Location: Out West

An old-fashioned guy grappling with new-fangled ways.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Envy and the American dream..

Recently, a friend curious about our new living arrangements asked me a revealing question.
"But.. aren't you afraid of what people will think of you, now that you live in a trailer park?"
As I said, this person is a friend, so he shall remain anonymous. I was sorely tempted to verbally thrash him, but the Lord was merciful to me and I counted to 10 instead. It occurred to me that perhaps many others have had similar thoughts, but for whatever reason they haven't broached the subject with me. Therefore, my friend ought to be commended for having the courage to bring up a subject that is mostly taboo. That subject is money. Not just money in broad general strokes, but my neighbor's money along with important social attitudes about money. Questions like his are valuable because they often reveal the motives that guide our earning and spending decisions.
At any rate, I didn't respond to the implied insult; the obvious social stigma that many attach to trailer parks and those who live in them. I know all the 'you might be a redneck' jokes, and have often repeated them myself, so honestly, I wasn't offended by any of that. Instead, I was struck by how completely we've fallen victim to advertisers and their constant appeals to 'one up' your neighbor. After all, you deserve it. You should have long vacations every year, new cars (and presumably the pretty blond sitting in the passenger seat in the commercial as well), bigger, better houses in gated neighborhoods.. these are all touted as things that signal your obvious worth as a person. How else can we interpret the mantra, 'You deserve it'?
Let me reiterate, I do believe in personal responsibility and that everyone should live within their means. But I'm also convinced that there is a special place in hell for bankers and advertisers who stoke the fires of envy, so they may feed their own greed. But even Christians today seem incapable of discerning the envy that permeates their financial decisions.
And so.. I asked my friend, "Why should I be concerned for my reputation because of where I live?".
Long silence. "Well.. people who live in trailer parks usually can't afford anything nicer.. I mean, don't you want your family to have the best you can afford?" "Brother" I said, "this is the best I can afford given our commitment to avoid debt the rest of our lives." "Oh". The conversation ground to a halt there. He apparently didn't want to know why we were avoiding debt. I didn't especially blame him; such knowledge really throws a monkey wrench in your personal American dream. And it tends to reveal a social attitude towards money that has more to do with hell then heaven. This attitude is revealed quite succinctly in Ecclesiastes 4:4:
"Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind."
Obviously, the preacher is not saying work itself is vain, only the attitude of envy that tends to poison our work, making it an empty striving after wind. In another place he says:
"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Ecclesiastes 2:24,25
I'm tempted to paraphrase St. Paul here when he said the 'Law is good, if you use it lawfully'. To the preacher, work is good if it's not poisoned by a spirit of envy. It would behoove us then to root envy, in all it's slippery forms, out of our lives so we can enjoy our work without reference to whatever others may think. Towards that end I offer the following as 'envy detectors'.
- If you find yourself comparing what you have to whatever your neighbor, siblings, father and mother have... you might be envious.
- If you listen to gossip about the finances of others, or spread such speculations yourself... you might be envious.. among other things.
- If you find that you are vaguely uneasy, resentful or defensive around people who SEEM to have more then you... you might be envious.
- If you find that you are smug and aloof around people who SEEM to have less then you... you are definitely self-righteous and proud.. and it might be because of envy.
- If you value appearances over reality, style over substance, subtle deceptions over honesty and transparency... it might be because of envy.
- If you catch yourself saying or thinking 'I just gotta have that' but consistently fail to examine your motives as to WHY you feel that way... you might be envious.
- If you tend to define success in terms of setting or reaching financial goals, or in terms of what you own... you might be envious.
- If you are caught up in maintaining 'appearances' and are always 'playing up' your financial condition in an attempt to impress others... you have become a liar and a hypocrite; probably because of pride and envy.
- If you spend to manipulate or earn affection from others... you might be envious. Or, just foolish.
Learn to spot envy in your own thinking and attitudes and you will very quickly see how the rest of our culture is saturated with it. It is a major component of the 'American dream'. It is a warped measure people often use to determine their ultimate worth. It is an attitude that ensures people will be owned by their possessions instead of the other way around. In addition, people who are envious tend to use people and love things, which ultimately destroys their relationships, and there they sit, with a pile of stuff around them, and no one to share with. If you want to be lonely in this world, be envious. But, if you'd rather not, cultivate contentment, for this is the opposite of every form of envy and covetousness. Godliness with contentment, Paul says, is great gain. Did you get that? Contentment is gain, so envy must be.. loss.


Blogger Homestead Herbs said...

Great topic for a post!

I think I've got a little envy I've still got to weed out of me! ;-)


6:10 AM  
Blogger Randall Gerard said...


Thanks. If you're only struggling with a little envy, you're doing well. I should have added the 'envy detector' shared by my friend:

'If you find yourself unable to rejoice honestly at the good fortune of others, but instead feel empty, sick or even angry... you might be envious.'


9:07 AM  
Blogger Hank said...

It is a most unfortunate, but absolutely necessary topic. But nevertheless, it's nothing new. A quick look at early Judaism shows us the miss-use of the sanctions doctrine within the covenant structure of God's dealings with his people. It was easy for them to decide if one was in good standing within the covenant by their circumstances. To the Jews who passed by the beaten and down trodden man, who in their eyes was receiving what he deserved, to the warnings of Isaiah 1 who explained Gods displeasure of the leaders of Israel by the way they treated the sojourners and widows. He hated their rituals because of their actions in society. To them, the rich were rich because they enjoyed God's blessing as the poor were feeling the curses for disobedience. They were in dire straights, therefore they had sinned. It has become a staple in society, ours and most others. Jesus told his disciples' after speaking to the rich young ruler that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. The disciples were astonished as this completely challenged their world view. They answered emphatically, "WHO THEN!!". The rich were so because they were blessed because of their obedience.

Truly our circumstances can be punishment for disobedience, or blessings because of our obedience, but the circumstances that surround us can never be used for a limpness test of our faithfulness. Job helps us see that God is sovereign, and He does according to His will, alone. May we praise Him in our dealing with the sojourner, the widow, the beaten and down trodden or any and all He brings across our path without judging for our selves where they stand with God.

Lord bless

3:43 PM  
Blogger Lynn Bartlett said...

We sold our house in the city and used the money to purchase 160 acres in the country ... Left us with enough money to construct a basement and shell in the house. We've lived in the basement now for almost 4 years, and I must admit at times I struggle with feeling very embarrassed when city people see how we live. Your post is a good reminder for me to be very thankful in times like this that we are debt free, and with God's grace and wisdom we will stay that way.

By the way, where did your son marry in ND? We live in the state, up in the north central part.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Randall Gerard said...

Hi Lynn,

Having lived for a time in an unfinished house that wasn't debt-free, I do sympathize. Hang in there though, debt-free is much better then the way I did it!

My son married a girl from the Carson N.D. area. She grew up and was educated at home in a remodeled two-story, ex-convent/catholic school that her parents purchased & moved onto a basement and remodeled. A marvelous home I can assure you, but also a lot to keep warm in the winter! Perhaps your basement is easier to heat?

Thanks for visiting. How're land prices up your way?

6:26 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Alan Klute said...

Envy... hmmmm, this reminds me of a book by Chilton "Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, A Biblical Response to Ronald J. Sider." I couldn't help but think of this after reading your post a couple of times, because what has framed the modern Christian thought about wealth is the view that it is somehow sinful, and that we should be willing to sell it all and give it to the poor, whether or not the poor we give it to worship and serve God.

The Godly view of wealth is that it is to be used to glorify our Lord and pass on the covenant to the next generation. Envy and guilt today are flip sides of the same coin, and cause us to "throw out the baby with the bath water."

Your post rings a bell with me, as I'm traveling around the country right now in an '85 Honda Civic Wagon. I enjoy this very much, as the attitudes that are exposed are revealing of the true god that is worshipped, and it helps me see clearly where someone is coming from. Little do they know that I have a net worth that in most cases far exceeds their heavily debt laden one! So then why do we frame our regard based on the car we drive or the house we live in?

Surely it is good to be on the little to none debt side. Liberty and freedom come from obediance to God, not credit. I wouldn't be free right now to seek that which God has for me otherwise. Thanks, Randall.

10:55 PM  
Blogger Lynn Bartlett said...

Hello again,
Hope you enjoyed your time in ND. I've never been to Carson, and the only family we know down there are the Sturlaugsons. We live in the Turtle Mountains (2 miles from Canada), which is very different from that part of the state; we love our hills, trees and lakes! People thought we were crazy to pay $800/acre 4 years ago, but now you can't touch land up here for less than $1200/acre or more. Lots of out of state people are buying up available real estate.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Haymaker said...

Compare...and despair.

Like Dave Ramsay says, "Sometimes you have to live like no one else, in order to [eventually] live like no one else." He also adds, "If the broke people make fun of you, you know you're doing something right."

7:47 PM  
Blogger Randall Gerard said...

Hi Lynn,

Boy, it is a small world! My son married a Sturlaugson girl! Isn't that something..


8:46 AM  
Blogger Lynn Bartlett said...

Randall, I must admit I haven't met the whole Sturlaugson family, but we know Warren from the time he lived with friends of ours (who are friends of the Sturlaugson family -- the Dagleys. Maybe they were at the wedding). My husband has been in touch with Stephen on occasion.

Sorry for getting you off topic!

9:06 PM  

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