Divine Jealousy Sounds Terrifying...But Is It?
I remember how shocked I was during a trip to China in which I toured a Buddhist Temple. It wasn’t the great, golden idols with their stylized grimaces that set me off. Nor was it the sticks of burning incense, symbolizing prayers that were being offered. At the time these seemed like fascinating artifacts of an alien culture. As we left the temple, a friend mentioned how troubled she was by the scene. It struck me that while she had felt distress at the sight of hundreds of people praying to idols, I had been playing the role of detached observer, approaching the experience as an interesting cultural event. My lack of concern for souls who were lost without Christ shocked me. How could my heart, I wondered, be so far from the heart of God?
Scripture speaks, not of a tepid or indifferent God but of a Divine Being whose love is all consuming. While we like the idea of God as a passionate lover, we recoil from the notion that he is also a jealous lover. Divine jealousy sounds terrifying, far beneath the dignity of a God of love. But is it?
We know, of course, that jealousy can devastate relationships. We also know that jealous feelings usually stem from insecurity and self-centeredness. Not wanting to ascribe such characteristics to God, we often ignore or try to explain away Scriptures that speak of his jealousy. Part of our difficulty stems from the fact that we don’t understand how jealousy works in God compared with how it works in humans.
Human beings become jealous when they perceive a threat to their exclusive claim on another person. They want that person to be theirs and theirs alone. In the natural world jealousy can sometimes preserve monogamous relationships. But jealousy can also destroy relationships whenever it becomes a desire for possession and control. To quote one writer, “jealousy is the desire to be god to one another.”1
God’s jealousy is far different because it is based on two realities. The first is that God has a right to us. He created us, and we belong to him. Second, he knows that human beings can only be happy to the degree that we are united with him. If we pay homage to false gods (in our culture that could be money, drugs, sex, power, or people), we are spurning his love, acting the part of an unfaithful wife. Because God knows that giving ourselves to anything less than him will result in our ruin, jealousy is the proper response.
I like the way the British preacher George Morrison explained it:
“Only God can satisfy the heart, even the poorest and meanest heart. Only He can absorb it without wronging it, for in Him we live and move and have our being…. But the jealousy of man grows dark and terrible because it makes a claim that is impossible. But for God, the jealousy is His right.”2
How should we respond to God’s jealousy? By forsaking whatever separates us from him and by reflecting his passionate concern for others. We must become zealous for his honor, his glory, and his gospel, knowing, as we do, that the world desperately needs to know him. Join me today in praying for the grace to heed Paul’s call to the Romans that they would never be lacking in zeal (Romans 12:11).
- Mark Galli, A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 115.
- George H. Morrison, “The Jealousy of God,” Classic Sermons on the Attributes of God, Compiled by Warren W. Wiersbe (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1989), 36.