Douglas Wilson’s Letter From Moscow

The Crawling Snake of Envy

Douglas Wilson
July 25, 2014
I said recently that envy is the great invisible driver in our modern political conflicts. On what basis can I say this, and is this not a case of trying to read hearts?

First, we see the simple statements of Scripture as treating envy as public, visible, identifiable. But first, hold your horses. A bit further down, I will conclude by reconciling my point that envy is “visible,” and yet is the “great invisible driver.”

So then, where does Scripture describe envy as a public kind of sin? Pilate knew why Jesus was on trial before him, and it had nothing to do with the actual charges.

“For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy” (Mark 15:10).

Stephen, narrating the story of Joseph and his brothers, interpreted their hostility toward Joseph as driven by envy, even though the Genesis account doesn’t mention the envy by name (Gen. 37:4). The writer of Genesis says that the brothers saw that Jacob loved Joseph more, and they hated him — which is an instance of envy.

“And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: but God was with him” (Acts 7:9).

Luke records the fact of mobs forming, but he is also able to tell (at a glance) why they were forming.

“But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming” (Acts 13:45).
“But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people” (Acts 17:5).

Failure to see envy is therefore not an instance of nobly refraining from reading hearts. It is actually a refusal to read the story. So then, do not try to read hearts, which only God can do, but feel free to read the story. Envy has public manifestations, and if you have those manifestations, then you have envy. That is what you are reading.

In addition to the fact that envy results in very public behavior that is readily identifiable, the Scriptures also teach us to see envy as a driving element of all conflicts. So to ask whether or not envy is present in our politics can be answered by asking whether conflict is present in our politics. Conflict is the smoke, but envy the fire.

“From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not . . . Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?” (James 4:1-2, 5).

What does envy travel cheek by jowl with? Who are its traveling companions? Well . . . “envy and strife” (Phil. 1:15), “envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings” (1 Tim. 6:4), and “malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Let me ask a simple question — in our political contests, do we have strife, railings, evil surmising, malice, and hatred? Sins are like grapes — they come in bunches, and with this variety of grape, envy is chief among them. In our modern political discourse, envy is like a rancid cluster from Eshcol, with two socialists carrying their economic agenda on a pole between them (Num. 13:23). It is not at all hard to identify — I mean, the grapes are the size of baseballs.

This just in. Michael Moore, champion of the working guy, is the owner of nine houses, including a Manhattan condo. Am I revealing an envious heart along with these details? Not a bit of it! I don’t want to take away any of his houses, and in fact, I am willing to wish that he acquire a couple more. What I wish he would lose is the Everyman Shtick. And the baseball hat.

Envy is the purloined letter of vices. It is hidden in plain sight. For those who have eyes to see, it is everywhere. For those who have a vested interest in not seeing it, things are quite different. Vested interests are quite an interesting phenomenon. As Upton Sinclair put it once, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And it is impossible to get a man to see something when his entire notion of a self-identity and respect depends upon his not seeing it. Men can take perverse pride in a lot of vices — drunkenness, fornication, anger, pride, casino heists — but no one wants to acknowledge the crawling snake of envy, however big it is — that dark impulse to hurt anyone who seems to have a superior capacity for happiness. It is almost impossible to see that snake without feeling like a snake, and so we have whole industries and political movements dedicated to helping us not see what we in fact are.

So what I mean is that envy is visible in principle, for those who have the vantage to see it, but that it is invisible whenever it is pridefully unacknowledged — which is virtually all the time.

We are in fact an envy-ridden people, and to see that fact straight on would be indistinguishable from repentance. And so we don’t look at it straight on.
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