Living Inside Contempt:
A Psychological Discussion of Envy
Envy is the thing that lurks, that hides behind the eyes, and crawls behind a laugh. It is a thing that hides in every dark place. When alone, it is there. Together it is there. It is like darkness that infests a heart and rots the bones. It clouds a mind and covers life. It slithers in like a dark snake, quietly waiting to devour. Writing on the sly and hidden nature of envy, the church father, Cyprian comments, “The cure is easy where the wound is manifest…[but] the wounds of jealousy are hidden and secret...they have shut themselves in blind suffering within the lurking-places of the conscience.”
The pernicious nature of envy is in its hiddenness. Though envy leads to such outward sins as murder, rape or enslavement, it begins as a private sin, a seed, a darkness which starts in the mind and gives birth to other evils. Envy in itself, however, is a silent sin. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiea writes that envy is “sorrow at another's good.” Envy is sorrow or hatred, a disdain for the goodness and blessing of another. It is a resentful longing for the good of another, and a hatred that another has that good rather than one’s self.
This, then, is quite a grievous emotion. To feel spite, disdain, and regret for another’s good, this is a curious thing. What causes one to hate the goodness or blessings of another? Where does it come from? Why does it plague us so much? These are the questions I will be seeking to answer in this article. What we will find is that envy grows in the dark and thorny garden of shame and contempt, teaching us that we must merit our blessings by the work of our hands and the sweat of our brow.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
- Genesis 3:1-7 NIV
There is so much going on in this story, but what is important to focus on for our discussion is, why does the woman desire this fruit? In the text we see that the woman finds the fruit was “good for food,” “pleasing to the eye,” and “desirable for gaining wisdom.” So the fruit has this lure, both sensually in its taste (we might think of the Turkish delight from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), and visually. This was an enticing fruit. But we also see that the woman views the fruit as something with the ability to give her wisdom. Why does the woman desire wisdom from this fruit? Is it God’s desire to deprive her of wisdom? Is she not gaining wisdom from her relationship with Him?
This is curious, for in this story we see that somehow, the woman believes she needs wisdom to satisfy herself. Curt Thomson, commenting on this story writes, “it strikes me as odd that [the woman] would want what the servant is offering unless she has already developed an underlying emotional distress she needs an antidote for.” This is odd to me as well. It seems, for the woman, the fruit is offering a remedy. It offers her a quick way out of her emotional distress. This fruit appeals to her carnal desires, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1Jn 2:16). And it offers her wisdom.
The question is, where do these desires come from? Curt Thomson again offers us an answer in his brilliant book on shame. Thomson comments that the power of the serpent's lie is in how it casts doubt on the relationship between God and the woman. The serpent says that eating from this tree which God commanded you not to eat from will make you like Him. Thomson comments, “but the subtle corollary to this idea is that, given the prohibition to the fruit of this particular tree, by implication, God does not want you to be like Him. God does not want you to have what He has. He does not want you to be as close and as connected to Him as you might think He does. And by further implication, therefore, you are not as important as you think. You, as it turns out, are less than you think. You. Are. Not. Enough.” This is shame creeping in.
The brilliance of this lie continues as the serpent offers the woman a solution: eat this fruit. And by doing so you will be enough. You’ll gain wisdom and then God will think more of you. This fruit will offer you everything your relationship with God didn’t. Eat this and you will never feel shame again. So the woman bites and the world has been in slavery and darkness ever since.
There was no magic within the apple that caused the world to fall into darkness. It is what the woman believed that changed humanity forever. It started with the seed of doubt and shame, which led to the lie of contempt. Shame and contempt are intimately linked. Shame exposes us, and contempt gives us a way to cover our shame. I will argue that contempt is a way of life, a specific way of being in the world out of which arises things like envy, but before we can understand this way of life, we must understand what it is compensating for. We must understand shame.
Thomson helpfully defines shame as “an undercurrent of sensed emotion, of which we may either have a slight or robust impression that, should we put words to it, would declare some version of I am not enough; There is something wrong with me; I am bad; or I don’t matter.” Thus shame is not first an emotion, (like disgust, hate, embarrassment, or anger, though these emotions all arise from shame states) but a state of being which undergirds emotion; a profound conviction that something within me, the very core of who I am is profoundly defective, deficient or evil. Shame tells us that the very essence of our being is not “very good” as someone said, but in fact very bad. This is our defining characteristic.
One can see why such a belief would lead to a radical way of life. Contempt becomes this radical life lived in desperate need to cover up that axiomatic truth that deficiency, inadequacy, or worthlessness define my life. Contempt stems from this core belief and becomes a salve. Contempt, just like the snake in the garden, offers a way out. “If you only eat this fruit, or read this book, or work longer days, or get more friends, then you won’t be defective anymore.” Eve’s belief is that gaining wisdom would make her more appealing to God. Because of course Eve is not appealing to God on her own. She needs to gain wisdom in order to earn that pleasure. What contempt does is “[keep] us independently working to cover our shame.” It’s a way of life, a life lived inside contempt: if only I were smarter, if only I were wiser, I shouldn’t have been that stupid! I shouldn’t have been so sensitive! What was I thinking?? Because somehow being sensitive, or showing weakness, or not knowing the answer displays our integral deficiency. We have made a deal with the devil. We agreed to play by his rules. But why should not knowing the answer be against the rules and worthy of ridicule? When a young child excitedly, but wrongly answers a teacher's question receiving laughs and ridicule, why does she immediately think, “Why didn’t you get it right? You should be smarter than that!”? Why doesn’t she decide that it’s ok to answer wrongly, or even feel indignant at the laughter and ridicule of her classmates, insinuating that she is less than? Because she agrees with the class that she is less than, so she moves into contempt for herself. For she deserves it. Those are the rules. And to become enough she must stop displaying her deficiency and start to work harder. Shame is the lie that says, “you are not enough.” Contempt is the lie that says, “you should be.”
Then comes in that lurking thing. Then the darkness closes around. The haunting whispers ridicule. Envy creeps in. It is charged with shame and contempt. It plays by the rules of the darkness. When it sees any good thing it is suspicious. Envy is the contempt of and desire for another’s good.
Imagine yourself toiling in the dessert, living inside contempt.“If only I can be more diligent, then I won’t be a failure anymore. And when people see that I’m diligent and not a failure, they will accept and love me.” So you’re digging and toiling and working so hard to overcome your shame. Then you look to your left and you see your brother. And a party is being thrown for him. He is being showered with love, and acceptance and connection. You defiantly look away and in an instant your heart is poisoned with envy. You know that your brother has not worked as hard as you have to earn the things he is unjustly enjoying. It isn’t right (according to the contempt economy). Those aren’t the rules. Not only hasn’t your brother done the necessary work to earn those blessings for which you have toiled your whole life, he has done those very things which you know bring about the world's hate and revulsion. Self-righteously you think to yourself, “If I were like my brother, irresponsible, lazy, greedy, and lustful, I would be rejected, outcast, and shunned. And rejection would be right! I would deserve it. That’s what happens to shameful people. But here I am, working and toiling for the very things he receives! Not only is he being spared what he deserves, but he is being given what only I deserve and he has not earned!”
Of course, this is the story of the elder son from Jesus’s parable, The Return of the Prodigal. This is envy. This parable illustrates the connection between envy and contempt.The elder son is firmly living inside contempt. He believes in his deficiency and he believes that to cover such deficiency he must work to prove that he is worthy and deserving of love and connection. He must become more. Envy partners with this belief but in relation to others. Envy operates inside contempt. Envy rears its head when the contemptuous person sees someone else receiving good without following any of the rules prescribed by the ways of contempt.
The older brother is trapped inside envy and contempt. It is how he sees the world. He cannot fathom how his younger brother receives for free what he has worked his whole life to earn. This is envy. It’s sorrow, anger and resentment that the world isn’t what you thought it was, and that your own work seems to yield nothing, while the lack of effort on another’s part seems to be rewarded with all that you desire. By the estimation of the elder, the younger son should be shunned, because under it all, the older brother believes that if he were to show himself for who he truly is and let go off all the contempt and the working, earning and deserving, he would be shunned. When the contempt is stripped away, at the core the elder brother believes that he deserves to be discarded, despite all his longing to be accepted. He projects this thinking onto the world and then envies the acceptance he longs for when it is given to another he deems undeserving. “Why should he get all that I desire when I have to work so hard? He did nothing. I do everything and still I have nothing! Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29 NIV).
But to this the father says, “‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’” (Luke 15:31 NIV). “Do not slave,” the father says. “You don’t have to earn my love and acceptance. You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. It is only right that we celebrate your brother.” It is right. These are the rules the father plays by. Envy says that the celebration is wrong because the younger brother did nothing to deserve it, but the father says this is exactly why we must celebrate. The point of a gift is that the receiver does not deserve it, lest it be a reward rather than a gift. And this is how we can move from living inside contempt to living as a gift, entering into joy. God entreats us, leave the dessert, come into my garden; leave the darkness, come into the light. In the language of our parable, come out of the field, cease your working, and enter into the light and joy of my house. One of the most prolific modern interpreters of this parable, Henri Nouwen writes, “God is urging me to come home, to enter into His light, and to discover there that, in God, all people are uniquely and completely loved.” For Nouwen, gratitude is the key to moving out of contempt (“resentment” is the word he uses) into the realm of the gift. He writes, “there must be gratitude - the opposite of resentment [contempt]. Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy. Gratitude, however, goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift.” Living life inside gratitude becomes a new way of life, the life of God. When living inside of gratitude I no longer toil for acceptance and goodness, I receive it as a gift and rejoice in God’s timeless words, that all he created is “very good.” In gratitude I can let go of envy and rejoice in the goodness of God’s gifts wherever I see them. Life is not a desert where I fight and toil for goodness and love by the sweat of my brow. Goodness and love are God’s free gifts to anyone and everyone without merit and without cost.
 Philip Schaff, The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection: 3 Series, 37 Volumes, 65 Authors,1,000 Books, 18,000 Chapters, 16 Million Words (London: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014), location 104093, kindle ed.
 Mark A. Yarhouse, “The Vice of Envy: Insights for the History of Pastoral Care” Journal of Psychology and Christianity; Vol 19, No 1 (2000), 25-37.
 Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 105.
 See Ibid., 102
 Ibid., 103
 Ibid., 24
 Open Hearts Ministry, The Journey Begins: Leader Guide (Unpublished), 116.
 Henri Nouwen, Return of the Prodigal Son: Story of Homecoming (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 81.