Why unspoken envy kills, and how mercy brings us back to life

Sinful jealousy poisons our relationships and corrodes our souls from the inside out. It’s ingratitude on a feverish scale.

Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius. — Fulton J. Sheen

#48) Admit your jealousy to yourself and your confessor.

“I’m so jealous!” we comment under a friend’s vacation photos. “Jelly!” might be our kids’ Snapchat reaction to new clothes or a concert ticket. On the other hand, we often greet news of a colleague’s everyday woes and frustrations with “I don’t envy you!”

Jealousy and envy technically refer to two different situations. We are jealous of (unwilling to share) the people and things we love. We envy other people’s relationships, possessions, or good fortune. In practice, though, we use these words interchangeably.

When we talk openly about being envious or jealous, as in conversation or a social media post, these feelings are usually innocuous. In fact, our friends may understand our casual envy or jealousy as a compliment on their taste or congratulations on their good fortune, which is most often how we meant them.

So it’s hard to remember, sometimes, that envy is numbered among the deadly sins – the soul-killing vices that wither the impulse of charity in us, and harden us against receiving or sharing God’s mercy.

Shakespeare called jealousy “the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on” in Othello, his tragedy of envious ambition and jealous love. St. Paul lists jealousy among the “works of the flesh,” the nagging sins that choke out the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-21).

The big difference between sinful envy and our casual admissions of jealousy is that we keep the sinful envy to ourselves. We don’t speak it, because it’s too painful to admit how much our covetousness and insecurity and greed sour our feelings toward those who have what we think we don’t have. Instead of speaking envy, we act it out. Sinful jealousy turns so easily to spite – a creepy joy in others’ miseries. Sinful envy poisons our relationships with others and corrodes our souls from the inside out.

In the Inferno, Dante punishes the envious by having their eyes sewn shut with wire, because in life they drew pleasure from watching the downfall of others. In my own experience, though, envy doesn’t often involve the dubious pleasures of schadenfreude. It’s less about wishing ill on others than it is about feeling the ills of being “less than others” too severely. It’s ingratitude on a feverish scale.

Medieval artists, who depicted Invidia, the personification of the deadly sin of envy, as a skeletal wretch whose flesh was consumed by disease, had it right. Envy eats you from inside. And there’s nothing pleasant about it.

Pope Francis used his typically powerful descriptive language to talk about sinful jealousy in an October 22, 2014 general audience. “A jealous heart is a bitter heart,” he said, “a heart that instead of blood seems to have vinegar, eh! It is a heart that is never happy, it is a heart that disrupts the community.”

Gossip. Backbiting. Running people down. An inflated sense of entitlement. Betrayal in relationships. All of these pestilences erupt from that vinegar-filled heart. When we spend all our time aching for what we do not have, we have no time to be thankful for our unique giftedness, no energy to love or care for others. We don’t ask mercy of God, let alone grant it to others, because we’re paradoxically convinced we aren’t really worth it.

Deep down, we recognize our sinful jealousies as irrational and embarrassing. That’s why we don’t talk about them on Facebook, or to ourselves, or to God. This week’s suggestion for practicing mercy in the Jubilee Year – Admit your jealousy to yourself and your confessor – aims to break open that toxic silence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “To receive his mercy, we must admit our faults. ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’” (1847).

Augustine cautioned against thinking our petty sins don’t really make a difference:

While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession.

So let’s confess the green-eyed monsters to which we give house room. Yes, I envy – sometimes with a bitterness that chokes me – people in strong and loving and lasting relationships. My heart is basted with a vinaigrette of jealousy for other writers’ eloquence and page views and renown. I envy this one’s kindness, that one’s sanctity, his peaceful summer home, her commitment to physical and mental fitness.

Putting it out there like that, confessing both personally and sacramentally, works a kind of mercy miracle. By admitting what we long for, we can turn our envy into emulation, our jealousy into gratitude for the goodness our friends have and are, our sin into penitent conversion – our vinegar into the wine of joy.

Through the mercy of God and prayerful emulation, I can have and share all the good things I once envied, in the measure that God wants for me. And that is so much more than enough.