Rethinking the 7 Sins, Part 2: Envy and Anger

February 6, 2005



Rethinking the Seven Deadly Sins:

Part 2: Envy and Anger (2/6/05)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Last week we began a series on the Seven Deadly Sins. We talked about sin in general. We considered the way different religions think about the idea of sin, and how Eastern religions attribute our imperfect state to ignorance rather than sin. Still, both ignorance and sin are words that describe the condition in which we human beings find ourselves. We are tempted to do things that are less than noble. We lean toward selfishness. And we also admitted that we’ve all done ample field research on the subject of sin, and that each of us has a certain amount of expertise in this area.

And then we turned to the sin of pride, which the church has historically regarded as the opposite of the virtue of humility. Of course, things are seldom as black and white as we wish they were. Is it really a damnable sin for our child to take pride in a good report card? And after wresting around with this thing called pride we found a new word—a virtue—that is waiting for us right their in the middle of the vice: worthiness.

Consider: we are creations of God; creation is good; and the Bible even tells us we are imago dei—in the image of God. We are good. We are worthy. Jesus told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is only when a healthy self-love turns into something self-aggrandizing and vain that the virtue of worthiness devolves into the sin of pride.

Today we will turn to two more of the Seven Deadly Sins: envy and anger. First, envy. We’ve all experienced it. We can’t pretend we haven’t been envious of somebody at one point of another. This really is a deadly sin, because it is so destructive. It just doesn’t make sense. But when we see somebody succeed, there is something inside of us that is not only envious of that person’s accomplishments, we can’t wait for them to fall off their lofty perch!

Groucho Marx said it well, quote: There is no sweeter sound than the crumbling of one’s fellow man. Gore Vidal might have said it even better: Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies. Groucho Marx and Gore Vidal weren’t being evil when they said those things—they were just being honest.
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Envy is one of the most destructive forces in the world, and it has always been a part of human nature. The ancient Greek playwright Antisthenes wrote in the 4th Century B.C., “As iron is eaten away by rust, so the envious are consumed by their own passion.” Yes, envy is self-destructive. But it is also harmful to the one who is envied. Shakespeare wrote, “Thou makest thy knife keen, but no metal can—no, not the hangman’s axe—bear half the keenness of thy sharp envy.” Envy seeks to destroy the envied, and in the process destroys the envious.

The virtue the church has traditionally placed opposite envy is kindness, or love, but that doesn’t really provide a cure for, or help us get over, our envy—the green-eyed monster that destroys everything in its path. In Robin Meyer’s book The Virtue in the Vice, he says that envy has a heart of darkness, and it all begins in childhood when we are constantly compared to others. We start labeling and classifying everybody and everything we see, including ourselves: smarter, dumber; prettier, uglier; stronger, weaker.

Do we admire those who we deem smarter, prettier, stronger? No. We envy them. And if we can’t be smarter, or prettier, or stronger, then we want them to fall down a notch or two. We want something to happen that will make them lose their admirable traits.

Is there no virtue to be found anywhere within this deadly sin of envy? In Robin’s book, he claims there is a lively virtue beneath the sin of envy—a good form of envy that admires greatness without wanting to destroy it. This virtue is called emulation. When you seek to emulate another person, you try to better yourself by adopting their good traits. You try to become more like them by bettering yourself, instead of hoping to make them more like you by wishing them ill.

As Christians, we have been given a person to emulate: Jesus. And Jesus encourages us to emulate him. In the great farewell discourse from the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” We often hear the phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Jesus’ whole life was one big, “Do as I do.” Pray like this. Forgive your enemies like this. Treat children like this.” He, certainly, is the model to be emulated.

Before we turn to the sin of anger, I want to quote from Robin’s book on the subject of envy:

Envy is indeed a deadly sin. Envy caused Caesar to want to destroy the Christ child, and envy caused the religious leaders of Jesus’ time to hate his popularity. But our response to remarkable human beings need not always take us down the path that leads to the green-eyed monster. Envy really is a loser’s emotion, but emulation is a way for all of us to turn negative envy into positive emulation. Indeed, in the presence of greatness, not to emulate would be a sin.

In the end, the simple test for determining if the envy we all feel toward others at times might be redeemed is to ask, “Would I like to be more like that person? Or do I just wish that person would fall from grace?” If envy drives us to hate someone or to wish someone harm, then it’s a deadly sin indeed. Negative envy, in fact, is how people do themselves in.

But if this envy is born of admiration that leads to emulation, then it can make us more admirable. In a world that is starved for true role models, we are not talking about an insignificant matter here. This is no scholar’s debate, not some esoteric, intellectual footnote. We’re talking about the very survival of virtue and wisdom. We’re talking about how each generation avoids being orphaned from the truth.

And now, let’s turn to the deadly sin of anger. It is really strange to me that anger is considered one of the Seven Deadly sins, but murder is not on the list. Perhaps there are times when murder is justified? I don’t know. One of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was imprisoned in Nazi Germany during World War II for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He evidently felt the pain and woe Hitler was bringing into the world was so radically evil it called for the ultimate response: murder.

Of course, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and killed by the Germans just days before the camp in which he was imprisoned was liberated at the end of the war. The plot to assassinate Hitler is one of the only cases I can personally think of in which murder might not have fallen into the category of a deadly sin. I will not speculate why the early church fathers, as they put the list of deadly sins together, chose to leave murder off the list.

When I am confused on such subjects I often turn to the words of Jesus, but frankly, I don’t always find comfort in his words. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, You have heard it said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to the judgment of God.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the judgment of God.”

That’s a little frightening, isn’t it! Jesus expressly forbids us to get angry. Of course, he’s on solid ground. One needn’t be a Bible scholar to know anger is considered a very negative trait in our scriptures. Just consider these words from the Book of Proverbs:

Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult.

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.

Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention.

Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.

Make no friends with those given to anger, and do not associate with hotheads, or you may learn their ways and entangle yourself in a snare.

A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.

And it is not the Bible alone that recognizes the self-destructive nature of anger. Guatama Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

An ancient Chinese proverb reads, “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.” And finally, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame.”

It certainly sounds as if anger has been roundly condemned by every culture and every age. But that’s not quite true. In fact, listen to what Aristotle had to say on the subject: “Anyone who doesn’t get mad at the right person at the right time for the right reason is a fool.”

Now, I don’t want to pit Aristotle against our scriptures, and I certainly don’t think we should give the thinking of even the greatest of Greek philosophers the same weight we attribute to the words of Jesus; but is it possible that there is a virtue hidden somewhere in this vice of anger?

First, it is critical for us to separate anger from violence. When Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” he was right. All we need do to see the truth of that is look at the Middle East. A cycle of violence has spun out of control between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Each side is angry. Each side cries out for justice. Each side has seen its innocent people killed, and so kills people on the other side.

Where is the virtue in the vice of anger? In Robin’s book, he claims the virtue hidden in the vice of anger is righteous indignation. And there is a difference between righteous indignation and what we usually call anger. He says that when you feel anger rise in your throat, you should ask yourself:

Is this for me, or for someone else? Am I turning red because someone has insulted me, treated me unfairly or failed to show me proper respect? Because if I am burned up on my own behalf, then my fate is almost guaranteed. I’ll burn myself up. But if I am indignant over the plight of those who cannot help themselves, or who may have given up hope, then anger can be converted into perseverance, and perseverance will keep me on the long and stony road that leads to peace.

The whole point is, how can you love justice without being upset at injustice? How can you love peace and not be upset with those who turn too quickly to war? How can you love kindness, and not be upset when you see cruelty? How can you claim to care for the poor of the world, and not be upset at the economic injustice that covers the globe?

The answer isn’t to be violent. The answer is to be indignant—angry in a positive and proactive way. And this is the strongest part of Robin’s book, in my opinion. Robin and I share an admiration for Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who is considered the father of existentialism. Kierkegaard was a huge critic of Christianity, although he was a devout Christian. He simply felt that being a Christian went far beyond thinking the right things about the faith. Christianity calls for a commitment to live in the world a certain way.

There is a big difference between thinking the right thing and doing the right thing. Anger, at least in the form of righteous indignation, is the correct response to some of the world’s realities. Injustice demands a response—a response in the real world in which we find ourselves. Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” In the modern church, Robin claims we have changed that famous maxim to this: “I think, therefore I have acted.”

In pure Kierkegaardian fashion he writes, Here is the truth about the truth: the longest trip a human being will ever take is the journey from head to heart. The road to hell is paved with good intentions because good intentions never changed anything. Something much more profound is needed: to act for the right reason, not just to think the right thoughts. This step requires passion, and passion cannot be separated from righteous anger.

Patience and kindness are often listed as the virtues opposite anger, but there is surely virtue in being angry enough to take risks for what is right. If people had not gotten righteously angry about slavery, we would not have put an end to that insidious institution. If people had not gotten righteously angry about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, an entire race of people would have been removed from the face of the earth.

Let’s go back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the years leading up to World War II, something terrible happened within the German churches. They became places of patriotic displays. Being a Christian was considered a patriotic thing to do, and the church became a tool of the extreme right wing political party called the National Socialists—the Nazis.

The government and the church became so entwined, it was considered unchristian to criticize the German government. Being a Christian and being a patriot were very much the same thing.

Many of the greatest theologians in the world were living in Germany at that time, and together a group of them gathered to write a famous document called the Barmen Declaration. Part of that declaration read, We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.

What they were saying was that the church must always be the conscious of the state, separate from the state, and answering to a higher power. Those who signed the Barmen Declaration were arrested. Many fled to America. Dietrich Bonhoeffer at first fled, but then turned down prestigious offers from various academic institutions in America so he could return to Germany and attempt to maintain the true church on German soil. He did this as most churches became, in effect, cheerleaders for the government and moral supporters of the nation’s growing war machine. Bonhoeffer was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and he was imprisoned, and eventually hung.

You have to admire Bonhoeffer. When he saw what Hitler was doing, he was simply unable to respond with patience and kindness. It infuriated him. It angered him to the point that he risked—and lost—his life trying to do something about it. He understood what the church was really all about, and he refused to stand by while it was corrupted.

So we can find some virtue in the vice of anger, just like we found virtue in the vices of pride and envy. Next week we will turn to deadly sins number four and five: lust and gluttony. And yes, we will do our best to find some healthy virtues hidden within those deadly sins. In the meantime, over the days leading up to next week’s sermon, let’s none of us feel compelled to do too much field research with regard to lust and gluttony. Because if we did, the reaction from our fellow church members would surely be one of the two sins we discussed this morning.