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.

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The Fact of Sin: Reflections from Henry Fairlie

Henry Fairlie

I like the book of James. When given a choice in Greek 3 which New Testament book to translate, James was my pick. Its poetic expressions in the King James Version fired  my imagination, phrases like “perfect law of liberty” (1:25).

One can hardly address law from a Christian perspective without dealing with the concept of sin. When we become aware of God’s law, we automatically realize that we are lawbreakers, or sinners. This is apparent from the classical Wesleyan definition of sin as a “willful transgression of a known law of God “(see 1 John 3:4).

This essay is the first in a series of reflections on sin. To help focus our thoughts, we will dialogue with Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Notre Dame Press, 1978). Fairlie (1924-1990) was British by birth but spent much of his adult life in the United States as an essayist and journalist. He wrote for various publications, including the National Review and was fond of informal debate with the late Christopher Hitchens.

Henry Fairlie, a non-theologian who called himself a “reluctant unbeliever” (p. 6), entitles chapter 1 “The Fact of Sin.” Let us examine three subjects he raises in the chapter by answering these questions:

1) What is “sin” ?

2) What are the “seven deadly sins”?

3) Can psychiatry explain the reality of evil?

As we look at how Fairlie responded to these questions, it is hoped that we will gain greater insight into ourselves and each other. More importantly, we will more deeply appreciate how God’s saving and cleansing grace is the only solution to our sinful predicament.

What is “sin” ?

Fairlie describes sin in several ways. Simply put, sin entails “lapses in our conduct” (p. 3). More insightfully, he calls sin “an act of infidelity and not only of disobedience”; it is the act of “a traitor and not only of a criminal” (p. 9).

To be a sinner is to be a traitor. Scripture resonates with this, from when Adam and Eve betrayed God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22). Sin as betrayal underscores the relational nature of sin: “Sin is the destruction of one’s self as well as one’s relationships with others” (p. 4). When we ask ” Who is it hurting?” we are asking only a rhetorical question. Do we really want an answer? If we are honest, we will admit that by its very nature, sin is never solitary. Its painful consequences touch both God and other human beings. Accordingly, Fairlie (pp. 17-18) explains his reason for writing the essays in The Seven Deadly Sins Today :

They are written from the conviction that, as individuals and societies, we are trifling with the fact that sin exists, and that its power to destroy us is as great as ever; from the belief that much of the fecklessness and triviality, dejection and faintheartedness, wasting and corruption, which we now feel around us, in our personal lives but also in our common lives, have their source exactly where we do not choose to look.

Henry Fairlie accepts the concept of original sin – that we have inherited a “tendency” or “inclination” to evil from Adam and Eve – as long as this concept never becomes a reason to deny moral responsibility for our own actions. He clarifies (p. 19):

We will recognize that the inclination to evil is in our natures, that its existence in us presents us with moral choices, and that it is in making those choices that we form our characters. We may be given our natures, but we make our characters; and it if is in our natures to do evil, it can and ought to be in our characters to resist it. When we say that someone is a “good man” or ” good woman,” we do not mean that they are people from whom the inclination to do evil is absent, but that they are people who have wrestled and still wrestle with it.

Having tipped his hat to original sin, Fairlie (too optimistically) refuses to connect the dots. For him, sin is a “lapse,”  as if sin is an anomaly in our behavior. Yet Christian theology affirms the opposite. Sin is not a “lapse” but a symptom of a sickness. If we have better moments, these are but a reflection of God at-work in the lives of all through the influence of the Holy Spirit, what Wesleyans call “prevenient grace.” Even in the believer, what is good in me is most decidedly not me; rather, it is Christ shining out from me! All glory returns to God, who alone deserves it.

Nonetheless, Fairlie is correct when he insists that sin is not merely individual; it has corporate elements. It is not only persons that sin. Societies are also capable of sin (p. 25). It will be interesting to see if he applies this insight as he takes up the seven deadly sins in the remaining chapters of his book.

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