedom, dignity and happiness only as they do their own will because it is their own will. But there can be only one being who always does his own will because it is his own will, and that is God.

For this reason, whether the modern self believes or not, defies, submits or tries to ignore, it sees God as a threat to its freedom, an insult to its dignity and a limit to its happiness. When the modern self hears that God is all-powerful it thinks, “So that’s it: God can do as he pleases and I cannot.” Thinking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the modern self feels vulnerable and naked: “Don’t I get some time alone. Can’t I keep any secrets?” Considering God’s other attributes, it complains, “How can I feel my worth when I am constantly told that God is Lord and I am not, that I am dependent, sinful, finite, and mortal and that I owe God my life and my obedience?” For the modern self, God occupies all the space and sucks up all the air. The conclusion is obvious: if only God can be God, only God can be happy! What a miserable conclusion!

Even if we admit that only God can be God and give up all hope of becoming God, we cannot give up the desire to be happy.  Hence we will nurse envy of God’s power and prerogatives and resent his position. In its heart the modern self asks, “Why is God, God? Why not me?” Its (false) understanding of divine and human nature as arbitrary will generates the modern self’s aspiration to become God and provokes its envy of God. And this understanding is the source of the three attitudes the modern self adopts toward God: defiance, subservience and indifference.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 5 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The God of the Modern Self”)

 Questions for Discussion

 1. How are the modern self’s understandings of human and divine nature connected? How does the concept of “pure, arbitrary will” apply to each?

2. How does defining human and divine nature as pure, arbitrary will guarantee that the modern self will view God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness?

3. Have you or does anyone you know resented God’s omnipotence? In what ways?

4. How does contemplating God’s complete knowledge of you make you feel? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever felt resentful or at least discomfort with the thought that God knows completely what you’ve done, what you have thought and are thinking?

5. Explore the ways the modern self’s image of God simultaneously provokes envy and resentment.

6. Discuss how each of the modern self’s three attitudes can be generated by its false image of God and humanity. Defiance? Subservience? Indifference?

 Note: Next we will examine in detail the “secret ambitions of the modern self,” that is, the specific ways in which it seeks unlimited freedom and absolute dignity.