When Envy Seems Beautiful

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I’ve been working through and re-editing what I believe to be Jonathan Edwards’s greatest work, a book called Charity and Its Fruits. It is, even if in brief, Jonathan Edwards’s spiritual theology. Interestingly, it was really a sermon series through 1 Corinthians 13, the most over-read and under-lived Scripture references for weddings. One of Edwards’s tasks in the volume is to provide a series of reflections on virtues and vices. In his chapter on envy, he suggests that Christians often turn envy into something more palatable – we subconsciously tweak envy to try and make it seem virtuous. Edwards suggests that we do this in four ways: We 1) undermine the worthiness of the person we envy; 2) claim that our envy arises from a love to justice; 3) undermine the honor of the person we envy by questioning the use of their prosperity; and 4) question if the person we envy is spiritually mature enough for prosperity.

There are two things that Edwards sees clearly here. First, making up the second point, is that our subconscious functions in an attempt to justify our sin and turn it into something palatable – what ancients used to call beautiful vices. We turn envy into a zeal for justice. This point, secondly, builds on the other three, all of which turn our attention to the other person. Our hearts, out of self-protection, guard us by judging others. Envy leads us to conclude that others are not worthy, honorable, or mature, and therefore lifts us above others to judge them through our own elitist mindset. Envy is a fruit of self-exaltation, just as it is achieved through the degradation of others.

It is amazing how easy it is to let vices mold themselves into virtues through the depravity of our hearts, and often, as Edwards points out, that molding takes place through a false sense of who we are and a judging of others in relation to ourselves. We should recall how crowds of people reacted to Jesus, and reflect on how we respond to both Jesus and his people.