Life and What is Missing
The Beatitudes and the Seven Deadly Sins
part 2: Envy and Those who Mourn
Why are we here? What is our purpose? I remember the day that question first struck
me. I was young; I had no idea how to answer it. As I grew older, in school we were introduced to the world’s great literature. I became aware that this question has been the primary human quest ever since our ancestors learned to record their thoughts in writing.
We all want to know, what constitutes “the good life” or, “the life well lived”? Who gets to say?
Once we start going down that path, we quickly come up against other profound and universal human questions: Who is God? How do we relate to God? What does he want from us? How should we live?
Which leads us to ask, “Why are things the way they are?” “Why am I the way I am?” “Why is the human condition such an obstacle to living the well lived life?”
Our Story and the State of the World We are descendants of a long line of people who have asked these questions. They have left for us a written record of their quest. We open our bibles at the beginning and find a world created as a perfect, fruitful garden; a man and a woman, in harmony with their garden, with each other, and with their Maker.
But quickly storm clouds form, the sky darkens, prideful choices are made, and suddenly the story is a world-gone-wrong story. It is a story of a broken world. The fruitful garden is left behind, replaced by stoney, thorny land that yields fruit only after sweat and toil. Harmony turns to enmity outside the garden. Envy between bothers, Cain and Abel, becomes fratricide. This is now who we are: descendants of the choosers of evil over good, inheritors of the sins of pride and envy, living in a world of violence, of shame and of regret.
An Intervention Story
There would be no point in telling the story if this were its conclusion, but it is not. As unlikely as it should be, the story becomes an intervention story. God’s purposes for the good world he created have been challenged by evil, but he has not abandoned his world.
God intervenes by calling one man and one woman, one family, out of all the families of the earth. He calls Abraham and Sarah, binds himself to them and to their descendants by solemn covenant, and makes an eternal promise. They will become bearers of a blessing whose final objective is worldwide. As far as the scope of the evil in the world, so is the scope of the blessing they will bear. They will become a light to the nations.
But, a promise, even a God-made promise, is different from a final solution. The pride and envy that characterized the beginning of evil in the world does not stop because a promise has been made. The world is still a world-gone-wrong; a world not as it was meant to be.
The Climax of Intervention
Eventually this intervention story reaches its climax. God intervenes by entering the story as a human character – God in human flesh.
Jesus comes, not to float above the earth, but to make footprints in its dust, to be soiled by direct contact with earth. He comes to completely identify with the pool of humanity that lives life, both hating the world’s wrongs and perpetuating them. His total identification with this world takes him down into the waters where they gather in repentance, and to be baptized with them.
As he emerges from the waters the heavenly voice proclaims him God’s unique Son. He is the intervention the world has waited for ever since they left the garden. He is the one authorized by the decent of the Spirit of God to speak to our deepest questions. He is the one who gets to say: why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the nature of the life-well-lived? What has gone wrong? How should we then live?
Life as it should be lived
He gathers together people who long to hear God speak his word into this world-gone-wrong. They come to a mountain, Jesus stands at the top to teach the meaning of the well-lived-live in the context of a world-gone-wrong.
“Blessed” he says, “are the poor in spirit” – those who feel no shame in crying out to God, because they know that no other source has any hope of helping their deepest needs, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Theirs is the knowledge that this world-gone-wrong is not the only reality; that God is at work, and is present, and is ready to respond to those who humbly seek him. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Jesus continues, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Trying to help modern people like us understand the admittedly archaic sounding word “blessed” some translations use the word “happy.” This beatitude shows most clearly why happiness cannot be the point; no one can be both happy and mourning at the same time, unless we distort the meaning we usually give to one word or the other. This beatitude says that the spiritually mature perspective on the world is one that mourns.
Mourning a World-Gone-Wrong
And how could it be any other way? This is not the world of the Garden anymore. This is a world in which evil has fouled the nest.
In this world, it is right to mourn for children who grow up without love of father and mother. We mourn for families in which violence, instead of shelter, happens behind closed doors. We mourn for a world in which young people are seduced into lives of addiction, become the prey of drug dealers, and then become predators themselves.
We grieve for a world in which people lose confidence in their own dignity as they search in vain for meaningful employment. We grieve that there are sick people who are shut out of health care. We lament a world polluted by lethal chemicals. We grieve over bodies exploded in market places, over women kept in ignorance and submission, over people sleeping on the streets in the winter, over hunger, poverty, disease; how could a person alive in this world look around and not mourn?
How could we not mourn for a world in which the best and brightest of us still, after all this time, cannot come up with efficient systems of help without creating bloated systems of dependency? How can we not grieve for a world in which the “smart people in the room” have stopped trying to find solutions simply because previous attempts have failed?
The Ugly Alternative to Mourning
And yet, there are those who do not mourn. There are those who look away; avert their gaze. Why? How is it possible not to be moved to mourn for the suffering of the world?
As the church has reflected long and hard about the teachings of Jesus, trying to come to terms with the human condition that makes it hard for us to be the people of blessing, seven “deadly sins” have been identified as the chief obstacles we face. Today we are confronted by the deadly sin of envy.
What is missing?
It is unanimous: everyone looks at life and determines that something is missing. We all have an intuitive understanding that things are not right, that something is amiss. In a world-gone-wrong, we often conclude that what is missing is what someone else has, that we do not have. Envy is the conclusion that what is missing for me, is that I lack what someone else has. My life would be OK, I would be happy, if I had: his income, his career, her beauty, her self-confidence, his stature, her house, his intelligence, her family, his power, her success, his car, her lawn, his pension, her budget, their health, their relationship, their kids, their luck.
And every time we feel envy, every time we locate our feeling that something is missing in the life of another person, we reveal our own spiritual immaturity. Envy mis-locates the missing pieces of a broken world, believing that they are external rather than internal. What is missing was lost in the Garden; it will not be recovered across our neighbor’s fence.
Doubly Deadly Effects of Envy
The effect of the sin envy is indeed deadly; it is soul-killing. How can I be moved by the poverty of the poor while thinking that what is missing is the perfect cruise that my friends just took, that I never had? How can I mourn for the homeless while envying someone else’s larger more beautiful home? How can I give any thought at all to someone else’s pain while I am focused on my own?
Envy not only robs the joy out of experiencing with gratitude and delight, the goodness of the life God has given to us, it also strangles to death our motivation to be a part of God’s compassionate care for others. I cannot any longer take pleasure in my home, my family, my vacation, while envying yours. Nor am I willing to spend my resources on care for others, while at the same time, I regret that I don’t earn as much as a colleague. Envy is a double edged sword that draws blood from two sides at once.
Blessed are those who Mourn
Blessed are those who do not mistake what is missing.
Blessed are those who know that this world is indeed broken, but who know that they will be comforted by their compassionate response to the pain.
Blessed are those who know the comfort that comes from taking our eyes off our neighbors’ blessings, and turning them instead on our neighbors in need.
It is impossible to hand out food at the Christian Service Center to those who don’t have any, and then to feel badly that someone else’s stake is thicker. It is impossible to tutor kids from broken families and then not to appreciate our own. It is impossible to send money to people who lost everything in Haiti and then to feel badly about our suburban homes, or lawns, or vacations, or entertainment budget.
But to participate along side our Lord, who got down into the dirty human waters and was baptized into this world-gone-wrong, is to experience the comfort of the Kingdom that he came to bring.
Pathetic and miserable are the ones who envy, for they harm themselves and bless no one. The world does not miss them when they leave it.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will get involved in the pain, and when they do, they will receive comfort themselves, and live lives of purpose and significance on behalf of others.