Their jaws dropped. They stared at me with eyes wide open. Just like the time I told them that there will be sex in heaven.
It was not unusual for us to have brain-bending and mind-blowing moments our meetups with The Thinkery. This time, though, an audible, synchronous gasp filled the air outside the coffee house, where a few of us gathered after we closed down the place and resisted bringing the conversation to an end. What caused the gasp? I asserted that jealousy is love.
Earlier in the discussion, someone mentioned that he was burdened by jealousy. Indeed, jealousy is widely regarded as a negative trait, one that implies a flaw ranging anywhere from insecurity to psychotic possessiveness. (Often, it’s used to express envy, another negative trait.) Yet, the Bible names jealousy as an attribute of a perfect God.
IS GOD INSECURE OR PSYCHOTICALLY POSSESSIVE?
Shortly after I blurted out that jealousy is love, we had to wrap up the conversation. We planned to pick up where we left off the next week. I went home and gleefully researched the etymology of jealous. ‘Cause I’m a word nerd.
You shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (Exodus 34:14)
The Hebrew word that is translated into English as jealous is qanna’, which means “not bearing any rival”. That’s not surprising, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the motivation. There’s still room for insecurity and psychosis.
THE GREEKS DON’T JUST MAKE GOOD YOGURT
Now let’s look at the English word jealous. It is derived from the Greek word zēlos. Does that look or sound familiar to you? The English word zealous also is derived from zēlos. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Zealous means “having great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective”. Add that to “not bearing any rival”, and we’re forming a clearer picture of what it means to be jealous.
“Most of the words that became distinctive terms for jealousy
were originally used in a good sense of zeal and emulation.”
The Greek word zēlos denotes a positive quality. The two English words that derived from it — jealous and zealous — originally denoted a positive quality. Zealous has retained it, but jealous went off the rails somewhere on the way to the 21st century. (The same thing happened to customer service and dinnertime.)
What did jealous mean when it was written in the Bible? The Greek word zēlos, which is used in the New Testament, literally means “heat” and figuratively means “zeal, ardor in embracing, pursuing, and defending something”. Here are a couple of texts in which zēlos is used, although it has been translated into different words in English, depending on the version.
I am jealous for you with the jealousy of God himself. I promised you as a pure bride to one husband — Christ. But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent. (2 Corinthians 11:2-3)
This was written by the apostle Paul in a letter to Christians in Corinth. This helps us understand that jealousy is God’s desire for undivided devotion. He knows that, if we turn our hearts elsewhere, He’s lost us. He doesn’t want to lose us, because He loves us. Paul reminds readers that Eve’s devotion to God was undermined by the deception of the devil. That’s how we all got into this mess, dang it.
THE WAGES OF SYNTAX
Notice the syntax in Paul’s writing. God isn’t jealous of us; He’s jealous for us. I can be envious of someone — wanting for myself something that belongs to him. I can be jealous for someone — wanting him not to belong to anyone else because that would mean that I’ve lost him. That’s how God feels about us. Because He loves us.
If we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26-27)
Pardon my Shakespearean English, but I like the word choice in the King James Version. Here, zēlos is translated as indignation, which is anger provoked by injustice. This adds to our understanding of jealousy. God is so zealous for the relationship, He will wipe out any enemies of the relationship.
Who are the adversaries? The passage from Paul above tells us who’s who in the big picture. There are three parties: the husband, the bride, and the deceiver:
- The husband is God.
- The bride is originally Eve and ultimately all people who love God.
- The deceiver is the devil and anyone who conspires with him to turn people’s hearts away from God.
The good news? The adversary who is devoured is not the bride. (This is not a horror movie.) The adversary is the one who strives to turn people’s hearts away from God. He’s an enemy of God. He’s an enemy of God’s friends. The Bible describes him this way: “Your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” In the end, he is the one who is devoured by our jealous God.
ONE BRIDE FOR SEVEN BROTHERS? GOOD LUCK WITH THAT
“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24)
A person can love multiple friends, no problem. A person can love multiple children, no problem. But when a bride tries to love multiple husbands, a plethora of problems ensues. Everyone gets hurt. It’s not the same kind of love we have for friends and children and siblings and third cousins. Romantic love is singular by nature. The Bible tells us so, and it uses that kind of love as a metaphor for the love between God and people.
No, I’m not one of those people who call Jesus their boyfriend; that’s an odd notion. But I agree with the Greek philosophers who believed that romantic love contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth. This kind of love is the context in which jealousy belongs. It’s the kind of love that jealousy serves and protects.
JEALOUSY IS A GIFT
That’s why I say that jealousy is love. It’s not a burden; it’s a gift. I’m deeply grateful that God loves me and cherishes our relationship so much that He will take out anyone who interferes. That’s not to say that He won’t let me walk away if I choose. Everyone has that choice, always.
But, if we walk away, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the whole of the Bible tell us why such a choice is made: We’ve been lied to by someone who seeks to destroy our relationship with God, and we’ve fallen for the lie — that God can’t be trusted, that He doesn’t really love us.
One day the the liar and the lie will be devoured. No more deception. No more damage. Just mutual love and loyalty.
I’ll understand if you think I’m wacky or just wrong. I know that my views hang on faith and a particular interpretation of the Bible. You may see things differently, and that’s okay. But, if you ever thought that God must be insecure or psycho because He’s jealous, I hope I can help you see something you never saw before. Maybe faith isn’t your thing, but can I interest you in etymology?