By Matthew Woodley
The last time I contracted a bad case of jealousy, my voice was randomly cracking and changing pitch. I was an eighth grader wooing the heart of Kathy G., a classmate with long black hair and soft brown eyes. When I finally dredged up the courage to call Kathy, her twin sister answered. She heard my squeaky voice and said, “Sorry, but Kathy’s washing her hair.” I called back two hours later. “Now she’s drying her hair,” Kathy’s sister reported. “And by the way, she’s washing and drying her hair every night this week.”
The next day at school, I saw Kathy walking and laughing with my friend Bob. Sharp pangs of jealousy shot through me. I felt like screaming at Bob, “Leave her alone; she’s mine!” For the rest of the school year, jealousy clung to me like a leech, sucking joy out of my soul. This experience of juvenile jealousy may explain why I used to cringe whenever someone strung together the words God, jealous, and love. To call God jealous made Him sound primitive and immature, like a crushed junior high lover. Yet when we open our Bibles we find that God unabashedly reveals His jealous side. In Ex. 20:5 He declares, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” A few chapters later He gets even blunter: “The LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:14). So alongside Father, Shepherd, and Protector, we can add Jealous to the list of God’s names. God’s jealousy isn’t mild either. “The LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God,” Moses reminded the Israelites in Dt. 4:24. The prophet Zephaniah declared, “In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed” (Zeph. 1:18). This isn’t jealousy lite; this is full-throttle, red-hot, maximum-strength jealousy. What are we to do with such a God? How are we to understand this aspect of His character, and what does it mean for us? The answers to these questions are nothing short of glorious.
First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what jealousy involves. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary lists these meanings for jealous:
– intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness
– hostile toward a rival
– vigilant in guarding a possession
These definitions hint at a bad and good side to jealousy. There’s the junior high version that turned my friend Bob into a rival. But there’s also the kind that guards what is valuable. Merriam-Webster gives this example: “The new colonies were jealous of their new independence.” I think we’d agree such jealousy is appropriate: When you have something of great value, you guard it diligently and even fight to protect it.
The Bible also speaks of bad and good jealousy. Scripture clearly refers to a self-centered and destructive emotion when it says, ‘Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Prov. 27:4) and, “Let us behave decently . . . not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality . . . and jealousy” (Ro. 13:13).
On the other hand, every time God’s jealousy is mentioned, it’s a good thing, arising from His fierce love for His people. As theologian J. I. Packer observed, “God’s jealousy is not a compound of frustration, envy, and spite, as human jealousy so often is, but appears instead as a (literally) praiseworthy zeal to preserve something precious.” The astounding truth is that we are the precious “something” God wants to preserve.
Being a father has helped me understand this aspect of God’s character. For 21 years I loved my daughter with a jealous love. I was for her. We had a running joke that any guy who showed interest in her would start with the status of Total Loser in my eyes. He’d have to progress through 11 stages before he advanced to the status of Marriage Material. All joking aside, because I loved my daughter jealously (and because of many other factors), she is now married to a young man who treasures her. My fierce affection wasn’t rooted in my neediness and insecurity; it didn’t aim to control or constrict her. On the contrary, it protected her and guided her toward joy and well-being.
In the same way, there is something intensely for us in God’s jealousy that motivates Him to fight for us. This truth plays out in how He responds to idolatry.
AGAINST ALL GODS
Almost every time God is jealous in Scripture it’s because of idolatry (see Ps. 78:58 and
Ezk. 8:3). The Bible mentions idols more than 230 times, and God is against them every time. God defines idolatry this way:
My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
– Jer. 2:13
In other words, any time God’s people look for life and satisfaction in something other than God, they’re practicing idolatry. No wonder the 16th-century reformer John Calvin called the human heart an “idol factory.” We crank out idols like McDonald’s cranks out fries. Yes, even today. Don’t imagine that idolatry is no longer an issue.
God abhors idolatry, first of all, because idols create a love triangle between Him, His people, and another lover. God has entered into covenant relationship with us, and idols become a rival for our love. In fact, God frequently likens the Israelites’ relationship with Him to marriage and His idol-worshiping people to a faithless spouse. “Like a woman unfaithful to her husband,” He declares, “so you have been unfaithful to me, 0 house of Israel” (Jer. 3:20). He thunders against them with words like these: “You have lived as a prostitute with many lovers” (Jer. 3:1) and, “See how the faithful city has become a harlot!” (Is. 1:21).
God’s jealousy is, quite rightly, intolerant of unfaithfulness or rivalry. If a husband came to his wife and said, “Honey, I know we’ve been married for more than 23 years, but would you mind if I started dating around?” she would be appalled. Her hurt, anger, and jealousy would be natural – and appropriate – responses to his unfaithfulness. Such “idolatry” would not only break a commandment, it would fracture a marriage. So too, God hates our idolatry because it violates His relationship with us.
Idols provoke God’s jealousy for another reason, also rooted in His protective love: He knows these false gods will always diminish us. Through Jeremiah, God said, “All your lovers have forgotten you; they care nothing for you” (Jer. 30:14, ESV). In other words, while our idols may romance us with cabernet sauvignon and filet mignon, eventually they will trash us. That is light years from what God desires for His beloved ones.
God doesn’t sit Buddha-like in serene contemplation while we date around with false gods, destroying our souls and enslaving our hearts. He won’t stand by while shallow “lovers” woo us and then destroy us. He responds with jealous love because He values us. He knows that He alone can make us happy. So He fights to win our hearts, not to control us, but to free us and make us whole.
For a vivid picture of this protective love, try reading straight through the book of Hosea. Hosea depicted God as a hedge of thorns, a leopard, a bear robbed of her cubs, and a devouring fire. The Israelites had prostituted themselves to idols. God intended to win back their hearts, and He wouldn’t go down without pursuing them, roaring at them, singeing them with holy heat, and even swiping at them with His terrifying claws. Yet even in His ferocity, He promised, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely” (Hos. 14:4). In the intense heat of His jealous love, God’s heart is always for His people and not against them.
God’s zeal for us isn’t an Old Testament anomaly, though. In Jesus, God’s good heart took on flesh so that He could show us the full extent of this love.
JEALOUSY AND JESUS
God’s jealous love was on full display just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As Jesus approached the city, a city filled with people who would reject His love, He wept over it and said,
If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.
This scene offers an unexpected glimpse into the heart of the God of the Old Testament Law and Prophets. The God whose jealous love rages like fire is also the God with tears streaming down His cheeks, His face contorted with grief, His good heart aching to gather His people like a mother hen gathers her chicks (Mt. 23:37).
We also see the unfathomably good and selfless jealousy of God at the cross. Jesus’ death revealed how much our wandering hearts matter to God, so much that the only perfect, idol-free human who has ever existed, the eternal Son of God, bore the consequences for their waywardness. After we told God, “We’ll sleep around, but don’t worry, we’ll come back”even after that, God declared at the cross, “I still love you. I’m still pursuing you. I will win you back with my fierce and jealous love. This cross is the price that must be paid so you can return. Now come home.” Talk about a glorious jealousy!
FIERCE LOVE, LAVISH GRACE
How does all this play out in our day-to-day lives? For one thing, it means that in His zeal for us God will tirelessly expose and seek to remove the idols of our hearts.
I’ve long known this as an abstract theological truth, but in the past year I’ve been singed by God’s jealous love. I’ve realized that my heart too often resembles a dusty flea market crammed with table after table of junky idols. And the biggest idol on the most prominent table is called People Pleasing. I “hitched up” with that idol when I started first grade and discovered that gaining others’ approval feels good. Like every idol, it delivered just enough drops of satisfaction here and there to keep me coming back for more.
But in His fierce, love-driven jealousy, God arranged circumstances so that I’d see the inadequacy of this false god. A year ago, I faced a series of three big decisions, each of which forced me into an agonizing scenario: Choose Door A and people will be hurt, appalled, and disgusted with you. Choose Door B and people will be hurt, appalled, and disgusted with you. Choose Door C’oops, sorry, there is no Door C. When the third big decision crashed into my flea-market heart, God seemed to say, “You have to choose, and your idol won’t help you.”
Initially, this felt cruel of God, but now I recognize it as His commitment to me. He is intensely for me and my spiritual freedom; He is intensely against anything that will enslave and divert my heart from finding satisfaction in Him. This isn’t cruel; it’s jealous love in action. In instances like these, God is acting, as Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel put it, as a surgeon who must face our bleeding wounds and choose to hurt us in order to heal us.
Yet as God’s jealousy reveals the idols in our hearts, it also beckons us to bring them to the cross. When we see the depth of desire for us that He demonstrated there, how can we not name everything that stands in the way of our relationship with Him? Why would we not lay it down at the foot of the cross? This isn’t a religious clich; this is the pathway to spiritual vitality.
In His jealous love, God blazes like a fire and bawls like Jesus. Both images tell us the same thing: We are in the presence of Love. The prophet Ezekiel boldly proclaimed the coming of a day when God would say,
I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezk. 36:25-26
For those who trust in Christ, that day has come. At the cross and through the resurrection, Christ displayed His fierce, jealous love. Now we can know that God is for us. He won’t tolerate the flea market of idols in our hearts. But in the midst of His jealous love, we find the same glorious, lavish grace “which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:6).
“When you have something of great value, you guard it diligently and even fight to protect it”.
About the author
MATHEW WOODLEY is a pastor and the author of Holy Fools (SaltRiver) and Surviving the Storms of Life (Revell). On his days off; Mathew likes to hop on a train to Manhattan, where he wanders the streets and enjoys “the best people-watching in the world.”
From www. Discipleshipjournal.com May/June 2009, By Matthew Woodley
“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”