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The Wages of Envy
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"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17).

The Bible often warns against covetousness and its close relative, envy. We are commanded to avoid them, less because of the damage we do to others through them (although it can be substantial), than because of the way they rebound back on us.

Consider the luxury tax of 1991. Congress wanted more money. Raising taxes was unpopular so Congress used envy to permit them to raise taxes. They slapped a national 10% sales tax on luxuries—yachts, expensive cars, furs, and jewelry. Congress explained that these were things purchased by the wealthy. The wealthy had more money than you and I, the average American, Congress said. It was only fair to take more from them when they bought things that average Americans could not afford.

This argument verges on coveting “anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Still, most people convinced themselves that the wealthy were not really “neighbors,” so the tax passed.

The “wealthy” stopped buying taxed luxuries. (They were luxuries, after all.) The industries that sold and made those luxuries collapsed. Workers were laid off. The unemployed workers put off big purchases. Soon the auto industry, manufacturers of washers, dryers and refrigerators, and other business found that demand for their goods had fallen. They, too, laid people off. The country slid into recession.

The government lost money. The expected revenues from the luxury tax did not materialize. With so many people jobless, income tax receipts went down. And, the government had to spend money on unemployment and relief. 

Falling Prey to Covetousness

Average Americans—the ones that thought it was okay if the government took more money away from their neighbors, because those neighbors had things they did not have, got hurt, too. Many lost jobs, had family that lost jobs, or lost out on opportunities that they would have had—had they not fallenl prey to envy and covetousness.

The wealthy? They lost too, I guess. They drove their cars and kept their yachts longer. But that particular bit of envy and covetousness hurt them less than it hurt those motivated by these emotions.

I once lived in a town where people were less concerned about how much they made, than they were about making sure others did not earn more than they did. A funny thing happened. People who built businesses, and created jobs felt uncomfortable living in a town where they were resented for being successful. So new businesses stayed away from the town, and successful businesses left. Those that remained wondered why there were so few jobs. They, not those they envied, were the ones hurt. Yet they never recognized what damage they did to themselves, through envy.

God wants us to avoid sin because when we sin we hurt ourselves more than we hurt others. That bit about not coveting your neighbor’s house? He means it.

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By Mark N. Lardas, copyright 2008, Mark N. Lardas, all rights reserved. Copyright © 2008 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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