When I was a kid I wondered why we said someone could be “Green with envy.” Why not say someone was “orange with envy?” Back then, I thought it had to do with money. Money was green and that seemed to be what most people envied. If we search the history of the envy’s association with green, we find it goes way back to Shakespeare. Pick up Othello, The Merchant of Venice, or Anthony and Cleopatra and you’ll find the “green-eyed monster” in some form. That’s around 500 years of English speaking tradition right there.
Maybe, the association with green comes from the Greeks. For the Greeks, green (or paleness) was the color of sickness. Envy is a sickness, after all. It can eat away at a man’s soul like cancer. I’ve seen it destroy the life of a few people. It affects our vision of others and ourselves, our speech, and our actions. The funny thing that I’ve observed about envy is that when someone is consumed with it they can’t see the danger. In fact, with the examples I’ve seen, they think everyone else has a problem—not them.
We don’t hear a lot of warnings in sermons about envy today. We have warnings about sexual immorality, sharing our faith, or how to be the church—but hardly about envy. Maybe it is because I am a protestant and an evangelical protestant at that. We emphasize missions and the gospel (both good things) rather than individual, albeit dangerous, sins. Though often overlooked, envy is a big sin—it made the list of the seven deadliest for the Catholic church.
Clement of Rome saw the danger in envy. In his First Epistle he warns his readers against it. According to Clement Cain murdered Abel because of envy. He says, “Ye see, brethren, how envy and jealousy led to the murder of a brother. Through envy, also, our father Jacob fled from the face of Esau, his brother. Envy made Joseph be persecuted unto death, and to come into bondage.” (Ch. 4) The list of those charged with envy by Clement stretches from Moses to David. You may find Clement’s reading of the text exegetically flawed, but something is at work there. Was it just sin nature that caused Cain to murder his brother? Or, can we name that sin as envy? It isn’t that much of a stretch, even if envy isn’t mentioned in the passage.
Clement goes on to say, “Envy had alienated wives from their husbands, and changed that saying of our father Adam, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.’ Envy and strife have overthrow great cities and rooter up mighty nations.” (Ch. 6) Envy divides. It erodes the created order of human relationships. Even the most intimate of relationships are broken because of envy. It is sickness that says, “I am the important one here! Not You!”
There is a cure for envy though. It is the gospel (protestants rejoice!)
“Wherefore let us give up vain and fruitless cares,” says Clement, “and approach to the glorious and venerable rule of our holy calling. Let us attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world.” (Ch. 7)
Dare we suggest that those “vain and fruitless cares” that Clement mentions might include “envy?” I don’t think it is a stretch. Envy plays a prominent part in the previous paragraphs leading up to this quote and would be in the back of the reader’s mind.
So, the cure of envy is simple (if we depend on Christ). Look to Christ and his gospel. Remember the wealth of love that we have in Him. Place our hope in Him not in material wealth or recognition.