How to Deal with Jealousy

     Jealousy is mentioned throughout the Bible both in a healthy and unhealthy sense. The word jealousy translates the Hebrew קָנָא qanah and Greek ζηλόω zeloo.[1] Though closely related terms, there is a difference between envy and jealousy. Whereas the envious desire what belongs to another, the jealous desire to protect what belongs to self. Scripture reveals that God is jealous. The Lord states, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Exo 20:5b; cf. 34:14; Deu 32:16, 21; Na 1:2). This statement occurs within the context of God forbidding His people to worship idols (Exo 20:3-4).[2] Idolatry is thievery. It seeks to steal God’s glory, and He’ll have none of it. He declares, “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (Isa 42:8). Likewise, God is jealous to protect His name, saying, “I will be jealous for My holy name” (Eze 39:25), which means He is jealous to protect His reputation. And, God is jealous for Israel, saying, “I am exceedingly jealous for Zion, yes, with great wrath I am jealous for her” (Zec 8:2). In this sense, jealousy means God is committed to the protection of His people.

People sometimes have trouble thinking that jealousy is a desirable attribute in God. This is because jealousy for our own honor as human beings is almost always wrong. We are not to be proud, but humble. Yet we must realize that the reason pride is wrong is a theological reason: it is that we do not deserve the honor that belongs to God alone (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7; Rev. 4:11).[3]

     But what about jealousy among people? Is it ever right? Yes. There are times when jealousy is right. Jealousy is born out of a strong sense of relationship that is intolerant of rivals and this can be healthy, if the rival is real and it threatens a godly relationship.[4] If God’s values are our values, and we regard as precious what He regards as precious, then His jealousy will be our jealousy and we will be angry alongside Him and seek to protect what He loves. Elijah the prophet said “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts” (1 Ki 19:10a). This jealousy—or zeal—in Elijah sought to protect what was good, namely God’s character and the walk of His people who were being led astray by false prophets. Elijah’s jealousy was provoked by his fellow Israelites, who “have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword” (1 Ki 19:10b). Paul too had this kind of jealousy for the church at Corinth, saying, “For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin” (2 Cor 11:2). Paul wanted to protect the church’s purity of devotion to Christ, as they were in danger of being led astray by false teaching and into worldly values and practices (2 Cor 11:3-4). Godly jealousy seeks to protect God’s relationship with others and naturally feels threatened by anything that would harm it.

    How to Deal with JealousyBut there is a sinful jealousy that is born out of the sin nature (Gal 5:19-20) and does not seek God’s interests or the best interests of others. Sinful jealousy desires to possess and protect what God forbids. “In contrast to righteous jealousy, the sinful perversion is based on the belief that one is entitled to something to which one has no natural right.”[5] Not having a “natural right” to something means it was acquired selfishly, apart from God’s will. This can be a relationship, education, career, or material possessions. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, except that they can be pursued and possessed purely for self-interest, contrary to God’s will. If we ignore God and His will for our life, and selfishly enter into a relationship with another person, and that relationship becomes threatened by another selfish person, or the selfish actions of our partner, then we have no biblical right to protect that relationship. Jealousy will naturally arise, but it becomes a sinful jealousy if we seek to protect what was sinfully acquired.  

     Sinful jealousy cares nothing about God or others and will seek to destroy rather than protect and edify. It is selfish, irrational, and can even lead to violence. This is what happened when Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him. First, they were “jealous of him” (Gen 37:11), and their sinful jealousy led them to harm him (Gen 37:18-28). James wrote, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth…For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (Jam 3:14, 16). It was because of sinful jealousy that the Sadducees rose up in anger and attacked the apostles and put them in prison (Acts 5:17-18). This was because the apostles’ teaching threatened their pride and pseudo authority in the community. Paul had experienced jealous men who opposed his ministry (Acts 13:45), and, at times, they attacked the innocent (Acts 17:5).

How to Deal with Sinful Jealousy

     Sinful jealousy is a beast. It rears its ugly head to protect what has been obtained by sinful choice (i.e. a relationship, job, money, etc.), it operates on irrational fear, and, if left to feed on fear, will seek to destroy what threatens. To deal with sinful jealousy, a few things need to change.

     First, it is necessary to operate from a biblical perspective.[6] God is all-knowing and all-good, and what He reveals and commands in Scripture is for our best interest. Furthermore, God’s Word defines reality and helps us to understand ourselves and the world in which we live. If we’re not thinking biblically, then human viewpoint will lead the way and all thoughts and actions will be rationalized from a purely human perspective. But this is not what’s expected of the Christian. We’re called to think biblically, in every aspect of our lives, and to make choices consistent with God’s revealed will. As we study the Bible, we realize it touches all of life, including matters related to family, social issues, education, finances, politics, science, art, etc. For example, the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24), that a Christian should only marry another Christian (1 Cor 7:39), and that the relationship between the husband and wife should be loving and respectful (Eph 5:22-33). The mature Christian learns God’s Word, and then integrates it into all aspects of her/his life. Operating from a biblical perspective allows us to differentiate righteous jealousy from sinful jealousy, and to act according to God’s expectation.

     Second, as we study Scripture, we come to realize that we own nothing. Everything, including our own lives, belongs to the Lord. Scripture reveals, “The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it” (Psa 24:1; cf. 89:11). Job understood this very well, for even when he lost his business, family, and health, he could say, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Biblically minded Christians hold nothing tightly, for we know our possessions are on loan and can be taken at any moment (this includes family members); how much more those things we acquire through sinful choices. When we come to the place where we recognize God’s sovereign ownership of our lives and possessions, we can consciously live each moment by faith, with a relaxed mental attitude, knowing He is the One who gives and takes away. And, if God decides to take something away, by faith we can accept it, deal with the sorrow, and “know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).

     Third, we handle sinful jealousy in ourselves by pursuing Christian love, for jealousy cannot exist where love predominates. I’m speaking here about jealousy as it pertains to personal relationships. The apostle Paul, when describing the virtue of Christian love (1 Cor 13:4-8), writes about what love is and is not, and states in plain language, “Love…is not jealous” (1 Cor 13:4). Christian love is the answer to sinful jealousy. However, it is important to understand that Christian love is never manufactured on our own; rather, it is derived from God and is part of our healthy walk with Him. It is a reflection of God’s love toward us. The apostle John writes, “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). That’s the order. And what was our state when God first loved us?  He loved us when we were sinners and in a state of hostility toward Him. Paul states, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). In another place he writes, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5). God’s great love springs from His character and not from any beauty or worth found in the object of His love. God loves because, “God is love” (1 John 4:8b). Over time, as we walk with God, His love becomes ingrained within us and overtakes our hearts, and the conditional human love we’re so familiar with—that is natural to us all—is exchanged for His greater love, which is selfless and sacrificial. And God’s love is gracious in that it seeks to meet the needs of others without compensation. Grace refers to kind acts freely conferred on others, without expectation of return, and deriving its source in the abundance and open-handedness of the giver. Jesus explained this kind of gracious love when He said, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:35). 

     God’s Word gives us the standard for love and mature believers will display it in their lives. But love does not arise automatically in the Christian life, and it is typically not the first responder in a conflict. Love is learned, and once learned, it is applied by an act of the will by Christians who choose to love others. Love is not easy, and at times can be risky because we may be hurt. This is because the objects of our love can be offensive, and at times may hurt us. Christian love is not an emotion, for we are commanded to love, and a person cannot manufacture an emotion purely as an act of the will. Emotion follows thought. We are to love others regardless of how we feel. Mature believers learn to overcome their emotions and love others according to their needs.  J. I. Packer states:

Love is a principle of action rather than of emotion. It is a purpose of honoring and benefiting the other party. It is a matter of doing things for people out of compassion for their need, whether or not we feel personal affection for them. It is by their active love to one another that Jesus’ disciples are to be recognized (John 13:34–35).[7]

     This kind of love takes time. It is the product of spiritual growth that occurs in the life of the believer who is advancing in her/his Christian walk. Those who know the Lord and walk with Him manifest His character in their lives. They love because He loves. They are gracious because He is gracious. They are kind because He is kind. They are merciful because He is merciful. Walk closely with the Lord and love will grow. Love as God loves and sinful jealousy will depart.

Summary

     Jealousy can be either healthy or unhealthy, depending on the motivation of the heart. God is jealous. He is jealous to protect His glory (Isa 42:8), His name (Eze 39:25; cf. Isa 42:8), and His people (Zec 8:2). When we love what God loves, then we’ll possess a godly jealousy, like Elijah (1 Ki 19:10) and Paul (2 Cor 11:2). But when we care little about God, then sinful jealousy will dominate our hearts, and we’ll seek to destroy rather than protect and edify others, such as when Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him (Gen 37:11-28), or when the Sadducees attacked and imprisoned the apostles (Acts 5:17-18). We overcome sinful jealousy by: 1) placing God’s Word at the center of our lives and letting it direct our thoughts, words and actions (Psa 1:2; 2 Cor 10:5), 2) realizing the Lord owns everything (Psa 24:1; 89:11), and that He is free to leave or take whatever we have, including possessions, family, or health (Job 1:6-21), and, 3) that sinful jealousy cannot exist in a heart saturated with God’s love, for “Love…is not jealous” (1 Cor 13:4).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. The Gospel Message  
  2. Reasons why we Obey God  
  3. Steps to Spiritual Growth  
  4. Learning to Live by Faith  
  5. The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer    

[1] Sometimes קָנָא qanah is translated envy, such as, “Do not envy [קָנָא qanah] a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways” (Pro 3:31), and “Do not let your heart envy [קָנָא qanah] sinners, but live in the fear of the LORD always” (Pro 23:17).  The Septuagint uses ζηλόω zeloo in both instances; however, when writing about envy, the NT writers chose φθόνος phthonos rather than ζηλόω zeloo.

[2] Asaph mentions God’s jealousy when he writes, “For they provoked Him with their high places and aroused His jealousy with their graven images. When God heard, He was filled with wrath and greatly abhorred Israel.” (Psa 78:58-59; cf. 1 Ki 14:22). God’s jealousy (and anger) rises both because of the violation of a promise, and because idolatry is really the worship of demons, which destroys those whom God loves (1 Cor 10:19-22).

[3] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 205.

[4] We must be careful not to feel threatened over an imaginary rival, for this can lead us down a dangerous road.

[5] Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 556.

[6] Apart from divine revelation, we’re left to invent or borrow systems of thought with no greater reference point than ourselves, which means the foundation for knowledge is based on nothing more than our finite ability to observe and reason what is. The problem is that human perception only approximates reality but never fully encompasses or understands it; therefore, all systems of human thought are limited and subject to change (reading the various publications of the DSM prove my point). Scripture tells us why things exist, why the world is the way it is, and how to live successfully in God’s will. Any system of thought that simultaneously competes with God’s Word results in cognitive dissonance, and if not resolved, will render the believer ineffective. At the moment we believe the Gospel message and are born again, we enter into our Christianity with a lifetime of human viewpoint that must be dislodged and replaced with a thorough knowledge of God’s Word. Too often, when we come to believe in Christ as Savior, we assume that God will accept our human viewpoint—which may be organized and moral—as an adequate system from which He will direct our lives. We assume He wants to rearrange the furniture in our mental home to make it more beautiful. But the reality is God does not want to rearrange the furniture in our minds; rather, He wants to tear down the entire house along with its foundation and start over. He wants to destroy all the thoughts and values that are contrary to His revealed will. But we’re required to participate in this process. We must be willing to submit to Him and begin the lifelong process of learning Scripture. This is a process that occupies all our time, every day, morning and evening, and has both defensive and offensive aspects. Defensively, we must guard our minds against worldliness that comes to us from multiple avenues such as TV, radio, music, literature, art, and conversations. Solomon tells us, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Pro 4:23). Positively, we acquire divine viewpoint through the daily study of God’s Word. David writes about the godly believer, saying, “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). For, “The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Psa 19:7’ cf. 2 Tim 2:15; 3:16-17).

[7] J. I. Packer, “Love” Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993).

About Dr. Steven R. Cook

Dr. Steven R. Cook is a Christian educator. He is protestant, non-charismatic, and dispensational. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than seven hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven currently serves as professor of Bible and Theology at Tyndale Theological Seminary, and hosts weekly Bible studies at his home in Texas.
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