While the words “envy” and “jealousy” are frequently used interchangeably in ordinary conversation, theologians make a distinction between the two. Both envy and jealousy cause a selfish sadness at someone else’s good fortune. Both of them spring from the feeling or conviction that one’s stature, or image, or prestige is diminished by what someone else enjoys. ENVY, which a more general term, is sadness or displeasure at the temporal or spiritual good of another, because it is believed that in consequence our own excellence or image is lessened. Unlike the humble St. John the Baptist who said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” the envious person is saddened by the “increase” of another, seeing it to occasion his own “decrease.” JEALOUSY, on the other hand implies, in addition to the above, that one has an exclusive possession of something. Jealousy is simply an acute form of envy, a more exclusive form of selfishness that wants some good to be one’s exclusive possession, and that is unwilling to share that possession with another. For example: the dislike of hearing another praised instead of receiving the praise oneself is envy; while the unhappiness or sadness resulting from some friend being with, or being attracted to another, is jealousy.
There is, of course, such a thing as a just and righteous jealousy, for the Scriptures speak of the jealousy of God. “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). This refers to God’s right to the undivided faithfulness of men and their trustful dependence. His jealousy was just, and His anger was righteous when the Israelites turned to other gods. There is also such a thing as a just and righteous jealousy on the human level, where one has a true right to the exclusive possession of another’s affections, as in the case of married spouses. However, a married person would be displaying a jealousy that is not righteous, if he or she indulged in unfounded suspicion of the other partner’s faithfulness, or if one denied to the other the enjoyment of normal human friendships which in no way intrude into the area of marital faithfulness.
Because there is much overlapping in the concepts of envy and jealousy, the latter being simply a particular kind of envy, we will be using both of the terms in the same general sense in much of what follows in these reflections.
The vices of envy and jealousy, like the pride from which they spring (which seeks inordinately one’s own glory and exaltation), are so deeply rooted in our fallen nature that they are hidden from the view of the others, and in some measure even from ourselves. That is to say, we do not realize how much we ourselves are not entirely free from the selfish tendencies described above. We do not, in fact, always succeed in detecting the hidden motive of envy in our words and actions. The hiddenness of these vices aids their growth. Yet, if allowed to grow, they can gnaw away at one’s inner self until they poison the heart making it incapable of Christian love. Occasionally one’s feelings may break out into the open and reveal what has lingered for some time beneath the surface in our mind and heart. It takes an honest and humble person to admit the presence of these vices within himself.
We are slow to admit even to ourselves that we are guilty of so mean a sin, and still less inclined to admit it to others. One test of this is: how often have we asked pardon for it in the Sacrament of reconciliation? Yet, little by little there can grow such an unhappiness at another’s success that it can develop into a hatred for the person preferred before us. We may feel we have worked equally hard, that we are equally well-prepared, perhaps better prepared; yet the other was chosen. It takes a truly humble and charitable person to accept such a situation without some trace of envy.
The distinctive malice of the vices of envy and jealousy comes from the opposition it implies to the key virtue of charity. The law of love requires that we rejoice rather than be sad or distressed at the good fortune of another. As St. Paul stressed speaking of fraternal charity, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Yet the envious person tends to do just the opposite, to be sad at another’s good fortune, and to rejoice at his failure. Such an attitude is a direct contradiction of the spirit of solidarity that ought to characterize the Christian community. In both envy and jealousy love of neighbor is displaced by love of possessions, whether the possessions be tangible (e.g. wealth), or intangible (e.g. fame, talent, virtue, etc.)
When one is jealous of the friendship of another (wants it to be exclusive), the happiness of the friend counts for little or nothing unless such happiness comes through the jealous one. Such is not true love, it is pure selfishness. When a friend is happy we ought to rejoice in his happiness, no matter from what source it springs, as long, of course, as it does not spring from wrongdoing. It is clear, then, that jealousy is a sadness that springs from inordinate love of self rather that from true love of another, and it deprives one of happiness instead of giving it. Friendships, unlike the relationship of spouses, do not confer the exclusive right of possession.
Not all displeasure at another’s good fortune is sinful. For example: the good received by another may be undeserved, as when an unworthy person is advanced to a position of trust and responsibility; or when the good received may create a nuisance for others, as when a neighbor boy receives a bugle for Christmas; or when the good received may be harmful to the one who receives it, as when much money comes suddenly to a person who lacks the virtue to make good use of it.
The sin of envy does not consist in wishing we were as well off as someone else, nor is it the mere desire of equal success of another. That is a perfectly natural feeling. It is not the same as a competitive spirit. We might recognize someone’s good points, and wish we had them, and strive to emulate them, even pass him up if we can, without envying him at all. Fr. Bede Jarrett, O.P. expressed this idea well in writing on the topic of jealousy.
In these matters trouble enters in only when the motive is wrong. If it simply the wish to have what others have, or to compete with them fairly, there is nothing wrong with that. But if I am dominated by a secret dislike of other people enjoying what I wish to be exclusively my own, that indeed is jealousy.
Usually jealousy is found only among persons whose life and characteristics are on fairly equal terms, and generally it concerns some matter of public recognition. For example, a frailly built fellow sitting on the sidelines might wish he had the physical build of the captain of the football team, but he is not envious of him. The fellow who would be envious of him is the unhappy fellow member of the team who feels that he should have been made captain, and that he would have been if the one best qualified had been chosen.
The sin of envy is listed among the capital sins which are customarily enumerated as follows: pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Each of us, by reason of original sin, have inherited a tendency to each of these seven vices—usually referred to as a tendency to evil. Capital sins are so called, not because they are the worst of all sins (for sins springing from any of the above seven vices can be grave or light depending on circumstances), but because each of them is a root source of many other sins, which theologians refer to as “daughters” of the capital sins. For example, among the “daughters” of envy are resentment, bitterness and petty back-biting, tale-bearing and detraction, calumny and defamation, and other such shameful reactions. Eventually, it can lead to hatred and a desire for revenge, which can bring delight at the other’s misfortune, and sorrow at his good fortune. Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. refers to these offsprings of envy as follows:
The envious or jealous person, as we will see, is capable of going to any length, no matter how sinful, no matter how damaging, to vindicate himself. At times he will attempt to deprive another of the good name he enjoys by pointing out his faults, by minimizing any good he may do, thereby undermining his good name and reputation. By this vice spiteful stories are spread abroad, reputations are ruined, and hatred is engendered which often does not hesitate to take human life. As the Scriptures testify, “where there is jealousy and strife, there also are inconstancy and all kinds of vile behavior.“ (James 3:16)
Much harm is done to religious and charitable causes because of envy and jealousy. In Church organizations, in choirs, in charitable projects, etc., good work is often hindered because of persons or cliques working against one another due to envy. In fact, there are more good causes, even apostolic causes, that come to naught, or are at least rendered much less fruitful because of infighting due to envy, than from all the external obstacles or challenges that confront them. How well the devil knows our weaknesses, and how cleverly—by means of them—he can disrupt or impede many good works.
Envy and jealousy are by their nature grievious sins, because they are directly opposed to charity by which we bound to love our neighbor as oneself: to rejoice at his good fortune and happiness, and feel sad when evil and misfortune come his way. Both of these vices are among those St. Paul says exclude from the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:21). While in individual cases the moral evil of these sins may be light when they are concerned only with trivial things, or because of inadvertence or only partial consent, they can be grave sins indeed as numerous examples from the Scriptures clearly show. To mention just a few:
1 ) If we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that we can’t help feeling jealous at times, since our feelings are not completely under control. In a similar way we can’t help but feel the hurt of harsh criticism. Yet, in both cases the will need not consent to an uncharitable response. It is only when jealous feelings overpower the light of reason causing us to react in a foolish and uncharitably manner, that we succumb to this vice. It is important that we strive not to let our feelings dominate our thinking and lead us to spiteful desires and actions. To overcome such feelings we should ask God’s help through prayer, for without that help our proud and selfish nature would surely react in ways not in keeping with charity. If we should suffer because someone is preferred to us, reflect that Christ was treated in the same way. Barabbas was preferred to Him by the Jewish people for whom He had done so much. We can grow spiritually by offering to the Father the pain we experience in such cases, in union with that of His Son. Becoming Christ-like must involve sharing some of the things He suffered.
2) If we would make headway against envy, we must strive to undermine the sources from which it springs. At times one can be envious of the material wealth of another. Such a one would gain much from striving to direct his heart toward the eternal riches of heaven that, once attained, can never be lost. He must at the same time strive to detach his heart from the earthly goods that enslave his heart . . . riches that can easily be lost, and that he cannot take with him to the life beyond. He would do well to reflect on St. Paul’s assurance that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him.” (l Cor. 2:9). In heaven each soul will differ in glory, according to the growth of grace at the end of his earthly life. Yet there will not be the slightest tinge of envy because another soul has a greater capacity to share in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. Rather there will be only thanksgiving and praise and adoration of an infinitely loving Father who has given so much to all the Blessed. With perfect charity, each one will love all others as he loves himself, and will rejoice in their exaltation and glory as he does in his own.
3) Since envy is directly opposed to charity, which desires the good of one’s neighbor, and rejoices in his prosperity, one will find a powerful remedy against envy in striving (through prayer and effort) to practice fraternal charity. We are all members of Christ’s Body, and as members of the same body, the true gain of another can only rebound to my good, and his loss to my loss. “If one member suffers anything, all members suffer with it; or if one member glories, all members rejoice with it" (I Cor. 12:26). Too, charity requires that we “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) and not add to them, as the envious person does by seeking to improve his own image by belittling another. We must learn to school ourselves to see good motives instead of bad in the conduct of others, to spend ourselves in helping others and to watch over our conversations where any trace of envy will find expression. Since God’s command is that we “love our neighbor as ourself," charity—which is the fulfillment of that command—requires that we rejoice in their merits, their virtues, their glory, their victories . . . as if they were our own. It should be clear, then, that in the measure that charity grows, envy will disappear.
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