On Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God

Excerpt of Borrowed Glories: Envy, Inequality, and the Glory of God Chapter 2: “What’s glory got to do with it?”

For the complete chapter outline and other excerpts, CLICK HERE.

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By Tilly

…Yes, this is a book about glory as it relates to envy. And we’ve already talked about how glory is used in scripture to describe God, how it has to do with weight and brightness and fame and beauty.

But this rather ephemeral word may not have come home to roost in your everyday understanding yet. This is a descriptive attribute of God that gets thrown around a lot, but it seems like no two people understand the word “glory” in exactly the same way. For many people, it only evokes vague, bland ideas about God’s being very big or very shiny.

A definition would be only partially useful right now. For some things, lists and stories are better than definitions. Let me make a list for you now, of ways that glory can be understood:

  • God is the reason that every good thing you experience reminds you of some other good experience, which is lost in either the past or in the future. Nostalgia hints at glory.
  • God is the reason that when you fall in love, you feel like every good thing in you is being called out and forward and up. Love hints at glory.
  • God is the reason that you still remember the day your sixth grade teacher told you your paper was “Excellent! You were obviously really paying attention in class!” God is also the reason that you have spent your entire life trying to get your father to say similar words. Proper praise from a superior hints at glory.
  • God is the reason that you’ve always longed to go to Paris, and the reason why when you make it to Paris, you long even more to get back home. Yearning for another land hints at glory.
  • God is the reason why music moves you as it does, why stories swell your very soul, why you could easily spend all your weekends gazing at paintings or photography or pretty dresses. Art hints at glory.
  • God is even the reason why you hate so much to be cut out of cliques, why there are people who spend their entire lives social climbing. The desire to be “inside” hints at glory.

God’s glory is what we will be living in the presence and enjoyment of for all of eternity. It is all things meaningful, all things worthwhile, all things beautiful, all things that quicken the pulse with joy and quicken the mind with sight.

So you may not have connected your wanderlust to see Asia with the promises in Scripture that you will “depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23), but the two things are connected. You may never have connected your relentless pursuit of approval from your boss with the promise that in Christ, you’ll hear “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). But these desires are intimately related.

You also may never have noticed that “enter into the joy of your master” is the next statement in that passage. It’s as if joy were the most natural way in the world to describe both God’s state and our state in his presence. And what is it that people are always saying to describe an experience or sight or personal interaction? “It made me happy.” It brought you joy; what else do I need to know about the concert or the movie or your visit with cousin Ted? And these joys that we’ve already tasted of are only a nibble next to the feast, a campfire next to the sun of joy we’ll experience in the presence of God’s glory.

So glory is the shining joy, beauty, intelligence, power, and goodness of God himself. It compels all who see it to respond in either worship or loathing.  

Little shards of borrowed glory

So that gives us at least an early working definition of glory. But now we’ve got another term to straighten out.  What do we mean by borrowed glory?

Let me answer this question with another question. Did you ever encounter a person, and then describe them to someone else later as “intimidating?” Did you ever meet somebody and find yourself instantly drawn to them? And let’s leave romantic attraction out of the discussion for now. When sexuality is no part of the equation, you have still, I am sure, met an old man or child or friend of the same gender or peer of the opposite gender who instantly dazzled you. Surely you have been rendered jittery and awkward in some specific person’s presence. Surely you have also been rendered serene and happy in someone’s presence.

What is it about these people that have such power over you? Why is it that most people can guess what you mean when you say “She was intimidating”?

And what relationship, if any, does this have to the glory of God? Would we use the word “intimidating” to describe God? Certainly not. We wouldn’t apply this word to our relationship with God, because it would be a gross understatement. We won’t be “intimidated” when we finally stand before the God of Heaven, any more than we will be “amused” or “fascinated”.

No. We will be devastated, overwhelmed, terrified, and silenced. We will find that our entire previous existence is both done away with and justified, both crushed and consummated.  

That is what the glory of God means. “Intimidated” doesn’t begin to describe it.

But having established that, we should acknowledge something else. Those words we use to describe people, like “intimidating” “fascinating” “inspiring” and “infatuating,” are like the younger cousins of words we use to describe God. When we say we are intimidated by a person, this is like a microid version of the awe or reverence that we feel towards the God in whose image they are made.

These things are related to each other. The relationship is derivative. It is metaphorical. One glory is borrowed from the other, and was made to whisper things about the other.

And because it was borrowed from someone for whom all Glory was named, there is something very real and unavoidable about the glory of human beings. We are terrible and lovely creations, purposeful and intelligent and lovely (though, while under the curse of sin, wilful and insane and hideous).

When you see a truly beautiful woman on the street, your breath catches in your throat. Beauty demands a response, whether it’s admiration or hatred or desire. When you listen to a really excellent politician craft his words for a crowd, you can almost feel the weight of his influence. When you talk to a true artist about his work, the power of his vision and talent thrums like an engine beneath the conversation, and you respond to it.

Glory is always like that. It demands response.

Even in little tiny amounts. Even the broken shards of glory that you see in the breast of a fallen human. You were made to respond. You were made with an appetite for this stuff.

Remember, ever since the fall, we have been cut off from the source of the glory. There is a serious lack, a scarcity of it on earth. If there wasn’t evidence enough of scarcity in the world around us, there are constant reminders of it on display in ourselves. Not only of the curse of sin and our bent towards rebellion, but of scarcity, as well.

Without access to the Source of the real glory, we go nuts over any little thing that reminds us of it. And people? These creatures, made in God’s image, are some of the best examples we have. The personal glories each person has been gifted with–their beauties, their personalities, their creations, their humor or money or ability to love others.

These humans are not something you can reproduce. They aren’t as predictable as sunsets, and they aren’t disposable like flowers. These are souls. They carry more borrowed glory, because they were created to do so.

But even this borrowed glory is somewhat ephemeral. People want different kinds of it, and people see it in different ways. I may care a whole lot about the glorious musical talent of my sisters, but someone else would be much more impressed by stand up comedy. I may not be intimidated by one friend’s ability to make money, but their ability to make people like them might just blow me away. One girl falls in love with a man because he is a country boy, another will fall in love with someone for not being a country boy.

It’s as if we’re all American Indians and there are shiny beads of glory, in different colors, and everyone wants a handful. But the standards of measurement are so much more confused than if we had actual dollar amounts stamped on bills. We’re not sure whether two units of beauty are worth one unit of brains; we’re not sure if one unit of charisma trumps the money card, or if money can really buy everything else after all.

This is where envy comes in.

What happens when you come face to face with a person who has more of the borrowed glory than you have? Or more, at least, of the one you wanted?

The Unbearable Inequality

For anyone who is preoccupied with fairness, the inequality of the world is downright unbearable. How could the Lord of all creation say things like “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt. 13:11-12).

What??

What do you mean, those who have will get more? What do you mean, those who are lacking will have even that little portion taken? What’s fair about this? The logic of our world says this is an undemocratic and oppressive philosophy. Our world gets outraged if you even imply that someone has “more” or “less” to begin with.

If you walked into a school system and dared to imply that Johnny may be naturally smarter than Bobby, that Jane is objectively prettier than Maddie, you’ll get shouted down. Smarter? No, these boys are either at-risk or they aren’t. If they’re at-risk, it is our responsibility to address the fact that one has enjoyed certain advantages that the other has not. Let’s change the grading system again. Prettier? No; how dare you suggest that these girls are not equally beautiful in their own way?

Better-behaved? A favorite with classmates? The words ‘better’ and ‘favorite’ are words we try not to use here. It’s natural that the students would try to arrange themselves into a hierarchy in this way because they’ve been programmed by societal impulses, but with time and social reform, we may be able to eradicate this problem.

It burns the ears of the average person to acknowledge that some people are born with natural advantages that others are born without. We want to believe everyone has the chance to be somebody someday. That’s the American system. Maybe you were born poor, or ugly, or with only one parent still hanging around, and raised in such a way that it’s hard for you to play nice with other people. The idea is—everybody has the opportunity to clamber their way to the top. No matter their beginnings, they should be able to end up well.

It just kills us to know, deep down, that this isn’t really true. Because people aren’t born with the same ingenuity, either. They aren’t born with the same willingness to work hard. Not everybody is able to make people like them, and everybody is certainly not born with the same intelligence, or given the same opportunity to hone it.

The world isn’t fair. The glory isn’t handed out like ration packets, with everybody getting 1000 CCs a week. It’s not a Monopoly game, where everyone comes in an identical assortment of twenty-seven bills. If it did (and if there were no dice involved), you could at least look around and say “okay, maybe this man is a slobbering drunk, and a professional failure, but we know he started with the same advantages as this happily-married business owner over here.”

We don’t know that.

The man might have been abused. He might not have been born as naturally sanguine as the other guy. He might have had a bad-luck turn in his business. He might not be as smart.

If we weren’t so preoccupied with the fairness value system, we would admit this. It’s not as if everybody doesn’t know. Kids in an elementary school classroom know this. Instinctively, they understand that some kids have more or know more or love more or do more than others.

I teach Sunday School right now to children who are about four years old. Even at that age, you see the kids arranging themselves into (just or unjust) little hierarchical groupings. All the boys want to sit next to Sam, and no one can tell me why. I recently overheard little Sarah telling Donna, “I have to be mean to you because you want to be my best friend and Emma is my best friend.” I took Sarah aside and tried to explain to her that she was being an awful person, but she didn’t understand the fairness tack I took. “Everybody should be friends with everybody,” I said. “But I can’t be friends with everybody,” she said simply.

I’m not condoning Sarah’s behavior. She mistakenly decided that the only two options were 1. be friends or 2. be mean. I’m just saying that even little kids get the fact that life isn’t fair. They still want it to be fair—when it comes to themselves—but they don’t really believe that it is.

It’s this basic outrage about portion size that we need to address here. Surely, if God is a good God and a just God, there must be a way to understand the system. Is it simply that this world is not our home and everything is going to be leveled out in the end? In a way, yes. But also in a way, everything is going to be finally separated out in the end. Not only will everybody not end up with the same portion, but the great divide between people is going to be widened and finalized. Some will get everything and some will get nothing. Some will be finally approved and others will be finally disapproved.

I’m writing as much to try to reconcile my own heart to this as to reconcile anyone else’s. If I dislike inequality at the relatively inconsequential level (things like money and looks), I absolutely hate inequality at the eternal and essential level.

I don’t want to think that there is such a thing as a sheep and a goat. I don’t want to think that there is such a thing as a wheat plant and a weed. I really hate to think that there are virgins who remember their oil and virgins who forget their oil, and I hate that somebody is not going into the wedding feast because they didn’t dress themselves properly.

But if He said it, I have to try to understand it. My heart is the thing that must change, and break, and be reformed to recognize and love the System. I don’t have the right or the strength to kick against the goads.

Envy, defined

Paul diagnoses the whole human race in Romans 1:28-31: “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind… they are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

As you can see, envy begins the list of sins that fill the heart of man. Several of the items listed after envy, though, usually come with the Envy package. Strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander, and boasting often come as symptoms or siblings of Envy.

Paul is saying that these are among the worst blights on mankind; this is what it looks like for us to be “given up to a debased mind.” These are the symptoms of refusing to acknowledge God, and they are ugly.

Yes, envy is very ugly. We never said it wasn’t.

Here is a good, basic definition pulled from William L. Davidson, Professor of Logic in the early 20th century:

“Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of the one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him. Grasping-ness for self and ill-will lie at the basis of it. There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied, and a chafing under this consciousness. He who has got what I envy is felt by me to have the advantage of me, and I resent it.”

We will not be talking about envying the lifestyles of the rich and famous in this book. The brand of envy we are dealing with is more of a backyard envy. Born and bred at home. It’s the kind of envy that interrupts brotherly love, and wreaks havoc on true love in the church. Envy in the pews and at the office and between friends.

It’s the kind of malice that Paul talks about, malice that is hard to feel for someone who you’ve never met. The other person needs to be close enough to you that you feel a rivalry with them. Otherwise, what you’re really feeling is more of an amorphous longing (to be, say, Benedict Cumberbatch or Oprah or John Grisham).

“No bird ever looked at a plane in envy,” said Iain Thomas. He was right. There’s just something much more dangerous about a person who has risen from among your own ranks. They have the power to raise the question in you: “Why not me?”

Jesus knew this.

“A prophet is not without honor,” he observed once, “except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4). He recognized that glory burns more when it is close enough to touch you. He knew that when you’ve seen a person in diapers, you’ll have a hard time accepting their power when they come into it.

At the same time, envy is closely associated with feelings of inferiority. In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” C.S. Lewis talks about the relationship between inferiority and envy, and puts his finger, as usual, right on it:

“No man who says I’m as good as you believes it,” observes Screwtape. “He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.”

This writhing, itching awareness is at the heart of envy. The inferiority is sometimes only a felt inferiority on the part of the envier, but in all cases, a sense of inferiority is there. And it hurts, as Screwtape would say, like hell.

Another strange thing about envy: people usually envy things that they already have in some measure. If you’ve been called smart before, you’re more likely to envy genius. If you’ve got a car, you’re more likely to want the nice car than another man who has no car at all. Blissfully uneducated people don’t envy a Ph.D the way a man with a Master’s degree envies a Ph.D.

A dog would never have grasped for God’s power and knowledge the way Satan and Eve did. Nor could it have. It was precisely Beelzebub and Eve’s borrowed glory that made them capable of recognizing glory, valuing it, and ultimately, falling over it.

What is even more strange about envy is this: envy is more interested in getting rid of the other person’s advantage than in acquiring it for yourself. In a complete, demonic reverse of logic, the envious person believes that it is a better thing for no one to have it than for another person to have it while he himself goes without.

Think of the two women coming to Solomon, the ones with the one live baby and one dead baby. They were both claiming the live one was theirs, that the other woman had rolled over her baby in the middle of the night and killed it. Solomon was forced to figure out who was telling the truth, and in the end, he relied on an understanding of envy to tell him.

He ordered the baby cut in half and given to both women, knowing that a mother would prefer that the baby live in another’s arms than die. More importantly, he knew that the woman who will stoop to lying about whose baby is whose will also give in to the lowest impulse of envy: she preferred to see a baby dead than to see a live baby in someone else’s arms.

Envy is a destructive impulse. Some have said that there is a type of envy that propels you to action, that makes you want to improve yourself to keep up with a superior person. But more often, the reigning part of the envious heart is one that would prefer to see the happiness of the envied person destroyed. It is not motivational; it is destructive.

The Tennessee Walker

There is a man in my county who walks all day long.

He has matted blonde and silver hair that hangs down below his ears, and a beard the same color that hangs over his chest. From spring until fall, he wears a short sleeve button-up shirt, which he keeps unbuttoned. There is a strip of his stomach about six inches wide that is tanned a deep brown, but when you get close to him and his shirt gaps a little, you can see that the rest of his front is still pale. Some mornings, he carries a tin coffee mug in his hand.

He lives about a mile from the house I used to live in, in a very rural area on a very deserted road. And he does walk, from early in the morning until the sun goes down. But he never leaves the road in front of his house. Instead of walking up the road or down the road, he walks across it.

The same ten paces. Over and over again, back and forth, he goes across the road and back, across the road and back. Miles and miles, day in and day out, in all kinds of weather.

No one knows why he does it.

People say his brain was damaged by acid. Some say he took drugs in the 70s, and others say that when he was a boy, somebody snuck actual acid into his milk at school as a joke and it messed him up. Others have told me that he has post traumatic stress disorder from fighting in a war. Nobody really knows anymore, it seems, and nobody has the guts to ask his brother or whoever it is that lives with him in that ramshackle old farmhouse.

All anyone really knows about him now is that he walks. They call him the Tennessee Walker. This is a play on words; there is a horse breed called the Tennessee Walker that’s known for its fancy footwork and gait.

When I lived out there, I would go for runs or walks in a 3-mile loop that took me past his house. When I came to his strip of road, the Tennessee Walker would always step aside, respectfully, and nod once as I passed him.

I also used to drive through that area on the way to and from work. One day, I was driving home and crying because I couldn’t figure out why life is so sad for so many people. On a whim, and in a fit of existential misery, I slowed down when I came to his house. He was there, and stepped politely aside as usual. I stopped, rolled down my window, and called out to him.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” I said with tears rolling down my face. He ambled over, looking vaguely shocked.

“I was just wondering,” I said, “why do you always walk back and forth across the road?”

“Exercise,” he said, after a pause.

“But why don’t you go up and down or around the block instead of across?”

“Well,” he thought for a moment, as if the idea had never entered his head. “I don’t rightly know.”

And that was the only answer I ever got. “Okay,”  I said, and drove away.

I’m not sure why, but trying to understand what envy is like makes me think of the Tennessee Walker.

An envious person is never still, either. Laziness isn’t the problem. Apathy isn’t the problem. If anything, they are hyperactive–always moving, always striving, always alert, always watching those around them.

But their energy is being spent into an empty and bottomless pit. They are full of zeal, but not zeal for worshipping God and enjoying Him. It is zeal for equality, and for their own glory. They are inexhaustible sentinels, watching for unfair blessing on other people. Again and again and again they will walk themselves through the same vengeful fantasies, the same “why him and not me?”s, the same attempts to disguise or insult another person’s advantage.

Envy is a repetitive, futile, obsessive walk across and across the same strip of road. You think that you are doing the same thing as all the other runners and walkers that you see, but you aren’t. The motion is the same, but you will look up 20 years from now and realize that you are still on the same ten-foot strip of blacktop. One day you will find that in all your pursuits and surface conversations and private thoughts, you’ve been monotonously speaking the same refrain, over and over and over: “If anyone has it, I ought to have it.”

“Why do you do that?” someone might ask you. “Why do you walk all day long? You’re always moving, but you never turn yourself in an actual direction and get somewhere! You could have walked across the country by now. Why are you still walking in front of your house?”

“Well,” you’d say. “I don’t rightly know.”

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