By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 2 Samuel 12:1-7
I’m a Paul Simon fan. His “Negotiations and Love Songs” CD contains a song entitled Train in the Distance. It begins:
“She was beautiful as southern skies the night he met her,
she was married to someone.
He was doggedly determined that he would get her.”
And sure enough, as the song progresses, he does woe her away from her husband and, eventually, they marry. But in time, it too falls apart. The song’s final verse concludes:
“What is the point of this story?
What information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”
And perhaps it is. That nagging thought that life would be better, would be more satisfying, if only we had what someone else has. The ancients called that nagging desire envy, historically labeled by the church as one of the seven deadly sins.
The Old Testament story of David and Bathsheba, relayed by the prophet Nathan in parabolic form, appears, on the surface, to be a story of adultery and murder. But it is, at its most fundamental core, a story about envy, a story of one who succumbs to that nagging desire, that persistent thought that life would be better if he had what belongs to another.
Now, as post-modern westerners, it is hard for us to think of envy in relation to people. We no longer live – thankfully – in a culture where we think of a woman “belonging” to a man like a suit or a cell phone. But in the ancient world, Bathsheba belonged to her husband… that is until she was envied and stolen away from him by King David.
This morning’s sermon is the second in a series I’m doing this month entitled Tell Me a Secret. As I’ve mentioned, this sermon series was inspired by an interview I heard with Frank Warren, founder of the community mail art project, Post Secret; a website that posts secrets sent anonymously to Warren on hand crafted post cards. The secrets shared are as unique as the post cards themselves but are shared with complete anonymity.
As a pastor for two plus decades, I am amazed at the secrets people carry that weigh them down. One would think that Church ought to be the place where people can share openly with one another; where they can share their struggles and find help in time of need. But often it is not. Often, we do not allow it to be. So, my hope with this sermon series is to encourage all of us to grow in our openness with one another. Now-deceased Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “We tend to present to God and others only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response.”[i] But, as I mentioned last Sunday, we are relational creatures; created by our God with an innate need to help and to be helped by one another. Nouwen adds: “After everything has been said and done, what we have to offer is our authentic selves in relationship to others… Together, we form community.”[ii]
So this morning, I want to focus on a secret feeling that we are often too ashamed to admit to anyone, even ourselves: envy. As Christians, we know what we should do and how we should feel. We know that we are always to want the best for others, even if it comes at our own personal expense. We know that we should applaud the efforts and success of others, even in the midst of our own failures. But our human nature makes that difficult and it does no one any good to stuff down and ignore our emotions, pretending that they don’t exist. In times when we are suffering and are enduring personal struggles, it can be hard not to envy and resent the success of others; especially in those instances when their success seems like something that should rightfully be ours.
Now, playing into any understanding of envy in the ancient world was the cultural concept of limited good which I have spoken of in a couple of recent sermons. In a nutshell, ancient Mediterranean people believed that there was only so much good stuff to go around and if someone took more than they rightfully should, it would result in someone else going without. Envy requires the acknowledgement that some things are limited because envy involves competing with another person who wins out over us in possessing a thing or relationship that is in limited supply.[iii]
So, what is in limited supply in our culture? Well, we can envy someone because they have a unique role or position; president of the United States for example and we can see quite clearly how competition for that limited role is bringing out the worst in people. If you’ve been watching Olympic swimming, there sure have been a lot of wagging index fingers around that pool, haven’t there. Only one can get the gold; one only can be #1.
We might also compete for a unique relationship; that’s the concept behind those reality shows like The Bachelor in which lovely young ladies behave in appalling ways nearly scratching out the eyes of their competitors. Envy, strictly speaking, is a feeling of begrudging that emerges in response to the good fortune of others relative to some limited good that is of special value or interest to us.[iv]
Genesis, chapter 3 relates sin’s entry into the world through a story that is weighted with words and ideas associated with envy. When the serpent entices the woman into eating of the forbidden tree, he hooks her with this promise: “God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” You will be like God. Now, there’s an offer too good for the woman to pass up. The woman looks upon the tree with desire and so, she takes and eats because she envies the knowledge of God. She wants what God has.
So, let’s get back to this morning’s story of David and Bathsheba. Even before the bible reader is introduced to David we are prepared for his debut with this description: “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart.” So, when David enters the biblical story he is, indeed, a man who shares God’s heart, God’s desires. Consistently, David acts in honorable ways. As a soldier and warrior, he has a strong code of ethics. When his predecessor, King Saul, attempts to kill him, David goes on the run. When he is twice given the opportunity to end Saul’s life, David shows mercy. When at last Saul dies, David even mourns his death. He grieves for the man who wanted him dead. When David’s enemies, like the rival General Abner repent, David restores them to his fellowship, even providing a feast in Abner’s honor which, in the ancient world was the most powerful symbol of friendship: sharing table fellowship. With amazing consistency, David shows restraint toward his enemies and mercy toward those who are under his protection. He is patient and humble.
But something dramatic happens in 2 Samuel, chapter 11. Something goes wrong with David’s heart.
David, as king, had many wives and concubines. But David, looking out from his rooftop one day sees something better. He sees Bathsheba. When he inquires about her, he learns that she already belongs to another. She is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a loyal soldier in David’s army; someone who serves David and is under his protection. But David’s heart is not what it once was. David envies; he sees Bathsheba and he desires what rightfully belongs to another. He resents that Uriah has what he wants for himself. And so, he takes what he wants… because kings can do that after all.
David, who once shared God’s heart, now suffers heart disease because envy stems from our hearts. Ancient people believed that the eye expressed the innermost feelings and desires of the heart. So when David’s eye desired Uriah’s wife, it is his heart that is at fault.
Enter the prophet Nathan who proceeds to tell David a parable… a parable about one who mercilessly takes and consumes that which belongs to another, a parable of one who commits a horrible injustice. A rich man with plenty refuses to show mercy when he takes and devours the precious lamb of one who is poor and vulnerable. David listens to Nathan’s story and he is outraged. He pronounces a sentence of death against someone who would be so envious and so lacking in mercy. And then he is brought face to face with the hideous truth that he is “the man.” So we arrive at this horrible recognition that David’s heart has been changed and remarkable suffering has resulted from that change.
Now, David’s story is extreme and I certainly don’t think any of us are going to murder the neighbor this week because they bought a new sports car or an awesome new riding mower. But it might at least be worth acknowledging that we do live in a culture that has programmed us to believe that life would be better if we had more: more disposable income, more gadgets and technology, more leisure time, more… friends, more attentive parents, more attentive children, a more attentive spouse. If it as Steve sang this morning: “We have a greed with which we have agreed.” Greed and envy have become an acceptable part of our society. And it is hard for us not to be drawn into that yearning for more.
Consider for a moment, those times when an employer passes us over for a promotion or a particular project… or even, we notice… they seem to look to one of our co-workers, someone with far less knowledge and experience, for an opinion or advice. Why would they do that? Don’t they appreciate how hard we’ve worked and how much we know and have learned along the way? We’ve got a wealth of experience; why isn’t it better appreciated?
An acquaintance just got their dream job straight out of college. But we work hard and we have a dream, too. Why aren’t our dreams being realized?
We get a bad medical diagnosis. And why? We take care of ourselves. So, we sit in the break room at work and eat a salad for lunch with lemon juice in place of salad dressing while our co-workers eat burgers and pizza. Why? We want their lunch, not ours.
And that envy starts young. Notice the toddler: even with loving, attentive parents. She walks across the room and snatches the toy from her playmate’s hand and boldly speaks the language of envy: “Mine.” “The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”
So, what are we to do about it? Well, for one thing: admit it; at the very least to ourselves and hopefully to someone else; someone you trust to be your helper in a difficult time; someone who you know can help you see things more clearly, like the prophet Nathan did for David.
And then, engage in some spiritual practices that counter envy. I think three are especially effective… and related: gratitude, generosity and praise.
As human creatures, it is always easier for us to name what we don’t have and wish we did. But, when we stop to count our blessings, it helps to put things in perspective. So, thank God for the blessings you do have; take time to reflect on at least one every day. Engage in the spiritual practice of gratitude.
Second, practice generosity. As crazy as it sounds, when we feel like we’ve been cheated out of something, the best thing we can do is be generous toward others. Did you know that scientific research has proven that giving changes our brain chemistry?[v] It releases chemicals from our brain that create a sense of peace and tranquility. And I’m not just talking about money… although scientific evidence that giving to the church has health benefits could be a pretty cool stewardship campaign. But even beyond money, be generous in your speech and your actions. Again, crazy as it sounds, if you’re under-appreciated, make a point of appreciating others. The very act of giving to someone else yields spiritual transformation.
Finally, in expanding on this idea of giving, engage in the spiritual discipline of praise. Praise God for his goodness which surrounds us every day. If you can’t come up with a prayer on your own, turn to the Psalms. Pray the words of the psalmists until they become your words. And give praise to others when you see them do something well or do something helpful. Praise others in simple and sincere ways. Friends, we don’t have to want more than we need. The thought that life could be better may seem to be woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains. But we can loosen that weave; we can unravel that tangled web of envy through generosity, gratitude and praise.
[i] Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henri Nouwen; Harper Press; 2006; p. XVII.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 10-11.
[iii] See The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malina. Westminster John Knox Press. 2001. Chapter 4: Envy – The Most Grievous of All Evils.
[v] Taken from an online U.S. News and World Report Wellness: What Generosity Does to Your Brian and Life Expectancy. By Elizabeth Renter. May 1, 2015.
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