Love is the basis of Christianity and so it is only fitting that a Christian should consider what it is and what it is not. In this blog I will compare love and what I think is the opposite of love – envy. In the next blog I will talk about how love has important differences with empathy.
As Christians we know that craving anything before God is sin. Wealth is one of those things that can lead to sin. It, however, is not always intrinsically wrong to have property. Christ wants us to give to the poor. If giving them items caused them to be in sin, he would not ask us to do that. Moreover, the fact that we are commanded not to steal suggests that owning property is part of God’s plan and can be healthy.
If I tell you that country A has a wider wealth gap then country B many people would say that, in itself, is reason to think country B is better. I’m not one of them. If people in A are all wealthier then all of those in Country B I would rather live in A, even if I was at the low end of that gap. I would rather have more in absolute terms in country A even if relative to others in my own country I had less.
I know lots of people who have much more money than I do and I am glad they are in a situation where they can have that. Envy has actually been one sin that has not usually been a problem for me. But I do notice that my view is not shared by all. Some people do think inequality of wealth is itself a problem. Some people would rather have less themselves in absolute terms if it meant those around them had less as well. This seems to be a lose/lose option based on envy.
Envy is specially targeted in the tenth commandment. Envy is also a sin that is especially useful in fueling political and social movements. Envy of the Jews has lead to antisemitism. Socialism in particular uses envy to fuel it’s movements. See for example the Kulaks, and the Ukrainian Holodomor. Most politicians today do not talk about “the 1%” because they want to express how happy they are for the advantages they have.
Certainly I am not saying that all advantaged people “earned” their advantages. That is obviously not true. Some people are born smart or wealthy and this was obviously not “earned.” However, being born smart or wealthy is not itself an immoral action either. Don’t we wish we were born smart and wealthy – and good looks would have been nice too while we are at it. Is it not due to our love that we want our children to have advantages such as good friends, wisdom, family, and yes, at least, some material possessions?
Christ commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’
The Catechism quotes Saint Thomas Aquina’s short but effective definition of love:
Now let’s look at Merriam Webster’s definition of Envy:
painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage
I think this helps us understand the direct opposition between the envious heart and what Jesus commands. Instead of rejoicing that others have the advantages we also want, instead we react negatively toward others receiving the goods we want.
Again I am not saying we need to claim every advantage was earned. And indeed we should agree that some advantages are not only unearned but are unjust. If someone cheats someone else out of their property justice dictates they should not keep it. But we need to make sure we are not rationalizing and fueling our resentment of others having more when they did nothing immoral to get what they have. That would be envy, the opposite of love.
We can be envious even when someone did earn their advantage. And as for the unearned, if some people were born lucky, like we wish we were born, do we rejoice for them, or are we resentful? If we are resentful, obviously, we are not loving them as we love ourselves.
It seems to me that envy has as much claim to be the antithesis of love as hatred does. I may hate many things about someone as they are now but still hope good for them. Just as I can hate many things about myself and still hope good for myself. But envy directly fights against willing the goods for others that we will for ourselves.