Why do we struggle with the things we struggle with? What explains us to ourselves? The Bible begins with a series of stories that try to give reasons for the human condition. We’re pretty familiar with one of these, Adam and Eve eating the apple, but less familiar with the story that follows immediately after it.
The second such story on the human condition is the one about Cain and Abel and it might be told this way: Once upon a time, two children are born. The older is Abel and everything about him is right. The sun itself seems to shine through his body, his talents, his temperament. Born just when his mom and dad most want a child, he never disappoints them, or anyone else. Love and good cheer seemed to surround him and he succeeds effortlessly at everything he tries. The smoke of his sacrifice goes naturally upwards.
Then you are born! Right from day one things aren’t right. Your parents aren’t in a good space when they conceive you, your delivery is long and difficult, you are a sickly baby which is only a signal of things to come: Most everything about you is a disappointment – your arrival, your physical appearance, your grades at school, your disposition. Whatever you do somehow isn’t enough, The smoke from your sacrifice never seems to go heavenward.
Eventually your failures, forever seen in the shadow of Abel’s light, overcome you. You become bitter and resentful and lash out at Abel, trying to tear away his goodness, even as everyone around you sees the bitterness and envy in your eyes and begins to avoid you because of this. That further stigmatization, unspoken but always present, causes still a deeper loneliness and resentfulness. You become Cain.
Few of us admit to being jealous. Jealousy, we believe, is too petty a thing, something beneath our dignity. Yet jealousy is one of the most pervasive and destructive forces on the planet, more deeply ingrained in all of us than we ever have the courage to admit. It’s no accident that, among the Ten Commandments, jealousy gets two commandments, while murder and adultery have only one each. It’s no accident either that the Gospels see satan and the devil as working primarily through envy (the devil by using it to divide people from each other and thus dissipate families and communities, and satan by using it to bring about the kind of mob madness that leads to crucifixions). Envy is one of the classic seven deadly sins. It deserves its place on that lofty list. None of us are immune to it. The stigma of Cain marks us all.
What does that stigma look like? Jealousy rarely calls itself by its real name. It shows itself in us rather as bitterness, as hyper criticalness, as the incapacity to praise someone else, as a congenital blockage that prevents us from truly rejoicing in others’ good fortune, as an incapacity to feel the same empathy for the fortunate as for the unfortunate, as an unacknowledged sense of relief when a celebrity falls from grace, as a feeling of being cheated on by life itself, and as a restlessness that makes our own lives always too small and asphyxiating. That’s what envy looks like. That is the mark of Cain.
And it’s a huge, huge hurtle in the spiritual life. Why?
Scripture tells us that in heaven we will stand before the throne of God to “offer unending praise”. That’s going to be rather difficult, given that we had very little practice in praising anything or anybody on this side of eternity. Simply put, if I go through life habitually bitter, overly critical, and resentful for the way things have turned out, how do I suddenly stop that anger of Cain inside me and begin to rejoice in the wonder and beauty of what’s other? How do I admire beauty rather than try to possess it? Difficult, but that’s precisely the task.
One of the major spiritual tasks, from mid-life onward, is to come to grips with the bitterness that comes from envy, so as to move from criticism to praise, from bitterness to mellowness, from the desire to possess to the desire to admire. That’s not an easy journey.
To move towards the day when we can “offer unending praise” involves acknowledging our jealousy and bitterness, grieving our less than perfect lives, and moving beyond the sophistication of a culture that tells us to praise nothing. Most important of all, it involves forgiving: We need to forgive ourselves, our parents, our culture, our church, our teachers, our mentors, those who have wounded us, life itself, and God for the state of things and the state of our lives. Otherwise we will die as we live, harbouring bitterness, threatened by others good fortune, wanting to possess what isn’t ours, more easily speaking words of criticism than of admiration, and not having had sufficient practice in what constitutes eternal life, namely, “offering endless praise”.