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Envy dressed up as equality

A few weeks ago two of my daughters were fighting over a stuffed animal, both insisting it was theirs. I wanted to stop the fight but this struck me as a teachable moment…and I knew I had just the right story to share.

“Do you remember when two women came to King Solomon and both said a baby was theirs? King Solomon was going to use a sword to cut the baby in half so that each woman could have half.” Then came the mike drop moment: “Would that be a good idea to do with your stuffie?”

The story didn’t impact my girls like I’d hoped: both agreed that splitting the stuffie lengthwise was the way to go.

Hmmm…

I was left wondering what Solomon would have done if both women had said, “Sure, go ahead.” The best I could come up with was to have the toy bear come stay with the “king” for a while – instead of half a stuffie for both, it was no stuffie for either of them.

Kids have a hard time seeing it

A few days later I came across another illustration, and because of the less than satisfactory conclusion to my earlier conversation with the girls, I wanted to share this with them too.

In the June 6 “Nearer to God Devotional” Pastor Mark Stewart shared an old Jewish folktale, in which an angel visits a businessman known for being envious. The angel wants to encourage the shopkeeper to give up his envy so he tells the man that he can have one wish but with one condition: whatever he wishes for, his neighbor will get twice as much of it. The spiteful man considers the offer for a few moments, and then makes his request: “Please make me blind in one eye.”

Both my girls were shocked, and then somewhat amused. What a clever, but ever so wicked, man! He would be blind in one eye, but his neighbor would be blind in both.

This story reminded me of another, so I shared an old Cold War joke – something Ronald Reagan might have said. One day a genie visited a Russian peasant and told him he could have one wish. The peasant was quite excited and told the genie about how his neighbor had gotten a goat. He shared how the goat provided the neighbor’s whole family with milk, and goat’s hair for clothing, and was also a wonderful pet for that family’s children.

“So you want a goat too?” asked the genie.

“No,” said the peasant, “I want you to kill my neighbor’s goat.”

In the Bible, the words covetousness and envy seem to be used interchangeably. But if a distinction were to be made, we might describe envy as taking covetousness one step further. The merely covetous man wants what his neighbor has – he wants to be rich too. But the envious man isn’t as concerned with his own state as that of his neighbor’s. He won’t be satisfied until his rich neighbor is poor.

Adult miss it too

I shared these stories with my daughters because there were obvious connections to be made. There are going to be times when one child gets something – whether it’s piano lessons, a new toy, an opportunity to visit a friend’s house, etc. – that the other siblings don’t get. And many a time those other children will have a hard time being happy for their sibling’s opportunity. They’d be happier if only their sister’s “goat” was killed.

Among adults, this destructive envy is harder to spot but that’s only because we’re better at hiding our sins – we’ll even present them as virtues.

One example: As I finished sharing the second story my wife noted, “This sounds like the Canadian healthcare system.” In the great white North we aren’t always pleased with our healthcare; wait times can be not simply burdensome, but even deadly. However, one thing Canadians take pride in is how it is the same healthcare for everyone. Politicians and voters stand united against queue-jumping and against a two-tiered healthcare system. Consider though, what we are doing when we try to prevent someone who uses their own money from buying better care than is available to the rest of us. Aren’t we wishing his “goat” was dead? Trying to improve healthcare is a noble desire. But trying to prevent others from seeking better healthcare for themselves is envy disguised as principle.

This same “envy as virtue” is behind complaints about income inequality. We live in a time and a place where we are richer than we have ever been – every house has conveniences that even a hundred years ago were luxuries for only the richest of the rich…if they existed at all (running hot and cold water, central heating, phones, computers, TVs, dishwashers, washing machines, vacuums, etc.). So how can the Devil get us to overlook the many ways we have been materially blessed? By getting us looking over the back fence at the new toys in our neighbor’s yard. The 10th commandment (Ex. 20:17) forbids just that, but to obscure that clear commandment the Devil presents this sin as something noble. “This isn’t coveting; this is about equality,” he tells us. “This isn’t coveting; it is about compassion for the poor!” Poverty is a problem. When some don’t have enough to eat, or a place to sleep, that is a real concern, and an evil to be fought. But income inequality is simply envy – anger at how much more someone else has than us.

Conclusion

Covetousness and envy are sins of ingratitude, of not recognizing how much we’ve been given. Would income inequality be an issue if “poor” protesting college students understood they are richer than 85% of the world? Would my daughters fight over one stuffed animal if I had them first go count their dozens of other stuffies? More to the point, would we envy even Bill Gates if we understood what we’ve been given in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

As Pastor Stewart writes:

“Secure in the love of Jesus Christ and our identity as the Father’s children, I have no need to envy my brother or sister. I am a recipient of favor and kindness and grace that I could never earn or pay for. There is no higher or better privilege to reach for…. Content in what the Father has chosen to give to me, I am now freed up to want the best for you.


Up Next


Economics

5 things Christians should know about income inequality

Income inequality is still at the forefront of conversation for many people. Thankfully, there are biblical principles that help Christians understand whether income inequality is a problem, and if so, how we are to respond. At the Christian research organization I work for – the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics – we talk a lot about various aspects of income inequality and how to think about it. Today, I’d like to summarize this tough topic through these five points dealing with the best approach to bringing about flourishing, especially for the poor. 1. HOW INCOME INEQUALITY IS MEASURED Income inequality measures income differences across groups of people using a statistical tool called the Gini coefficient. It ranges between zero and one. A score of one indicates perfect inequality: one person makes all the income and everyone else makes zero. A score of zero indicates perfect equality: everyone earns exactly the same amount. The U.S. Gini coefficient is 0.45 according to the CIA World Fact Book. For the sake of context, the impoverished country of Bangladesh has less income inequality than the U.S. (Gini of 0.32). Meanwhile Hong Kong has slightly more income inequality than the U.S. (Gini of 0.54).  Alone, income inequality data doesn’t tell us that much about whether one country is “better” than another. 2. CRONYISM MAKES INCOME INEQUALITY WORSE, AND IT'S UNFAIR Cronyism occurs when corporations pursue the government for benefits, protections, or subsidies benefiting their business at the expense of competing firms and consumers. It is a growing trend evidenced by the hundreds of lobbying firms popping up on K Street. Politicians have responded quite favorably to these lobbying efforts and have created a culture in which the most well-connected win. This is inherently unfair. An unjust system is prevailing where ordinary businesses and entrepreneurs are failing because they lack the resources to buy off politicians. The unfortunate result is that they can’t succeed, and the well-connected rich get richer and stifle more opportunities for the poor. 3. DIVERSITY IS A BIBLICAL PREMISE OF CREATION. WE ARE BORN WITH DIFFERENT GIFTS, RESULTING IN DIFFERENT INCOMES. We are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and, while we bear many physical similarities, we are all distinct. That means that, by definition, we are unequal. God knew that our uniqueness makes our work and talents inherently dignifying and brings us into community with one another. Our interdependence makes us able to achieve things we never could on our own. We use our gifts and skills to provide goods and services that others need. We then trade for goods and services that we need but aren’t able to provide ourselves. The market return for our services is our income, and that income is based on the market supply of what we provide and the value people place on it. This means that our incomes will be different. However, because we do not operate in a vacuum, those who do earn high incomes tend to create lots of value for everyone, including lots of job opportunities. High incomes are not a sign that the rich have stolen from the poor. Quite the contrary, wealthy individuals have often innovated products and services that make us all richer and ease our way of life. 4. INCOME MOBILITY IS A BETTER MEASURE OF PROSPERITY Income mobility is quite different from income inequality. Income mobility tracks the lifetime income of a person. It’s a way of understanding if people are able to earn more income over their lives as a result of increases in their education, skills, and productivity. The trouble with the data on income inequality is that it doesn’t track individuals over time. If we look at the poorest income bracket in 1990 and again in 2014, we have no idea if the people who were poor in 1990 are still poor today simply by looking at the data. In fact, mobility data suggests that almost sixty percent of individuals who were in the lower income brackets moved into higher brackets in under a decade. 5. WE SHOULD FOCUS ON WHAT GOD HAS CALLED US TO DO, NOT ON WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING In a flourishing society, there are going to be lots of people who make high levels of income. Think how different the Congo or Vietnam would look if local entrepreneurs had the opportunity to create and innovate. The world would have a lot more people like Bill Gates and a lot more wealth and opportunity for all – not just the rich. It’s easy to want for ourselves what others have, but we can’t all be Bill Gates. God has gifted each of us to do something specific and special. We need to focus on our unique callings and do them with excellence rather than focusing on what others have. Unfortunately, some of the talk around income inequality is about coveting what others have rather than wanting more for the poor. I can tell you from living in a county with the highest per-capita income in the country that it is easy to want what others have: the newest car, the bigger house, the better wardrobe. It is a deceptive trap to believe that if we have these things, we will feel better or live better. WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT INCOME INEQUALITY? Be aware of the cronyism all around us that often shows up in seemingly benign programs like laws mandating certain light bulbs, sugar subsidies, and occupational licensing. Government is increasingly giving in to the entitlement culture of lobbying. We need businesses to stop asking for favors and political leaders who will stop the handouts. Furthermore, prayerfully discern the path to which God calls you and pursue it with integrity, hard work, and faith. No matter what income it brings, it gives you a chance to serve others in the here and now and achieve everlasting significance for God’s kingdom. This article is reprinted, with minor edits, with permission from the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (www.tifwe.org). The original article appears here. IFWE is a Christian research organization committed to advancing biblical and economic principles that help individuals find fulfillment in their work and contribute to a free and flourishing society. Go here to subscribe to the free IFWE Daily Blog. Dr. Anne Bradley "is the Vice President of Economic Initiatives at the Institute, where she develops and commissions research toward a systematic biblical theology of economic freedom." RedPanel.com comic used with permission....


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