“O beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” This quote from Othello is one of the most famous mentions of jealousy personified. Jealousy and envy have motivated antagonists in many works of fiction. But what does the Bible say about envy vs. jealousy?
Where Does the Bible Talk about Envy?
There’s no surprise that envy is a big topic in the book of Proverbs. Some of King Solomon’s wisdom says:
“Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways,” (Proverbs 3:31)
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” (Proverbs 14:30)
But truthfully, envy goes back to the Garden of Eden. Meriam Webster defines envy as a feeling of discontent or covetousness about another’s advantages, success, possessions, etc.” That is exactly what Satan in the form of a snake played upon when he said, “you will surely not die…and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5) Eve wanted to knowledge that God had, and that desire led to destruction.
Envy raises its head again with Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-10). Cain’s anger when he does not receive God’s favor leads to wanting what Abel has received, leading to destructive consequences.
Envy or covetousness even appears in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:17) and in the seven things God hates (Proverbs 6:16-19, the basis for the seven deadly sins).
Where Does the Bible Talk about Jealousy?
Jealousy appears throughout the Old and New Testaments, almost as often as envy does. It appears in verses like:
- Galatians 5:20: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage….”
- 1 Corinthians 11:2: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy.”
- Romans 13:13: “debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy….”
- Ezekiel 36:6: “in my jealous wrath because you have…”
- Joshua 24:19: “He is a holy God; he is a jealous God.”
- Exodus 20:5: “… for I, the Lord you God, am a Jealous God.”
Hold up. Those last few verses referred to God being jealous. If God is holy and perfect, how can he be Jealous and not be in sin too? Many people have struggled with this idea of God’s being jealous, so can jealousy or envy ever be a good thing?
Can Jealousy Ever Be a Good Thing?
Jealousy can be good if its heart is for another person’s greater good, not focused on the self.
2 Corinthians 11:2 says Paul is “jealous for you with a godly jealousy.” Paul uses the term godly jealousy because he desperately wants the joy and freedom from salvation in Christ. Because Paul knows that Jesus is the source of truth and life. Paul’s jealousy here is a deep longing for the good of the Corinthian church.
The same longing and desire for our good is the type of jealousy God has for us.
John Piper says this about God’s jealousy: since God is “infinitely wise and infinitely good, and knows what’s best for us. And suppose he is the greatest good in the universe, and he is the greatest joy, and he is the all-satisfying pleasure.” When verses like Exodus 20:5 and Joshua 24:19 say, “the Lord is a Jealous God.” It refers to God’s deep longing for us to know him and return to him because He is what can give us “… life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
But what does it mean when the Bible says God’s “wrath and jealous anger”? (Ezekiel 16:38) How can jealous anger be good? Let’s take a moment and define anger. Anger, at its core, is an emotional response to something wrong done to us or someone else. Because we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), we can feel emotions just like God can. The difference is that God cannot sin in his emotions. We can sin and often do. God’s anger, wrath, or indignation is always justified and always holy. Humanity’s anger, wrath, or indignation is rarely holy or justified.
Take Jesus in the temple as an example. In Luke 19:45-48, Matthew 21:12-13, and Mark 11:12-25, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem. And he sees tax collectors and money changers taking advantage of the people who had come for the Passover to make a sacrifice to God. Jesus became angry and drove the money changers out of the temple. This anger was both justified because what those men were doing was immoral. Jesus’ anger was also holy because it was it wasn’t for Jesus’ glory or retribution.
Dr. Thomas Constable’s commentary puts it this way, “Jesus’ literal housecleaning represented His authority as Messiah to clean up the corrupt nation of Israel. Verse 16, which is unique in Mark, shows the extent to which Jesus went in purifying the temple. By doing this, He was acting as a faithful servant of the LORD and demonstrating zeal for God’s honor.”
Can Envy Ever Be a Good Thing?
While jealousy has two sides, envy cannot be a good thing. Jealousy and envy can have a similar source of discontentment or injustice. But jealousy has an inward focus on inadequacy, and envy has an outward focus on the haves and have-nots of those around us.
In a Daily Hope article, Rick Warren explains that envy is a heart problem. Any time you envy, you have gotten your worship misguided because envy is a form of worship. It says, “I desire that. I want that. I love that. I want to live for that.” That’s called worship. And any time that item is not God, it becomes an idol.”
If you read the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) backward, it’s interesting to see that many of the first nine result from covetousness and envy, which is the final commandment.
How Do We Separate Envy vs. Jealousy?
In a Crosswalk article, Jessica Van Roekel says, “jealousy involves three people—the person feeling jealous about someone else because of a rival. Jealousy occurs in up to four settings: sibling rivalry, peer relationships, romance, and paranoia. False judgments, illogical deductions, and misinterpreted trivia feed it.” Jealousy at its heart is fear. Whether it is fear of losing someone, missing out, or not living up to a self-set standard.
At the heart of envy is discontentment and a lack of appreciation for what we have. But envy doesn’t stop there; it becomes fertile soil for bitterness and resentment to grow. Jealousy might be the start. Envy is when something has taken root, creating an idol out of some goal or someone.
How Do We Watch Out for Envy and Jealousy?
In her discussion about envy and jealousy, Van Roekel further explains, “Jealousy worries that someone will take something away from us. Envy worries that we won’t ever gain what we long to have. We overcome worry when we shift from focusing on our lack to thinking about God’s abundance.”
It comes down to choosing gratitude and trusting God. I know that sounds cliché. Still, if we can “take captive our thoughts and make them obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), we would catch our thoughts and not “let the devil get a foothold” (Ephesians 4:27). Sometimes, that means being mindful of the music we listen to and the shows that we watch.
When my husband and I were first married, money was tight, and I was unemployed. This was at the dawn of the home and garden cable TV shows. I found myself hooked to these homes and their magnificent transformations. Not all cable TV is inherently sinful, but I found it fed my discontent. I had a roof over my head, but it didn’t have shiplap or exposed beams. I had a kitchen to cook in, but laminate on the countertops. Then God was kind enough to convict me of my discontentment and jealousy of those “winning” on a TV show. I had been making an idol of my home’s appearance instead of being thankful for what God had provided. Not long after that, we got rid of cable. In our case, it allowed too much room for jealousy, resentment, and envy to grow. I found other activities and focused on having a grateful heart for what blessings God was providing.
Alan Parr of the Beat says one way to combat envy and jealousy is to reject “the Happiness Lie.” To reject the idea that “if I only had what I see other people having, then and only then will I truly be happy.” The enemy uses this to keep us chasing after anything except God.
Having a grateful heart is the first step to guarding against envy and jealousy from taking root in our hearts. Much of the book of Ecclesiastes describes Solomon’s observations about chasing the world’s wants for happiness. He concluded in Ecclesiastes 4:4, “Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.” Chasing after empty things is not the abundant life God wants to give us.
Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son chased the world and found himself eating with pigs until he returned home to his father in humility. While the younger son didn’t find himself worthy to sit at his father’s table, the father welcomed him home and threw a party for him. That is the God of the Bible. The welcoming father who celebrates his children coming home. That is someone you can put your trust in.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/francescoch
Valerie Fentress is the author of An Easter Bunny’s Tale and Beneath the Hood: a retelling woven with biblical truth. She aims to engage believers, especially kids, in the wonder and identity of who God is and who God made them to be.
You can find out more about Valerie, her books, and her blog at www.valeriefentress.com.
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