I’ve been thinking a lot about envy and the destruction that it can create in our lives lately.
I suppose it’s only natural — after all, I’m the mom of a two-year-old and a soon-to-be four-year-old, and what can I say? Envy is an inescapable dilemma in my house. My children can be jealous of each other. They can fight with each other. Sometimes they want what their sibling is playing with and, when they can’t get what they want, they throw a tantrum.
And I hate it when this happens. I love my children so much, and to see the turn on each other and do their darnedest to destroy each other? That hurts on a level that I cannot even explain.
They are little and this sort of thing is natural, so I simply separate them, let them know that what they are doing is unacceptable and, if they cannot calm down, put them in time out. And I’ll tell them sometimes life isn’t fair and they can’t get what they want, no matter how much they might desire it. And I let them know (though they definitely don’t understand) that they’re dealing with jealousy and, if left unchecked, jealousy will turn them into monsters.
Of course, dealing with these sorts of issues on a constant basis, I’ve been thinking about my own life. How many times do I not get what I want, no matter how much I desire it? Do I ever get jealous or filled with envy because I can’t seem to get what I want? Do I get filled with bitterness or resentment or anger or rage whenever I am confronted with the fact that someone else is doing better than I am? Do I act upon this feeling?
And then I wonder, if it hurts me so much to see my children hurt each other out of envy… how much more so does God feel when He sees us destroy each other out of envy?
And, of course, this brought to mind the story of Cain and Abel:
1The man had intercourse with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, saying, “I have produced a male child with the help of the LORD.” 2Next she gave birth to his brother Abel. Abel became a herder of flocks, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the ground, 4while Abel, for his part, brought the fatty portion of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry and dejected. 6Then the LORD said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? 7If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.8Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out in the field.” When they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the LORD asked Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10God then said: What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! 11Now you are banned from the ground that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12If you till the ground, it shall no longer give you its produce. You shall become a constant wanderer on the earth. 13Cain said to the LORD: “My punishment is too great to bear. 14Look, you have now banished me from the ground. I must avoid you and be a constant wanderer on the earth. Anyone may kill me at sight.” 15Not so! the LORD said to him. If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged seven times. So the LORD put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him at sight. 16Cain then left the LORD’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
It’s a very raw and brutal scene that really illustrates the depths of depravity that we humans are capable of.
Now, there are many artworks that show Cain in the act of murdering Abel. But, I really like this picture because Cain is depicted very sympathetically. Take a look:
Abel lies dead, his head bloodies by a donkey jawbone, which tradition states is the weapon that Cain used against Abel. In the background, you can still see the fires of their smouldering sacrifices. Abel’s sacrifice is bigger and burns greater, while Cain’s is small and pitiful. And God comes down and confronts Cain for killing his brother.
But, look at Cain’s expression! It’s anguished. Then look at God’s expression! It’s angry! Had you not known the story, you could look at this picture and think that perhaps God is just attacking people and Cain is simply running away from God. In many ways, Cain looks like he feels that he is the victim!
And he does seem to feel like that, even if you just look at scripture! After God punishes him, he calls out, “My punishment is too great to bear.” Remember: Cain has just murdered his brother. In many places, murder is a death sentence. And yet, when God simply banishes him, which is a comparatively mild punishment, considering, he is upset by this because he thinks that he will be murdered. He thinks of himself as the victim!
And, I don’t know about you, but that makes me nervous. After all, when we are jealous or envious, how often to we punish other people — and feel completely justified for punishing them — just because we are envious? And we can punish in such creative ways too… my children will hit each other. I tend to make biting, hurtful remarks that I shouldn’t. Still others will go as far as Cain, murdering and destroying everything they can.
And the worse thing is, when we are called out on what we have done or said, we act defensive, as if we’re the victim!
But, God gives us a way to handle our resentment. Let’s take a look at the words He says to Cain, before Cain chooses to murder his brother:
6Then the LORD said to Cain: Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? 7If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it.
Sin lies at the door, and yet God assures Cain that he does not have to submit to this sin and can rule over it.
Then, later, in the gospel, Jesus explains this a little bit more:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? 48So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
That’s a hard commandment. Especially since forgiveness is not a passive thing. Forgiveness is active and sometimes requires you to do it over and over again.
Yet, you are in control when you forgive. You can rule over the sin.
And this is important. After all, when resentment is taking you over, let’s just face it — the people you resent feel like your enemies. The first instinct you have is to fight them. Which makes forgiveness all the more important.