When You’re Pea-Green With Envy

“Of the seven deadly sins,” wrote Joseph Epstein, “Only envy is no fun at all.” Growing up I was always envious of the taller girls—which, in my case, was about every girl. At a staggering 5’1 (and three quarters), I’m pint-sized compared to most people.  Later, in my early teens, when my family came apart at the seams, I was envious of those who seemed to come from happy families. Today, envy most often strikes in relation to my career as a writer or a professor.

Envy strikes. Like lightening, it happens quickly. The bodily experience of envy is a piercing in the heart, a bright flash in the mind. When researchers asked people to describe where in their body they experienced envy, they indicated the head and the heart. Thomas Aquinas described envy as “sorrow over another’s good.” While jealousy describes a person’s desire to keep what is rightfully theirs (such as a spouse, or God, for his people), envy is a desire for what another person has. We’re envious of another person’s house, their spouse, their kids, their car, their career success, their fame, their cash. We want another’s good for our own. There’s another side to envy, too: we feel pleasure at the pain and the sorrow of others, a reaction known as “Schadenfreude.” When researchers measured the electrical activity of cheek muscles, they discovered that envious persons smiled more when someone they envy experiences sorrow.

Social media, particularly Facebook, provides a fertile environment in which envy thrives. On social media, we present edited versions of our lives. We post about the good things—the wins, the celebrations, the exotic vacations, the perfect Instagram family moments—but we fail to present the negatives as often as we present the positives. Part of this is the American tendency to not burden others with our issues. (For example, when someone asks how we are, we give a cursory, “fine” or “great” regardless of how we actually feel. Some cultures think this dishonest and/or shallow. I think we just don’t want to burden others.) Part of it is that we really don’t want others to know how lame our life is compared tho theirs—or to the life they project.

If you’re feeling envy, as every red-blooded human will, here’s what you do to conquer it:

  • Consider what envy is telling you. Envy is rooted in a dissatisfaction of self. When you feel envy, take note of who it is you envy and why. If I say, for example, I feel envy related to my career as a writer, that tells me I’m not fully satisfied with where my career is at that point in time. When you understand what the envy is about, you can start making changes in that area. Are you envious of another’s marriage? What does that say about your marriage? What do you need to change in your marriage? Envious of another’s career? What can you do to advance your own?
  • Make a plan and follow through. In Proverbs 14:30, we read, “A tranquil mind gives  health to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Envy literally eats away at our health and energy like a cancer. Once you’ve discovered the source of dissatisfaction, make a plan to change it and follow through on that plan. Rather than expending your energy in envy, you’re expending it to make things better in a given area of your life.
  • Congratulate others and mean it. In Romans 12:15, the Apostle Paul urges us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.” Don’t let envy keep you from truly rejoicing with those who are rejoicing or from celebrating how God is working through their life. Celebrate. Congratulate. Pray for others the good you wish for yourself.
  • Practice gratitude. Take some time every day to consider the ways God has blessed you. Envy tends to blind us from the good God has bestowed upon us. Practicing gratitude and regularly giving thanks to the Lord for his goodness in our lives inoculates us against the destructive power of envy.
  • Run. There are situations that are better to avoid altogether or at least place limits on. Researchers found that happiness increases if a person is sharing on social media, but decreases if they are passively scrolling through tweets and status updates. If you spend a great deal of time scrolling through, stop it. Minimize your time on social media and don’t start your day with it. Starting your day passively scrolling through the newsfeed will siphon off to envy the energy you need to conquer your daily tasks.

It’s important to realize you’re not alone. At some point, all of us feel inadequate. All of us suffer from envy. Experiencing envy doesn’t make you evil. By learning from it rather than indulging in it, you can use it to find deep satisfaction. How have you handled envy? What has worked, what doesn’t?

Meet the Pope of the Wesleyan Church

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The Wesleyan Church is a Protestant, evangelical, holiness denomination with more than 5000 congregations with 370,000 members in more than 90 countries. The denomination is headquartered in Indiana and is led by the General Superintendent, who guides the vision, key message, and missional priorities for the Wesleyan Church. In 2008, Jo Anne Lyon was elected as one of three General Superintendents–the first woman ever elected for the job. In 2012, she became the sole General Superintendent–the “Pope” of the Wesleyan Church. I recently spoke with Jo Anne about her role.

Tell me how you got here, to be the General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church.

Well, I founded World Hope International in 1996. Actually started it in our bedroom in a parsonage in Missouri in 1996 before we moved to D.C. in 2000. In 2008, I was elected a general superintendent—kind of like a bishop. There were three of us at the time I was elected, but then we moved to having just one. It’s the top job in all the world for the  Wesleyan church. At this point, as far as denominations are concerned, I’m the only woman in the evangelical world that’s the head of any church.

So what are your responsibilities?

A major piece is being a spiritual and administrative leader of the church. It’s not like [the role of] a CEO; I’m the spiritual leader of the church. I promote the mission and vision of the church—and that includes working in 90 countries overseas. Then we have over 1700 churches.

My biggest responsibility is keeping the church being the church in the Lord. The church does not have a mission in the world; God’s mission has a church in the world.

What’s your biggest goal this year for the Wesleyan Church?

I’m very evangelistic and we want to bring more people to Christ and people born to serve Jesus. So biggest goal would be to bring more people to Christ, and [do so in a way that] they’re not just a number but they learn what it means to be Christ person, a Christ follower in the world and live like Jesus. Our mission statement is transforming lives churches, and communities through the hope and holiness of Jesus Christ.

What were your thoughts/emotions the moment they announced your election to GS?

Well, you know, I’d been working throughout the church a lot … I was also working in Washington. Prayer was a part of this. You know, I guess I would like to say, this was another step in where God is leading me. I just kept moving.

What is your biggest leadership challenge?

Discerning what God is saying. Wisdom in decision making. Wisdom in the vision. Wisdom to know the church in this world … it makes me go back and read church history. My discernment process involves listening to God, listening to other people speaking into your life when they don’t know it. I also listen to what I’m reading.

What do you think is the number one problem facing Western Church?

How is the church going to look differently from the Western lens? The Christian Church is larger. How does the lens of the African church compared to the Western? Also, the church need to keep its focus on the principles of Jesus. What does it mean to love your enemies, to do good for these enemies? What is the power of love in this culture—the power of love and community?

We are a culture of greed. How do we live to be a culture of generosity to how do we transform a culture of greed to one of generosity? How do we live biblical lives and live on biblical foundation? For the person living in the U.S., aware of our privilege, what can they do to help besides just give money to organizations?

People need to read and understand what is going on in other parts of the world. How many people read The Economist? Foreign Affairs? The newspapers don’t have sections for this—they’re very focused on football. Part of [the answer] is educating yourself. Get to know other people outside your culture. In America, we’re drowning in our own prosperity. I once heard someone say to North Koreans, “We’re praying for you.” They said, “No, we’re praying for you.”

As I lead the Wesleyan Church [in such a way] so that we don’t drown in our own prosperity. The church most effective in exile. And so, I’m praying that I can help people see they are the Church in this time. Be the force. My vision would be that we would lead a church as effective as John Wesleyan because of the transformation of people.

What To Do When … You Don’t Know How to Change

My family bought a piece of land in the Piney Woods of East Texas back in 1987.  Since it was a fully wooded property, they set about the difficult and dangerous work of clearing the land to make a place for our home. We never did lay a permanent driveway, so we just drove on the same patch of land at the edge of the property until two ruts formed.

Whenever I think of habits, I think of those two ruts, those ruts that grew so deep in the spring rains. Habits are the ruts of the mind. For good or bad, we do something over and over again and it becomes almost involuntary and impossible to break. To break a habit, you have to get out of the rut–a task that varies in degrees of difficulty according to how deep, how engrained the habit.

Over time, I’ve made changes of varying intensity. Like getting sober on my 21st birthday. Quitting smoking. Quitting dating. Becoming Christian. Becoming vegetarian. Becoming a runner. It’s the process of changing habits that first drew me to the discipline of spiritual formation. Our habits, among other things, make us who we are, and changing our habits means changing who we are.

I know how hard it is to change. I know how deep those ruts get. I know how hopeless it feels when you keep going down those same tracks, doing the same thing, over and over again. You’re stuck and there doesn’t seem to be a way out.

But changing habits isn’t impossible. It’s difficult, but not impossible. That’s a distinction that’s important to make. You have to believe that change is possible. You have to know it’s possible to change. Psychologists define hope as a combination of agency and pathway. “Agency” is your ability to act and “pathway” is the way to get where you’re going. Find your agency, then follow this pathway:

Admit you have issues. The first step is admitting you have issues. Admit there’s a problem with the way you’re conducting your life. If you don’t do this, you’ve given yourself no reason to change. Are you depending a little too much on that 5 ‘o clock glass of wine? Visiting websites that have a negative impact on your marriage? Maybe bad habits aren’t your problem–just lack of good ones. Are you overweight and inactive? Missing church too often? Not practicing the spiritual disciplines? What? What’s wrong and what needs to change?

Stop blaming others. Sometimes we excuse our bad behavior by blaming it on others. “If only my husband would get on board with eating better, I’d lose weight.” When you have an external locus of control, you believe that external forces–like other people, our circumstances, luck, chance, or fate–control your life and your decisions. To change, you need to move that locus of control inward by realizing that ultimately, you have a choice on how to live and how to respond to your circumstances.

Find the root. Bad habits are often a wrong response to a right desire. We drink to much to dull our senses, to cope with life’s uncertainties and difficulties. Life is hard. It’s painful, and substances remove us from that pain. It’s not wrong to desire a life free from pain, but the answer isn’t smothering the pain in substance, but working through it and bringing it to God. When you find the root desire, you’ll find a better way to answer that desire.

Get community. Nobody can do change alone. Get a mentor, a support group, or a friend to walk with you or behind you. Getting a community behind you will give you strength in weak moments, reminding you of why you’re making the change in the first place. It provides accountability to keep on the right track. My husband, the therapist, has been working with groups of men struggling with sexual integrity. Every week, they meet to talk through their struggle to walk with sexual integrity. Some of these groups have met for years.

Make a plan–set goals. This year I’ve been working on my next book–a book on the classical virtues. Among other things, I’m giving the virtues a “practice run”, and for the virtue of diligence, I’ve decided to run every day for a year. I’ve wanted to become a better runner for awhile, so this provided a perfect opportunity. I set daily goals, weekly goals, and the goals for the year–usually centered on pace or distance. When I quit smoking, I quit gradually. I first stopped smoking in my college apartment, then in front of others, then in the car, until finally I was hardly smoking at all. Plans make change manageable by helping us stay on track and goals keep us motivated.

Get your mind right. Habits are part of who we are, and changing those habits means changing who we are. I often tell people struggling with bad habits to think like a person who doesn’t have that habit. Think more like the kind of person you want to become. If you’re trying to develop more patience, how would a more patient person respond to the situations that currently make you so frustrated and impatient?

Be resilient. Change is hard, but not impossible. If you fail, mess up, fall back, don’t give up. Don’t go back. Fortify your resolve.

We Are Not Avatars

14-People-Icons-by-DaPinoIn 2008, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information and 10,845 trillion words. That inconceivable number is expected to grow exponentially. “By 2015, it is estimated that Americans will consume both traditional and digital media for over 1.7 trillion hours, an average of approximately 15 and a half hours per person per day.” That’s according to a recent study by the Institute for Communication Technology Management. Further, “the amount of media delivered will exceed 8.75 zettabytes annually, or 74 gigabytes – 9 DVDs worth – of data sent to the average consumer on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 raised to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes.” This figure does not include information processed while working. This stunning growth rate of information caused the Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, to quip that every two days, we produce more information than we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003.

Whether Schmidt is wrong or right is anybody’s guess, but what’s clear is that today, the average person processes more information in a single day than our great-grandparents probably processed in years. The human capacity for information is massive, but it is finite. There is a definite limit. To manage the onslaught of information, we utilize several coping mechanisms. We filter. We select and prioritize. We tune out what we don’t want to hear or what doesn’t seem relevant to our purposes. When we’re dealing with people, especially online, we cognitively categorize them into certain groups—in other words, we stereotype.

I study perceptions about women, men, and leaders. I study what happens when those perceptions don’t match up to reality. Even before the digital glut of the information age, we stereotyped, and it’s not an altogether bad thing. Stereotypes, in and of themselves, are morally neutral. They are coping mechanisms and energy-saving devices our brains use to process information by chunking them into familiar and meaningful units, helping us understand, quickly, a present reality (or person) based on previous experience. Stereotypes only become negative when they don’t square up with reality.

The urge to stereotype is strong when trying to manage our online, digital relationships. Since we’re connected to such a great amount of people, it’s almost a neurological necessity to group people into certain categories based on any number of things—age, sex, race, religious and political leanings. The trouble is that the complexity of the human soul defies categorization. Human beings cannot be fully understood by a handful of descriptors—like their age, gender, or their views on social issues and when do this, it’s like reducing a real-life, breathing person down to a digital avatar. And we are not avatars.

Unfortunately, we Christians have proven to be adept at this reductionism. We categorize whole persons into one group or another based on our respective views on theology, politics, or social issues. Due to group polarization, those groups tend to be one extreme or the other. We decide if a person is or isn’t, if they are or aren’t, if they’re with us or against us. As my friend Sarah Jackson brilliantly pointed out, we commit the either/or fallacy: either you’re this, or that. There are no alternatives. The recent World Vision hullabaloo demonstrates this perfectly. Either you’re a Bible-thumping, redneck, hateful fundamentalist against the hiring of married gay people at a Christian organization OR you’re a liberal, naked pagan with no regard for personal holiness who’s for the hiring of married gay people.

It’s true. There are some foolish people who really are on one end of the extreme or another, but most of us are like plot-points along a bell curve. But we’re stereotyped into the extremes regardless of our actual position on that bell curve. It’s easy to do when we’ve reduced people to avatars. And when you’ve reduced people to avatars, it’s easy to be hateful. The vitriol flies and the world laughs because the Christians, who are supposed to be so loving, don’t actually love one another. The only thing they show is contemptuous disdain.

I dwell, virtually, in a community of writers whose opinions on social and theological issues span practically every point of the spectrum. On some points, we disagree greatly. But you know what? It’s never an issue. Because we respect each other. We understand each one of us have arrived at our viewpoint because of thoughtful, genuine reflection. We sometimes debate, but never argue. We present a united front. We trust each other. And at the end of the day, we got each others backs. Unity doesn’t mean conformity. It doesn’t mean your view swallows up my view or mine, yours.

The Bible is vague about a lot of things. Christian unity and selfless regard for our fellow Christians isn’t one of them.

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” 

“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” 

“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

“Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

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“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We are not avatars. Each of us is a real person, with real hopes, real disappointments, real struggles. We’re trying to work out our faith faithfully. Let’s lay down our arms, shall we? Our poisonous arrows? Our faith requires it. You’re free to disagree. You’re free to think I stink like a hog lying in poop. But you still have to hold my hand.