What is the central fact of American Life? Please don’t Google it. Just think about the first word that comes to your mind.
Did you think of words like: freedom, liberty, money, politics, consumerism, individualism or shopping? There are many words both good and bad that define our American experience. I recently read an answer to the question that surprised me. Yet the more I thought about it, the more it struck me as true. It was a quote from the writer Gore Vidal who said that “envy” is the central fact of American life.
Someone has said that “Among the seven deadly sins – which also include wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust and gluttony – envy has been labeled the most joyless, widespread and destructive.”
Why? Because that same author says, “Envy is an emotion we don’t feel comfortable expressing. A person might tell you that he or she is feeling sad today, but it’s less appropriate to say we are feeling envious.”
So it festers inside us, growing. This is especially true in our age of social media where, no longer are we trying to keep up with only a handful of Joneses in our neighborhood. Instead we can see online nearly all of our friends’ lives every hour of every day. We scroll through their videos and pictures and posts when we wake up, throughout the day, on our sofas at night, and in bed. It can lead to an explosion of envy within us, and for many it is rotting out our insides.
I read an article in which the author told a story that will ring true to many of us: “One night about five years ago, just before bed, I saw a tweet from a friend announcing how delighted he was to have been shortlisted for a journalism award. I felt my stomach lurch and my head spin, my teeth clench and my chest tighten. I did not sleep until the morning. I had not even entered that journalism competition, but as I read that tweet, I so desperately wanted what my friend had that it left me as winded as if I had been punched in the stomach.”
She concludes, “We live in the age of envy. Career envy, kitchen envy, children envy, food envy, upper arm envy, holiday envy. You name it, there’s an envy for it.” We pastors can have megachurch envy.
How about you? Any envy growing in your life? It is scary how dark longing can grow in our hearts. This is so familiar for many of us, that we can become discouraged wondering what, if anything, can be done about it.
On this second Sunday of Advent, we continue our series, Longing, looking at Psalm 73, to see if there is any help for those of us struggling with the destructive longing called envy.
Psalm 73 is attributed to a man named Asaph, who served under the great King David of Israel, leading one of the priestly choirs at the time. Let’s see what Asaph has to say about longing in this ancient poem.
Verse 1 serves to set the tone for the psalm. Though Asaph is about to launch into some deep pain, he wants to start by remembering the light, the truth, that God is good. Sometimes when life turns dark, it can be really hard to believe that God is good. Maybe you know what I mean?
That initial dose of the truth of God’s goodness is an important anchor, because Asaph quickly races off into the darkness.
For the next 15 verses, verses 2 through 16, Asaph drags us down into the muck of his envy. In fact, he says in verse 2 that it was so bad, he almost lost it. His poetic imagery is that of a climber who is on a bare cliff face. In recent weeks the news has reported multiple professional climbing accidents. Climbing is risky business: one wrong move, and you can fall. I look at free climbers and their daring boggles my mind.
In August 2015 a group from Faith Church traveled to Kenya to work with our missionaries at Rift Valley Academy. On a free day, they took us hiking up the side of a dormant volcano, Mt. Longonot. We followed a trail to the rim, and at the top discovered that the trail wound its way around the rim of the crater. It was a gorgeous view, as the giant crater was filled with a lush green jungle. Maybe a quarter mile around the rim, we found markings for a trail the went down into the crater, and some of us decided to go for it. You need to know that the trails up the outside of the crater and the around the rim, while not easy or casual, were still fairly well kept. The trail going down into the crater? Not so much. It was treacherous at times. At one point, maybe halfway down, we saw a steam vent nearby and wanted to go find it. I should have known better, because I had learned years before in Costa Rica that on volcanoes, those steam vents can pump out poison gas. As we hiked closer to the steam, there was a six-foot drop that we had to jump down. We jumped down, hiked over to the steam vent, and put our faces in. Thankfully, no poison…just a sulphuric smell. It was actually really cool. But now we had to get back up the six-foot drop to get to the trail! There wasn’t much room for error. We could easily lose our footing and we’d be tumbling down the inside of the crater. I remember feeling nervous, because my son and another youth group member were with me, and I was the only adult, responsible for them. My son went up first, and then his friend and finally me. It was wild and exhilarating, maybe because we were so close to disaster!
That is what Asaph is trying to tell us. He was so close to losing it. Losing what? Losing his grip on faith, on truth. Maybe you can identify with this. When life gets tough, it sometimes feel like our faith is so weak.
Why was Asaph so close to losing it? Look at verse 3. The reason was envy and jealousy. More on that in our next post!