Lucy Letby & the Destructive Power of Envy

Whenever anyone has done something terrible in recent years, you can count on the fact that friends and family members of the perpetrator will share their shocked disbelief that someone so normal could do something so monstrous. In addition, the news anchors and politicians will usually denounce senseless violence and advocate more governmental power to prevent it. The religious catechism that denies original sin and personal responsibility has been learned very well and is reliably producing the desired results.

A recent, horrific case in Britain perfectly illustrates this humanistic worldview. A young neo-natal nurse, Lucy Letby, has been sentenced to life in prison for murdering seven NICU babies and severely injuring many more over a period of several years. She carried out her heinous crimes by injecting air into the bloodstream, removing breathing tubes, administering lethal doses of insulin, and other such harmful actions. Since Letby denied all charges, there is a great deal of consternation about what could have driven such a competent and "normal" person to carry out such cold and heartless atrocities. One forensic psychiatrist was invited on a major news show to give his assessment of possible motives, and he confidently concluded that Letby was simply a psychopath who lacked empathy toward vulnerable and suffering people. Perhaps she derived some sort of pleasure from creating a medical crisis and then getting to participate in the attempt to save the child's life. Furthermore, the expert opined that Letby was born with this condition and that her upbringing couldn't have played any role—positive or negative—in shaping her deviant behavior.

But the evidence assembled by the prosecution strongly suggests that Letby acted out of pure envy. She, a single young woman, was having some sort of affair with a married doctor on the unit, but there is no evidence of sexual involvement. This particular doctor was closely involved in the numerous attempts to save the children that Letby harmed. Handwritten notes found at Letby's home reveal that she was deeply distressed at the prospect of never marrying or having children. Computer records show that she stalked the victims' families on Facebook in the wake of a child's death. It would appear, then, that Letby was so distraught at the thought of living unmarried and childless that she would kill the children of others to prevent them from enjoying something she would never have. This is the very definition of envy.

The New Testament warns repeatedly against the sin of envy, and the sins that accompany envy give us a picture of what envy looks like. Sin, like grapes, always comes in bunches, and you can tell a lot about a particular sin by the company that it keeps.

  • Rom. 1:29 -- "...being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness..."
  • 1 Cor. 3:3 -- "For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?"
  • Titus 3:3 -- "For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another."
  • James 3:16 -- "For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there."
  • 1 Pet. 2:1 -- "Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking..."

Envy is associated with all sort of hatred, division, murder, and strife, and it is driven by deep resentment towards others that arises from a sense of entitlement. In her wonderfully insightful book, Seeing Green, author Tilly Dillehay differentiates covetousness from envy: "Covetousness is the desire for what someone else possesses. It would be satisfied simply to have what the other person has. Envy, in contrast, takes it personally that the other person has what he has, and would be satisfied to see the possession or quality destroyed rather than see the other person enjoying it."

As Dillehay points out, it is possible to envy anyone for anything, but envy is especially common in close relationships where competition and rivalry are real possibilities. You probably won't envy a movie star for his wealth, but you will be tempted to resent a neighbor or a friend from school who is doing better than you financially. Envy usually only moves in one direction: from the person who feels inferior in some way toward the person they see as unfairly advantaged in some way. And instead of motivating you toward hard work and self-improvement as with healthy competition, envy only fosters self-pity and shirking of personal responsibility and destructive behaviors toward the object of the envy.

So if you're in a chronically conflicted relationship and you can't figure out why someone is so easily offended and is always sabotaging you, they probably envy you in some way. If there's someone you just can't stand to be around and there's no obvious reason why you should dislike them, you probably envy them in some way. If people do cruel things to others without any apparent reason, it's probably envy. Envy alienates parents from their adult children. Envy drives a wedge between siblings and close friends. Envy causes feuds between neighbors. Envy divides churches. Envy drives lonely neo-natal nurses to kill babies in the NICU. Envy even played a huge role in the crucifixion of the only sinless man who ever lived (Mt. 27:18; Mk. 15:10). But Jesus willingly went to the cross as the object of envy in order to put envy to death and to deliver us from its bondage. The free grace of the gospel is the only way to be set free from a sense of entitlement and self-pity.

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