Why Do They Get What I Want?

Envy and the Eyes That Matter

When I was about five, my dad invited me and my older sister into his home studio for fun. Like most of the musicians and producers in Nashville, he had a basement room outfitted with everything you need to make a decent demo: a dark soundproofed booth with a mic and stool, another room with a soundboard, and a thick glass window in between — for giving the “thumbs up” sign between takes.

He let me try first. I stood in the tiny room and sang along to the track playing through an enormous pair of headphones. In about three minutes, I was losing interest. I began to complain that the headphones were squeezing my ears, and my dad let me go back to playing.

Then it was my sister Sophie’s turn. And apparently, this was the day my dad discovered Sophie’s voice.

What did they work on? I didn’t hear it until a few weeks later when my parents had friends over for supper. My dad mentioned the session they’d done, and our guests wanted to hear it. Everybody sat down in the living room, but for some reason, I didn’t go in.

I stood in the hallway outside as the track began and Sophie’s voice burst into the air.

Even at seven years old, her voice was clear, powerful, and controlled. My little stomach flipped. I cringed outside the door as the guests reacted. My dad modestly turned the volume down after the first minute. Why had I left the studio? Why did I quit so quickly? Why didn’t I see that it would lead to Sophie being shown off while I was left standing out in the hallway?

Wishing Against Others

The smell of foam insulation in a recording booth would become very familiar to me in years to come. My dad did a great job of including all his kids in the music of his life. He invited his daughters onstage with him regularly during church concerts.

Later, he used connections to get us all jobs working as session singers for children’s projects — allowing us to save for future cars or colleges. He produced and paid for me to record a CD of jazz cover tunes when I was fifteen, and was always uniquely supportive of my voice — even if I knew it was more idiosyncratic and less powerful than Sophie’s. She was compared to Mariah Carey, I was compared to Billie Holiday, my younger sisters were later compared to The Wailin’ Jennys — and my dad managed to be a fan of all of it.

But when I look back, I’m shocked to recognize this moment as the earliest flowering of envy in my life. Peering back through the decades, I can see my five-year-old self standing in the hallway. The impulse of her heart is unmistakable.

I wished my dad would not play the CD. I wished the CD had been scratched or mislaid. I wished her voice didn’t sound like that. I wished the guests weren’t around to hear it.

In fact, I wished the glory of her voice was banished out of existence.

Inequality and the Eyes That Matter

The glory of a voice like Sophie’s is a deliberate gift from the God of glory. He stamps all of his creation with this glory — though mankind has a double portion.

Man, who is made in the image of God, has been “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). His glory is borrowed, reflective, derivative. But it’s real. And because it’s real, his fellow human beings — all of whom have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (Romans 1:23) — are moved to respond to it. Even in small amounts. Even in the temporary forms we find in our fellow creatures.

The glory of charisma, of competence, of intelligence, of beauty, of artistic talent, of wealth, of relational security — these all give us a sensation of brushing our fingers against the locked door of heaven itself. And we must respond, whether in admiration, in enjoyment, in worship, or (like the five-year-old Tilly) in horror and hatred.

There’s a name for that horror and hatred: envy.

Humblest of Pleasures

The strength of our horror over the glory of others corresponds to the strength of our appetite. We not only want to enjoy glory — we want to be enveloped in glory, to assume some part of it into ourselves.

This desire can be good and creaturely. In a discussion of heaven’s glories, C.S. Lewis shared that he’d always been uncomfortable with the idea of “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17) waiting for us in heaven. What kind of glory could this be? he wondered. Fame, like the vain kind you seek among your peers? He felt it was impossible to desire glory and also be properly humble, until something clicked for him:

Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures — nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. (The Weight of Glory, 37)

Mankind was made “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (in the words of the Westminster Catechism). But this process could never leave man unchanged. He was also made to be glorified himself — crowned with the glory of his Father’s eternal pleasure in him.

Small Heart of Envy

One of our most basic needs is to be looked upon by the Eyes That Matter, and told, in the Voice That Matters, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). It’s not enough to look on his glory; we want to be let inside. We want to be transformed, to be resplendent, to be strong enough to revel in his glory without shame. We were designed to see pleasure in the eyes of our heavenly Father.

Here’s the connection to my five-year-old self. Like a second Cain, I reacted in sinful displeasure when my sister got a “Well done” from my earthly father. I couldn’t handle hearing another praised by our father, because envy operates in a zero-sum world. Envy believes the lie that God’s universe is one of essential scarcity.

“Envy believes the lie that God’s universe is one of essential scarcity.”

The envious heart is too small. It can’t fathom a God who is limitless in his expressions of pleasure and overflowing love. Our fallen minds truly believe there’s not enough of his plenty to go around. This means that if someone else was given a portion of borrowed glory (a glorious talent, beauty, skill, job, or intimate relationship), then there must be less left for me.

What Can Quench Envy?

It’s not just little girls in headphones who hunger for glory. All of us seek beauty and light and fame in our free moments — watching our shows, listening to our songs, shopping for wedding photographers, hiking the lake trail, entwining our souls-in-bodies with other souls-in-bodies, posting our updates, kissing our children, and tucking ourselves into a booth at the local craft beer place for deep conversation. We are glory-seekers, sniffing the wind and watching the horizon. Let a thing whisper, however falsely, however faintly, of our God and Father, and we will run after it.

After all this seeking, how can we believe the good news when it comes? It’s too good to be true; it’s too much to bear:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9–13)

“The envious heart can’t fathom a God who is limitless in his expressions of pleasure and overflowing love.”

We’re in the hallway outside, fuming that another child of God was given glories we weren’t. We’re wondering if the love of the Father will run out before we walk into the room, if he’ll look at us like Isaac looked at Esau and say, “He has taken away your blessing” (Genesis 27:35). We can’t imagine what kind of glory would make it okay.

What glory could take away the sting of being poor while another is rich, of being single while another is married with children, of giving our best to make mediocre paintings while someone else’s effortless eye creates a masterpiece?

Envy Will Drown in Glory

There is, however, a glory that will swallow up the sting of inequality (though it has not promised to take away inequality itself): this light has given us the right to become children of God. And this is the glory that can work such wonders:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The pleasure of the Father will overtake us and swallow up all else — pleasure because of what Christ did on our behalf, pleasure because we’ve been reworked into his glorious image from the inside out. We now look like Christ — his glory will one day envelop us and transform us. It has begun even now:

We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Envy doesn’t stand a chance. In the final day, it will be swallowed up in glory. Even so, come Lord Jesus.