Hey, Jealousy

Hey, Jealousy

Christians always find ways to tidy up difficult and rebellious emotions. Anger has received a lot of attention lately. “Righteous anger and selfish anger,” we say. “That’s the important difference.” Perhaps. That’s fine enough. But don’t dare patronize jealousy with such trite platitudes.

Scripture acknowledges this difference. Let’s just deal with Proverbs. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Anger is a tantrum, a screech, a baby’s cry. “Pressing milk produces curds, pressing the nose produces blood, and pressing anger produces strife” (Proverbs 30:33). Oh, no! Great and mighty anger! As titanic and Herculean as milk and the human nostril. Scripture knows: “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4).

Jealousy is tyrannical. It is catastrophic. It is metaphysical. It feels controlling and you cannot escape. It feels as if every particle of self-control you have in your entire being is vaporized in one fell emotional swoop. It brings people to the end of themselves in a millisecond, and they are no longer the same people.

“Jealousy is tyrannical. It is catastrophic. It is metaphysical.”

Bodily, it makes you feel like you’ve been infected with the rage virus — radioactive, indestructible, decomposing, inciting strong aversion to any human interaction that does not meet your singular end: “Envy makes the bone rot” (Proverbs 14:30; cf. also Song of Solomon 8:6, “jealousy is fierce as the grave”). Relationally, jealousy knows no moderation; it is domineeringly exacting, exhaustive, unaccepting of excuses: “For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge” (Proverbs 6:34).

Divine Jealousy and Human Insecurity

We often hear jealousy dismissed as insecurity. And, in response, Christians can be quick to look at God’s jealousy in Scripture (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 4:24; 32:21; Zechariah 8:2) and respond, “If God can be jealous, so can I.” If only things were so easy. Both approaches (dismissal and approval) are, in fact, misguided, presupposing that insecurity itself is inherently undesirable. It’s not. It’s just the difference between divine and human jealousy.

God’s jealousy is always a product of his perfect, self-sufficient love (Exodus 3:14; Psalm 50:9–15; Isaiah 40:28), which provides the opportunity for him to feel deeply jealous about the people with which he has freely covenanted. Humans, in contrast, are jealous as a product of their finite love, which, having limited emotional and relational resources with which to be vulnerable, actually makes the risk of entering into a relationship a bargain with one’s own selfhood. We feel that if we are betrayed (for example), and a relational jealousy is legitimate, then we will not only lose our love, but our selves.

“God’s jealousy is always a product of his perfect, self-sufficient love.”

Of course, both divine and human jealousy contain a form of exclusivity, vulnerability, and the possibility of deep pain and betrayal. And yet, human jealousy is unique in that it contains insecurity, because humans are not secure intimate relationships. Humans learn to experience the love of vulnerability, and to wager the self for the sake of intimacy in a form that is much less experienced, and much more taxing, than God. And so, true human jealousy is always insecure, because insecurity is part of the natural goodness of being finite. It is in how we respond first of all to our inherent, inevitable insecurity that determines how we handle our jealousy when it arises.

God Reveals Through Jealousy

Through jealousy, God shows us two things. First, he shows us himself. He is a jealous God (he even says “my name is Jealous” Exodus 34:14). It is part of his character as the covenanting God to take on the pain and hurt of experiencing his bride’s unfaithfulness (Hosea 4:13–14). Through our jealousy, we experience a communicable divine emotion (Deuteronomy 32:21).

Second, he shows us ourselves. Through jealousy, the deepest desires of our hearts are elicited and amplified (Genesis 22:12; Psalm 66:18–20). The fire of jealousy burns away the distractions of life’s details to show us the things we treasure. This process of internal emotional suffering — of jealousy most pointedly — can help clarify and bring to the surface all that we would otherwise have kept hidden from God and even from ourselves.

God Draws Near to the Jealous

Furthermore, jealousy has two aspects, and God meets us in both of those: in suspicion, and in reality.

First, when our jealousy takes the form of suspicion, it’s easy to lose emotional and mental control — to engage in morbid curiosity and fantasy. God reminds us of what is real. David does not only say “I will delight in God amidst my vexation.” No. That’s not enough. We need more of the process. He roots his mind and heart in what is real. He speaks to his soul “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” (Psalm 42:5) and then grounds his divine entreaty in reality as simple as dirt and mountains: “therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon and from Mount Mizar” (Psalm 42:6).

David crashes his mental tailspin in the presence of God — in reality. In case your jealousy is a product of inordinate fear or paranoia, use concrete, tangible objects to get outside of our mind, and look to the God who is real, and can be a real help in escaping elaborate and unlikely fantasy.

“God will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Second, God meets us in justified jealousy — when our jealous imaginings are shown to be true. When we are betrayed. If you say, “You’re not alone, because God is with you” to someone who has been betrayed, it sounds trite. Of course it does. Never say that. But God says it, because if it went unsaid, we might wonder if it was really true. He gives us a reality that he knows must be mysteriously (and even reluctantly) assumed, so that we can freely cry out to him.

A Liturgy for the Jealous

God gives us a liturgy in Hebrews 13:5–6 for times of jealousy and betrayal, even if only so we can take it for granted while our stomachs churn, and while we weep:

God: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Man: “The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
What can man do to me?”

Well, man can do quite a bit to you. But when someone leaves you, betrays you, or incites jealousy, God still says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And whenever you are able to pray, “The Lord is my helper,” it will always be true. “I will not fear.” Of course you’ll fear. The jealous are a fearful people. Say it anyway to spite the Accuser — nay, the Oppressor. “What can man do to me?” Man? Who is man? “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). Repeat. What does this accomplish? The author of Hebrews says it works to “keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5). Pray the whole verse.

Man: “Keep my life free from love of ______.
Help me be content with what I have.”

God: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Man: “The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear;
What can man do to me?”

It’s not sinful to feel jealous. It’s vital to understand the unique temptations involved in the different kinds of jealousy (which the book of Proverbs tells us are almost unmanageably intense), as well as the realities we need to grip tightly until the emotional wave passes. Jealousy isn’t quite like other emotions. Scripture’s best answer seems to be “Just hold on. God is with you.” He is not judging you for jealousy. “My name is Jealous,” he says. He knows that you are unsafe and insecure. In the midst of jealousy, the one who is self-sufficiently Jealous for you “will never leave you nor forsake you,” because he is fighting to “keep your life free.”


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Paul Maxwell (@paulcmaxwell) is a PhD student in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has published articles and reviews on psychology, philosophy, and theology in secular and Christian academic journals.