Month: November 2018

Home / Month: November 2018

The Wrath of Cain

November 26, 2018 | pride | No Comments

Can you define envy? Is envy bad? Would you know if you had it?

The classic “seven deadly sins” were lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, pride, greed, and envy. According to the proverb, “a sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones.” Explain to me, if you can, the difference between greed and envy. In the off chance you haven’t studied Aristotle, this would seem a distinction without a difference. It sounds like counting the same sin twice. Yet there is a difference, and quite an important one. Greed is a desire for more but connotes no malice or resentment toward another. Envy is “to feel displeasure and ill-will at the superiority of another person in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable.” Envy requires at least one other person, who is the object of envy. It may be a desire for the possessions of another, or resentment over another’s success. It doesn’t even matter that the target actually is superior, only that he or she be perceived as such. Envy, as opposed to greed, requires comparison:

Greed: I want a new beach house.

Envy: I want your new beach house.

Greed: I want a new Ferrari.

Envy: She got a new Ferrari? I hope it crashes.

In the pursuit of greed, one might lie, cheat, injure, or steal from another; but those are means to an end. With envy, one-upmanship is the end. Perhaps now you can understand why the ancients considered envy second only to pride among the most serious vices. Cain harbored envy toward Abel. Envy put Jesus on the cross.

Envy is distinctly common. A 2016 study from Spain engaged 541 volunteers to participate in a series of game scenarios. The scenarios were designed so that volunteers would receive the largest payoff by cooperating with one another, but would suffer a penalty if they cooperated while their partner defected. Based on their performance, the participants were categorized into one of four types: optimist, pessimist, trustful, and envious. Almost one-third exhibited an envious disposition. They were more concerned with minimizing the payoff to their game partner, even when it reduced their own payoff.

The Pentateuch relates an account of hardcore envy leading to disastrous consequences. While wandering in the wilderness, Korah the Levite and Dathan, Abiram, and Oh from the tribe of Reuben accosted Moses. ““You’ve gone too far, because the entire community is holy, every last one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”

To put this in perspective, first Moses didn’t want the job, and second, he was the humblest man on the face of the earth. Korah demanded to be admitted to the priesthood, a role strictly limited to descendants of Moses’s brother Aaron. Moses explained it was up to God to decide who led, but his attempts at reconciliation were rebuffed. Korah and the rest of the “resistance” started to turn the people of Israel against Moses. The next day Moses gathered the people together, proclaiming:

“By this you will know that the Lord sent me to do these deeds and that it wasn’t my own desire. If all these people die a natural death, or if their fate be that of all humans, then the Lord hasn’t sent me. But if the Lord performs an act of creation, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and everything that belongs to them, so that they descend alive to their graves, then you’ll know that these men disrespected the Lord.”

Numbers 16:28-30, NKJV

As soon as he finished speaking these words, the ground under them split open. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, including every human that belonged to Korah and all their possessions. They along with all their possessions descended alive to their graves, and the earth closed over them. They perished in the middle of the assembly.

The offense of Korah and his allies was envy. Getting swallowed up by the earth is pretty intense. Clearly, in the eyes of God this is a serious matter.

Envy has become a subject of interest among social psychologists in recent years. Traditionally it was regarded as a hostile emotion that prompts deception, limits cooperation, and rejoices over the failure of others. Some began to argue for the existence of “benign” envy, where someone attempts to reduce the difference with someone better through self-improvement. “Malicious” envy tries to level the field by taking down the other person.

A research paper from 2018 by Lange, Paulhus, and Crusius instead found that both types of envy were strongly associated with the “Dark Triad” of personality, particularly Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Both forms of envy cause psychological pain. According to the authors, the pain results from a feeling of inferiority. Inferiority then leads to depression, aggression, and anger toward the fortunate, and happiness when the other person fails. There was a difference in the severity of effect: “benign envy involves subtle social manipulation, whereas malicious envy can extend to blatant aggression.” We can apply this principle to explain the motive of Cain. Having been upstaged by his brother, he became angry, and the anger led to murder.

Recall that the definition of envy is to “feel displeasure” at the superiority of another. It may indeed lead to anger and aggression, but different people react in different ways. Displeasure can also mean discouragement, depression, and despair – and it’s still envy. If we feel resentment over the success of others, or experience disappointment when we compare ourselves, it is envy – just like Cain. We’re simply reacting in a different way because of our circumstances and disposition. The outward manifestation of pride is not always haughty and self-promoting. It may be deep inward pain, with little or no outward expression. The violent ones end up in jail. The depressed ones end up in therapy.

Most of us think we are better than most of us. As a consequence, we are sometimes tempted to advertise our moral superiority through public expression. This is known as “moral grandstanding”. There’s nothing wrong with issuing public moral pronouncements; it’s not merely a right, but sometimes a duty. The issue here is motive. It is grandstanding when the main motive is to flaunt our virtue. (With human behavior, usually more than one motive is in play).

One of the many drawbacks of moral grandstanding is that it can lead to “ramping up.” If a conversation partner makes a moral statement that is equally virtuous to our own position, pride may push us to a more extreme position in order to maintain our own moral superiority. Ramping up is one of many prideful behaviors that contribute to extreme polarization on issues.

Both moral grandstanding and ramping up are pervasive in social and political spheres. It is often referred to as "virtue signalling" but that expression is a misnomer with a life of its own. This is not an invitation to point fingers. When we accuse specific people of moral grandstanding, we cross a line. We can't know the sincerity of their motive. It's like accusing a person of lying, when for all we know they may actually believe what they're saying. In the broader social context though, we can identify it, criticize it, ignore it, but especially avoid doing it.

Naturally, being the spiritual people we are, none of us would stoop to moral grandstanding, would we? Christians wouldn’t try to outdo one another in their spirituality, would they?

The “Dilbert” comic strip by Scott Adams features an intermittent character named “Topper”. Topper has a single distinguishing trait: whenever any other character makes a statement in his presence, he must counter with a competing claim that is more impressive. It’s always something outrageous, or it wouldn’t be funny. But the point of satire is to poke fun at things real people do. Have you ever played Christian Topper? It goes like this:

Sam: How was your trip?

Loretta: What a blessing! We were in Haiti for two weeks.

Topper: I spent 37 years in Borneo living off grass and beetles!

Loretta: We did get a stomach bug. I lost 3 pounds.

Topper: I survived malaria, dengue fever, Zika, and Ebola!

Loretta: But we prayed for a quick recovery and were soon back on our feet.

Topper: I was eaten by cannibals and prayed my way back to life!

Or closer to home:

Bob: We watched “Harry Potter” last night and had a good conversation with our kids this morning about the themes of courage and sacrifice.

Leah: We won’t let our kids watch “Harry Potter”. Didn’t you know that because of those stories millions of Christian kids turned to Satanism?

Topper: I’ve never watched a movie my entire life! In fact, I walk everywhere with my eyes shut so I can’t even see an advertisement!

Now, most Christians who eschewed the Harry Potter franchise probably were quite sincere in their belief that it was harmful (even if a disturbing number fell for the hoax about witchcraft and Satanism, mistaking parody for fact). Making a public display over it is more problematic. Moral grandstanding comes so naturally to us, it can be unconscious and quite unintentional.

Christians play this game even with the Bible. At one extreme some compete to see how simplistically they can interpret it without hitting 10 on the nuttiness scale. (Snakes, anyone?) At the other extreme they compete to see how much of the Bible they can jettison and still pretend to be Christian. It’s hard to grandstand from inside the mainstream where no one notices or pays much attention to you. Unfortunately, if enough people jump in, the ramping up effect can either move the mainstream, split it, or (usually) both.

Jesus knew moral grandstanding when he saw it, and warned his disciples:

"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly." (Matthew 6:1-4, NKJV)

We play Christian Topper with an endless list of theological and moral issues, but it’s a poor Christian witness. Better we follow the admonition of our Lord and let our character speak - softly:

"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16 NKJV).

Excerpted from the upcoming book "Superbia" by Steven Willing, MD

By U.S. Army, Post-Work: User:W.wolny - Archivesnormandie 1939-45, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=765569

It is early spring of 1943. The Axis powers are beginning to crumble against the massive and unrelenting Allied onslaught. Plans for the imminent invasion of Sicily are underway, establishing a base for the invasion and liberation of continental Europe.
Meanwhile, back at US military intelligence, a tightly knit group of outliers have been poring over captured Nazi military communications. They conclude that Berlin is a Potemkin facade – the entire brain trust of the Nazi war machine is hiding away in the Canary Islands. “That is their true vulnerability,” they determine. “Capture the Canaries, and victory is assured."
 
The Allied command views the minority report as pure nonsense, but a third of the officer corps is persuaded and defects. Soldiers, seaman, and marines are transferred to the Canary Islands and commence their assault. Strangely, the beaches are deserted except for driftwood, dead starfish, and a noisy flock of seagulls. The befuddled Germans sense an opportunity too great to pass up, and begin to airdrop a few unfortunate paratroopers to keep the Allies distracted.
 
Meanwhile, with a third of Allied forces diverted, the Germans retake North Africa. The Japanese overrun India, then Australia. With the British Empire in full collapse, German warships and troop carriers begin to amass at Cherbourg for the final amphibious assault upon the British Isles.
 
In this counterfactual scenario, faulty intelligence led to a commitment of resources to fight the wrong battle in the wrong location, snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. In other words, kind of like Christians fighting over the age of the earth.
 
This should be the golden era of science apologetics. Never has there been more evidence in support of a Divine Creator and the wisdom of His plan for humanity. Astronomy and physics have established beyond doubt that our universe of space, time, matter, and energy had a beginning. There is nothing in our realm of understanding to explain it. The universe and our planet are exquisitely designed for human civilization, with nearly a thousand specific parameters tuned in perfect alignment. In the realm of theoretical physics, the nature of fundamental physical reality looks too complex for comfort.
 
Biology, biochemistry, and genetics have revealed unfathomable complexity in the nature of life and reproduction. There is no working model for the origin of life. The problem of human consciousness remains so intractable we don’t even know where to start.
 
Medical research confirms beyond any doubt that the Biblical model of heterosexual monogamy is uniquely conducive to the mental and physical health of adults and their children and to social stability. Psychology and the social sciences corroborate the Biblical view of human nature as naturally proud and self-serving, with a propensity toward evil.
 
Every year more scientists and intellectuals come to embrace Christianity as the only adequate explanation for all they know and see.
 
With overwhelming firepower at our command, what do we do? A tiny contingent  with quasiscientific credentials insists that the Earth is really only six thousand years old (faulty intelligence). Their strategy has engaged a large proportion of the Christian community (diversion of resources). They make that hill the one upon which the Truly Faithful must stand or die (wrong battle in the wrong location). Opponents of Christianity are gleeful to engage, knowing full well their real vulnerabilities lie far from that battlefront. Young people raised in the Church are losing their faith in college, being persuaded over this one peripheral issue that Christianity is anti-scientific. Non-Christians simply roll their eyes and groan. And no one seems to get why.
 
To the apostle Paul, the Truth of Christianity stood on the resurrection of Christ. He penned those words when eyewitnesses to the risen Christ still walked the Earth, of whom Paul was one. For some Christians today, the Truth of Christianity stands or falls on a six thousand year old Earth. There’s only one way to lose this war, and we’re making great headway. The seagulls are getting nervous.