Dear James (D)–The Slanted Gaze of Envy

Dear James,

There are two errors against which we must maintain our vigilance. The first is in rejecting outright the insights of Medieval Catholicism—to do this is to commit the “chronological snobbery” of which our friend Lewis wrote so eloquently. But the other, and opposite, error is to over-romanticize the medieval period. It seems to happen, often enough, that once a person gets a taste for a different worldview—one that can challenge his own with some effectiveness—he can begin to uncritically accept the whole of that other worldview and become blind to its inherent shortcomings. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to resist the urge to label certain time periods as “golden eras.” No such times exist—there are only present moments, and while we ought to view these present moments through the corrective lens of the past, we must never permit our love for old things to take us away from our duties in the present.

The whole idea of golden eras seems to me to be rooted in Envy. When I long for another time period I am commonly “looking over the fence” at some other era, which from the light of my present circumstances appears far greener and more lush. Perhaps I like the 1940s-60s, especially because it was a heyday for publishing. Or maybe I favor Pre-Reformation Europe simply because the reality of Christendom was an undisputed fact. Or perhaps any era but our own for how clergy were viewed by congregants and society alike! But the thing to note about such envious gazes is that we always choose the favorable and ignore the difficulties. Our sight is slanted. Perceiving a present difficulty (for example, in publishing, Christian identity, or clergy relations), some other era appeals on the simple basis that, to my understanding, in that era there was no such difficulty. What this ignores is that the figures from those eras were troubled by other, significant problems! Envy, in these circumstances, is tantamount to grumbling about my present problems.

I am reminded that the Israelites grumble when coming out of Egypt—they’re free from slavery, but they aren’t happy because they don’t have the cucumbers of Egypt! They’ve taken a present difficulty (a certain kind of hunger), and are looking now slant-eyed at the past (at least we were full, there!). Envy involves a distortion of vision—we no longer look at the world properly. In Envy we are blinded to the goodness of God in the present because we’re too busy longing for the things of the past, or the things possessed by others. In this way, Envy and ingratitude are the same. Envy also destroys our practical obedience. We’ve each got tasks to do in the present—a call, a vocation issued by God and determined by where we’ve been planted in faith. In Envy, I ignore the needs and duties that surround me while daydreaming about other needs, other duties. I preach badly to my congregation because I wish I was preaching at another, larger, more attentive, more Berean church up the road. I care poorly for the child who is interrupting me at the moment because I’m busy writing something that I perceive will be enjoyed by thousands. I fail to enjoy the simple meal in front of me because it isn’t as rich as the meal of my neighbor. And yes, I think the enjoyment of what is before me is an act of obedience, while the pretended enjoyment of what is not before me would necessarily be an act of disobedience!

That isn’t to say that we can’t think about the past, or look at other people’s lives, or even compare grasses across the fence. I think there is actually a more Godly form of Envy—not sinful, of course—which is one of our natural human emotions. It is the pleasure we ought to feel at another person’s success. Did you hear about X’s raise? I’m so pleased that God has blessed him in that way. Did you see Y’s new car? What a blessing for her! When someone we know experiences an accomplishment or a blessing which we haven’t, then it ought to be our response to celebrate with that person. In such celebration, I think it perfectly reasonable to piggyback our own desire for success upon their actualized success—not in imitation of theirs, but in the hope that we can achieve what is rightly our own. When someone wins a book deal, the response of wicked envy would be to wonder why it was not my book deal, or to complain about that person’s qualifications, or to generally grumble about the situation. The response of Godly Envy, however, would be to celebrate and rejoice with what God has done for that person, then prayerfully double-down on my own call. I have personally found this process to be one of the best tonics against Envy (the wicked kind)—to celebrate the successes of my companions and to pray actively for God to increase their successes. There is a great sense of joy in being released from the bondage of my own opinions regarding what is meritorious!

Fundamentally, the human creature is made to desire greatness, and yet not all of us will experience greatness in the same capacity. Envy creeps in and takes root when we begin to compare greatnesses and fixate on our own perceived deficiencies. The slanted gaze of Envy, thus, interrupts our call to the present moment. It will do no good to deny the existence of greatness or of merit, however. Some people will always be better than me, have more than me, and so forth. But they cannot fulfill the task which God has given to me to perform. Therefore a corrected Envy—the pleasure at another’s accomplishment—ought to reinforce my call to the present task.

Despite our summons to greatness, it is remarkable how quickly we can descend to the most astonishing pettiness, and hunger’s ability to bring us to such a place is unmatched. Envy at the fact that other people get to eat! But by God’s grace, the intentionality of fasting helps to expose our absurdity, and we are given fresh opportunities to pray through our focus on self, even going so far as to bless the Lord for the food others get to eat! Truly, a grateful heart is one in which envy can find no footholds.

Your mention in passing of a great church service has my interest piqued. Do tell me more in your next letter.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (8)–Equality and Justice

Dear James,

What a change! When you first wrote me, you were complaining about your pastor—now you are defending him! I guess that sitting down and listening to him has had some effect on your perceptions, after all.

Don’t hold yourself too much to blame for this group which have gone after him so doggedly. I think, from what you’ve told me, that you did your best to avoid this kind of action. Now, because of your friendship, you can see the effect this has on him personally. One group, who sees only their grievances, are now attacking a man who perceives only their anger. Of course, I’m not suggesting that these grievances shouldn’t come to light—it is important that your pastor deal with these concerns and deal with them directly. But I am grateful that, at this difficult point in his pastoral career, he has at least one friend in the congregation who can advocate for him.

In this, I think I perceive a couple of different roles for you. The first is that you continue to serve as a friend to your pastor. Walk alongside him and be a listening ear to his concerns. Attempt to help him hear what the aggrieved brothers and sisters are saying, but to hear it well. But second, as a friend you also need to be a discerning voice for him—that is, to help him discern the voice of God in the midst of all this. If, as you have told me, he has drifted from the Scriptures, is uninspired as a preacher, is overly focused on social issues, and overall has lost some passion for ministry, then within the bounds of relationship bring those subjects up. Have a long talk together and ask the question, “What is God saying to you in the midst of this?” He might say, “I feel like I want out.” Or he might say, “God is saying nothing to me right now.” Or he might say something else still. Whatever it is, take advantage of this opportunity—as difficult as it is for him—and make use of it to speak into his life for the Lord’s sake. I pray that you will be truly surprised by the outcome.

It is interesting, given our recent discussions, how this episode reveals some of our topics. Observe, for example, how power has switched places in these relationships. Just a short while ago, your minister held the power—in his pulpit and his sense of church authority. Now, because of this committee and the elders’ intervention, he has lost that power and is in a position of scrutiny and weakness. Where before the members felt weak, now they feel the heady rush of power. And you can already see how dangerous this is for them. Because they have not examined their motives carefully, their attitude toward power is now motivated more by envy than by grace—they are seeking reparations in response to their perceived wrongs, rather than justice for the heart of their minister. If they are not extremely careful, he will become simply a victim of their abuse of power—and not only him, but the next minister who comes to serve you as well. Once a group like this begins to abuse power, unless it is checked their abuse will continue on and on. I’m reminded of something from the Proverbs,“Under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is filled with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maid when she succeeds her mistress.” Whenever there is a sudden switch in power, the envy, bitterness, and vengeance of the originally weak party is given life and vitality by its new empowerment. And power without character is like a driver’s license in the hand of a child—someone is going to get hurt.

Once again this illustrates the illusion of “equality” as well. There is no such thing as equality. It is one of the more generally accepted lies of our recent century (especially in political discourse) that a belief in equality is one of the most important things we hold. But it simply isn’t true. In every situation, in every relationship, in every discourse and exchange, there is a fundamental inequality at work. No two people on earth are equal—in strength, intelligence, vitality, wealth, capacity for work, capacity for leadership, and so forth. You and your pastor are unequal in training, and at this moment your pastor and the committee formed against him are unequal in position and authority. And now, having found new power, the committee will attempt to “equalize” the situation by squelching and scrutinizing your pastor further. But this is not equality either, so much as it is a violent flattening.

These ideas have found footholds in the church as well, particularly through passages such as Galatians 3:28, where Paul says that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Now, at a surface level, we might conclude that this is a clear statement of equality in the church, but a careful reading muddies that clarity. For one thing, in this passage (as in similar lists in Paul’s other letters) Paul is at pains not to equalize the church, but to neutralize the advantages traditionally offered to certain classes. In other words, we get no special benefit towards salvation by virtue of our Jewish heritage, free status, or masculine gender. All the traditional, social advantages are nullified in Christ. But at the same time, this does not mean that roles are eliminated, nor does it mean that all these individuals are “equal” in the church. The New Testament makes no provision for freeing slaves, but rather for the conduct of both slaves and masters within the established economic system. The New Testament has almost nothing to say about “women’s rights” as we would conceive them, but instead makes provision for the conduct of husbands and wives within the established system. In other words, the New Testament assumes inequality, then prescribes just actions in accordance with those inequalities.

This factor is very important to keep in mind, especially since holding bad ideas about equality has messed up our perceptions of justice (and this is why justice today is so often flavored by envy, greed, pride, and wrath). Believing that “everyone should be equal” we have utilized justice as the mechanism which equalizes individuals. Have you worked twice as much as person X? Rather than it being just that you are paid twice as much as X, the thinking generated by false equality says that it is “just” to pay you equally. Did your parents or grandparents work hard to provide you with a better life? Justice today claims to strip those advantages and give them to another. Equality under the law (a great principle of the modern age) does not mean that “everyone gets the same.” It means that each person is judged impartially by the law—it means that the laws, which preserve our freedom, judge the wealthy and poor alike, the powerful and the weak the same. Justice, then, is a measure of my own right-relatedness toward my resources, my God, and my neighbour. I have been entrusted with X—am I utilizing X according to the law of God? I have a relationship with God—am I living in accordance with the dictates of His commands? I have a relationship with my neighbour—am I above reproach in regard to my conduct with that individual? Justice, you see, is therefore slightly different for each person (but not radically different).

And all this comes back to the situation with your pastor, of course, because you are now accountable in all three areas. Is your conduct upright before God—your conversations, your thought life, your prayers for him? Is your conduct with what God has given you upright—your authority and influence within the church, your friendship and experience with the pastor? And is your conduct with these other members upright as well—are you seeking true justice together, or vengeance? And that might be one of the most important questions of all—what will be the just action of your church? If they run away with their anger, they will wound their pastor and themselves in the process. What does God want for him? What does God want for them? And what does God want for you? You see that true justice is impossible without a conviction of what God wants, and that right action in these circumstances requires a clear understanding of the underlying inequality.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios­