The Desert Fathers and Mothers are deeply aware of how the desire to possess what God has not given us can divide us from one another:
Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, “Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as other men do.” The other answered, “I don’t know how a quarrel happens.” The first said, “Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, ‘That’s mine!’ Then you say, ‘No, it’s mine!’ That is how you begin a quarrel.” So they put a brick between them and one of them said, “That’s mine!” The other said, “No, it’s mine!”
The first answered, “Yes, it is yours. Take it away.” So they were unable to argue with each other.
Humorous as it is, the story makes a crucial point. What is at stake in the attitude of the Desert Fathers and Mothers toward possessions is not only the beauty of a life of simplicity but the desire to strike a blow at one of the deepest threats to the human race—the sin of envy. Remember the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)? Cain envied the praise that Abel received from the Lord, and—believing that more for Abel meant less for him—murdered his brother.
The desire to have what does not belong to us destroys. Every time. The story of the two hermits illuminates one of the central ways in which relationships break down: One person’s envy of the other opens a door through which death walks in. We desire their money, their possessions, their power; we covet their relationships, their connections, their opportunities; we look with pain in our hearts upon all the good that has come to them and wonder what is wrong with us. No relationship can long survive the poisonous presence of envy.
The intertestamental book the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that the tragic episode between Cain and Abel wasn’t the first time that envy reared its ugly head in God’s good world:
God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it. (Wisdom 2:23-24, NRSV)
According to the Wisdom of Solomon, the devil’s envy of God led to his cruel scheme to undermine humanity’s relationship with God. And what is more, the very tool he used to undermine that relationship was envy. Think about the serpent’s words to Eve in the Garden: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4-5, emphasis mine). The tragedy, of course, is not only that Adam and Eve were already “like God”—created in the image and likeness of God—but also that God, who is both good and generous, would have given them everything they needed to know about good and evil exactly when and where it was appropriate. The daily bread of practical knowledge would have been theirs, had they only trusted. Generous God gladly shares, as Jesus reminds us: “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine” (John 17:10).
But instead, like Cain, they murdered God in their hearts. And that is what envy always does. It sunders; it divides; it murders. As the apostle James said,
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. James 4:1-3
James would know. He was the half-brother of Jesus and watched as his brother, because of the envy of the Jewish leaders (Mark 15:10; Matthew 27:18), was handed over to Pontius Pilate to suffer and to die. They wanted his influence with the people, his power; they feared the loss of theirs; and from the root of envy came the fruit of murder—Cain’s sin writ large. Is there a clearer example of how the desire for what is not ours—and the fear that we will be left without—sunders us from one another and from the life of God than the jealous murder of the man who is God, Jesus the Lord?
And once again, their sin repeats the tragedy of the Garden— for the lordship of Jesus takes away nothing we need but only adds and adds and adds more to who and what we are, until we finally share, each of us and all together, in the life of God and all things in God. By faith, we are made joint heirs of all things with Christ (Romans 8:17). And because of this, Paul can say to the Corinthian Christians, whose existence as a community was constantly threatened by envious factions, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). When we realize that everything already belongs to all of us, envy is fundamentally unnecessary.
What, then, is to be done about this desire for what is not ours, which severs us from God and one another, cutting us off from the gracious flow of divine life?
The medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrestled with this question in his famous work, The Divine Comedy, in which he figuratively maps the soul’s sojourn out of the death of sin and into the life of God, telling a story of his journey through hell and purgatory and finally to paradise. In purgatory, he meets those who in this life had been conquered by the sin of envy: souls who “rejoiced far more at others’ hurts / than at [their] own good fortune.” For these souls, the punishment (which also will be their healing) is to have their eyes sewn shut with wires so that they can no longer look upon the lives of others with envy, nor compare those lives with theirs.
The fathers and mothers of the desert would heartily agree that one of the most spiritually healthy things we can do is to simply stop paying attention to what others have (and what we do or don’t have in comparison) since the result can really only be one of two things: Either we are filled with pride that we have more than others, or we are filled with anger and sadness that we have less than others. Both are spiritually disastrous. One fills us with a false confidence in ourselves; the other cuts gratitude at the root— and both sever us from the life of God. So part of the solution here is that we need to start to learn to say once again with the psalmist, Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. – Psalm 16:5-6
And then, saying this, we must “sew our eyes shut” to what others have, remembering that happiness isn’t having everything we want but, rather, wanting everything that we have— cultivating a spirit of contentment within the “boundary lines” the Lord has assigned to us. In this way, Saint Augustine’s words will prove true of us: “Happy is he who has all he desires, and desires nothing amiss”6— which works only on the presumption that our desires have been sanctified. When we are content with God, inside the lives he has given us, we are happy. When we are not, we are miserable.
More of us, quite honestly, need to practice this. We would do well to remember, with the writer of Ecclesiastes, that so much of our “toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). We work ourselves to the bone not because we need to but because we’re trying to keep up with the lifestyles of the rich and famous—or, closer to home, our friends, who seem to always be making just a little bit more money than we are. How foolish. And unnecessary. What if, instead, we slowed down, took some deep breaths, gave thanks to God for the good things he has given us, for the people he has surrounded us with, and then entered enjoyment of them? That, friend, is the daily invitation of the Lord. And it goes a long way toward cutting the root of envy.
But given our fallen condition, attitude adjustments will likely prove to be not quite enough. And so the Desert Fathers and Mothers counsel us to actively break the lordship of possessiveness over our lives. “The desire for possessions,” said Abba Isidore of Pelusia, “is dangerous and terrible, knowing no satiety; it drives the soul which it controls to the heights of evil. Therefore let us drive it away vigorously from the beginning. For once it has become master it cannot be overcome.”7
And how do we do that? Jesus said that if our hand or foot caused us to sin, we should chop it off and throw it away (Matthew 18:8). Something like that is at work in the desert counsel to divest ourselves—as much as we are able—of unnecessary possessions. If the desire for things—money and possessions, but even status, power, and certain relationships—is a source of sin, then the obvious thing to do is simply to “chop it off”; that is, to renounce it. To lay it down, to let it go, to walk the other direction, to choose a new path.
And when we step out of the endless cycle of envy and greed and accumulation of unnecessary possessions—we experience the joy and freedom of the Kingdom! As Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “You will have treasure in heaven.” You might recall here the story of Abba Agathon and his disciples from earlier on in this book. Agathon’s disciples were dismayed at his cavalier abandonment of a cell that he had spent a great deal of time working on, protesting to him that he’d be thought unstable. Agathon’s response? “If some are scandalized, others, on the contrary, will be much edified and will say, ‘How blessed are they who go away for God’s sake, having no other care.’”
We need a new training in righteousness, friend. Beyond simply being grateful for what we have, many of us would do well to relearn the art of abandoning what we have for the sake of the Kingdom—the art of letting go of whatever has us bound with obsession and worry and compulsion so that we can lay hold of God.
Perhaps it is time to exit the rat race, once and for all. To say no to the promotion that promises more money but will steal time from your family or diminish your peace of mind. To sell the house that impresses your friends but is twice as large as you need (and difficult to keep up with financially). To stop yielding to the compulsive need to have new vehicles and start purchasing used, so that you have more resources to share with others. And to do all of this and more as acts of worship. Maybe it’s time for us to begin to learn to live simply, and humbly, and reverently again, breaking the stranglehold of envy on our lives.
Streams in the Wasteland by Andrew Arndt
What if our exhaustion, burnout, and pain are an invitation into a more vibrant faith?
Christianity is fighting for its soul. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of power and privilege for so long that many of us have forgotten the radical way of Jesus. But we have been here before. And there is a way through. Within a few hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity emerged as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Where it once took courage to be a Christian, suddenly it was easy, and the radical way of Jesus was being lost. Toward the end of the fourth century, a group of men and women began to withdraw from the halls of privilege and power into the desert to rediscover the essence of Jesus Christ. The stories and examples of these desert fathers and mothers are recorded for us.