Celebrating others’ misfortunes: Henry Fairlie on envy

I’ve never been a fan of the National Enquirer. They really ought to change their name to the National Meddler. To the captive audience in a narrow check-out line, it broadcasts the failings and misfortunes of the prominent. Such headlines should evoke our pity, not our delight. Does anyone deserve such brutal gawking?

What lies behind our frequent urge to tear people down? In Chapter Two of The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame, 1978), Henry Fairlie answers the question. Reveling in the bad things that happen to others is a sign of envy, or invidia. Of all sins, Fairlie calls it the “nastiest, the most grim, the meanest.” It is “sneering, sly, and vicious” (p. 61), hence the expression to be “green with envy.” While other sins (suggests Fairlie) can give what seem to be “moments of elevation,” envy is “servile” and “never straightens its back” (p. 62). It poisons not only the ones whom it targets but those who wield it as a weapon.

Let us first consider briefly what envy is, as explained in the Bible and clarified by Henry Fairlie. Next, we’ll look at some of the negative social effects of envy in modern life, outlined in Chapter 2. Finally, we’ll conclude with what Fairlie prescribes as God’s remedy for envy.

Envy in Scripture and in life 

The boomerang effect of envy is clear in Job 5:2 – “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple.” Likewise, Proverbs 14:30 advises that “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Jesus taught that envy is one of the evils that come from inside of us, a vice that (among others) ends in our defilement (Mark 7:21-23). Finally, Paul lists envy as one of the characteristics of idolatry, of those whom God has given over to a “depraved mind” – see Romans 1:28-30.

In short, the Bible underscores the deleterious effects of envy. Envy goes beyond covetousness, the Tenth Commandment in the Decalogue. It looks at a promotion received by another or a fine talent and wishes that the other did not have it, since in comparison he or she feels inadequate: “The envious person is moved, first and last, by his own lack of self-esteem, which is all the more tormenting because it springs from an inordinate self-love” (p. 67). Slothful, it seeks to tear down the good name of others, an offense that Fairlie calls “second only to murder” (p. 66).

Here one may quibble with the author. Envy may be slothful, but it can also exist among the hard-working. When an industrious person is passed over for a promotion in lieu of one who is less qualified but politically better connected, he or she may be tempted to lash out from envy.

As a boy, I successfully challenged the answer of a good friend in a teen Bible quizzing match, leading to his disqualification. If I had let it pass, we would have advanced together to the next level of competition. At first, I was self-righteous about my motives. A wrong answer is a wrong answer, is it not? Only time has exposed my green-eyed envy of his achievement that day, an envy stemming from my buried resentment that he was a notch or two brighter than I, and so I had to study harder than he did to succeed. Surely I deserved the bigger trophy that day, not him! Our close friendship never recovered, despite later awkward attempts at reconciliation between us. Envy can result in lasting damage.

Modern manifestations of envy

Where Henry Fairlie shines is his ability to tease out how society has been shaped by the seven deadly sins. When it comes to envy, the effects are stark. The first effect is a delight in the ill-fortune of those who may have known some measure of success (p. 67):

We wait in ambush for the novel that fails, for the poet who commits suicide, for the financier who is a crook, for the politician who slips, the priest who is discovered to be an adulterer. We lie in ambush for them all, so that we may gloat at their misfortunes. It has long been recognized that schadenfreude – joy at the suffering of another – is a peculiar mark of our age; but Envy makes us no less despicable – in the face of the good fortune of another, by making us capable only of despising what is admirable. There is little now that we honor.

If that was true in 1978, how much truer is it today? What a far cry from the re-affirming words of John to his flock: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). He congratulated excellence where he saw it. Do we?

A second insightful observation from Henry Fairlie is his drawing the connection between envy and consumerism. He laments: “We are hardly citizens at all except as consumers” (p. 72). Earlier (p. 69), he noted: “One of the most uncomfortable facts about our economic system is that it is bound to incite Envy in those to whom it must sell. It must persuade everyone to want what everyone else has.”

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans were ready to pitch-in to do anything necessary to protect our country. Many lined up to give blood for the injured, but that seemed insufficient. For all of his adept leadership in the days following the attack, surely President George W. Bush could have assigned more noble tasks to those who were too old to join the military but wanted to contribute something sacrificial toward an historic national cause. Instead, he simply urged Americans to keep the economy strong. Is this the sum total of what citizens can and should do?

Thankfully, Acts 2:44-45 presents a model that – while not communism, as some have wrongly argued – nevertheless values Christian community over consumerism:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone as he had need.

Envy cannot take root when we lead lives that are open-handed.

Love, God’s prescription for envy

After nineteen pages of hard-hitting social commentary, Henry Fairlie would have done better to end with several optimistic pages. Thankfully, in one paragraph, he gives at least a glint of hope!  Though envy like an illness has penetrated every level of our society, God has prescribed a cure (p. 80): “The correction of Envy in theology lies in our love of God, whose meaning even the irreligious can understand and to some extent emulate, our love of our neighbor as ourselves, and of course our love of enemies.”

In James 5:20, the one who lovingly brings back the person who has “wandered from the truth” accomplishes two things:

1. The sinner is saved from death;

2. He or she covers over a multitude of sins.

To whom do those sins belong? The natural reading seems to indicate that those sins belong to the one who has wandered. But I wonder: Could James also be referring to the sins of the person who is instrumental in bringing back the wanderer? If my attention is focused in love on bringing back the person who has strayed, I will be too busy with the Lord’s work to waste my time envying others. If “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop” – as the proverb claims – then let us be so busy looking after the spiritual welfare of others that we have no time left for envy or other deadly sins. By keeping busy, we will “cover” (give no opportunity to) a multitude of our own sins!

Conclusion

Henry Fairlie has written an insightful chapter on envy. As he makes clear, much of what ails us as a society finds its roots in our hearts. The solution may be found when each of us looks in the mirror. Are we part of the solution, or because of our envy of those more successful than ourselves, have we become part of the problem?

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Next week we’ll tackle Chapter 3, the third deadly sin, “anger or ira.” Join me as together we explore not just the problems, but the God-given solutions to our heartfelt needs.

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All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (Zondervan, 2004).

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Photo credits:

Green eyes: Dr. Amy Johnson

U.S. currency: Monkee.com

Prodigal son: Broken Believers

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2 thoughts on “Celebrating others’ misfortunes: Henry Fairlie on envy

  1. In responding to your last paragraph before the conclusion, I wonder if it’s not just as possible to succumb to pride and/or envy when assessing the spiritual wellbeing of another. If so, it would be understood that this version would obviously be more acceptably holy?

    • That’s a fair point, Gary. I think Jesus was right on when he spoke of logs and splinters, and removing our own before we can help anyone else. Gal. 6:1 is also helpful, Paul’s plea to restore others “gently” but also to watch out for temptation. (This relates to your comment on pride/envy, I think). The old-timers used to talk about “having a burden” for someone. In other terms, the Holy Spirit moves us with compassion for the spiritual welfare of others. In any case, there really is no room for self-righteousness in the process!

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