Scenario 1: An ugly thing. A man claims the sole right to his girlfriend’s attention and affection. He gets heated when she laughs with a coworker or appears to be sharing something personal with an acquaintance. He looks as if he wants to hurt someone when the FedEx delivery guy lingers a little too long at her desk. Observers shake their heads, wondering how someone can be so dense and immature. Doesn’t he know she doesn’t belong to him? Afterall, that’s not how love is supposed to work.
Or does it?
Scenario 2: A heart-breaking thing. A woman stares at her wedding ring with tears smeared across her cheeks. She replays in her mind that day when he vowed to give himself completely to her and no other for as long as they both would live. But there’s more than enough evidence now to the contrary: numerous late nights at work, passcode changed on his phone. And then there are the multiple sightings she’s been told of—dinner with her. The theater with her. Strolls in the park with her. In a surge of anger mixed with pain, she removes the ring and hurls it against the wall. Doesn’t he know that he belongs to his wife, not her? That’s how marriage is supposed to work.
Jealousy is unpleasant and rightfully condemned in relationships—that is, unless there have been binding vows exchanged. Somehow, marriage commitment changes matters. What starts out as mutual attraction morphs into two people in love. The lovers then commit in matrimony to reserve their affection, intimacy and bodies for each other, uniting their lives in an exclusive intimacy. So, how is one supposed to feel if his partner violates this covenant?
Suppose a friend observes my wife spending “extra” time with the FedEx delivery man as he drops off packages. It starts with him lingering longer than necessary at her work to chat. Then he begins leaving little gifts on her desk, including a vase of red roses, that she seems to thoroughly enjoy. Finally, my friend happens to see them together at a coffee shop, holding hands. The friend solemnly approaches me and shares all that’s been observed. What would he think if I responded with, “Yeah, I know. But I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything. Besides, she’s old enough to make her own decisions. No big deal.”
I imagine this friend, and anyone else who heard my reaction, would question how much I love my wife. They might also begin to understand, in light of my indifference, why she finds the FedEx man attractive. On the other hand, what would be an appropriate reaction as a husband? Distress? Tears? Anger? My response to unfaithfulness reveals how much I value the relationship in the first place. Jealousy is fitting when what has been pledged to me is given to someone else. And I’m not the only one who feels that way.
What about God?
The Bible describes God with the potential of fierce jealousy:
“Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the Lord your God has forbidden you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Deuteronomy 4:23-24 ESV
“They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger.” Deuteronomy 32:16 ESV
“And Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done.” 1 Kings 14:22 ESV
Are these verses describing a narcissistic, overly-controlling tyrant? Or something else?
Imagery in Old Testament prophetic writings often paints a view of God as a jilted husband. The people of Israel are the cheating wife. He regularly lays out His case for why He has the right to be jealous. A covenant was made. They each promised to give themselves completely to the other. But Israel reneged and pursued other “lovers.” His heart is so hurt by Israel’s unfaithfulness to their mutual pledge that He leads His prophet Hosea through a painful marriage scenario of betrayal. It illustrates how the sovereign God feels when what was promised to Him is given to another. Lesson: God can feel real relational hurt.
Well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, make’s fun of the biblical presentation of God’s jealousy.* He accuses this picture of deity as exposing an insecure, unstable and therefore unreliable being. He questions how an intelligent person can look to God as a moral example. What Dawkins doesn’t seem to take into account, among many other things, is the rich marriage motif woven throughout both Testaments. God is presented as a passionate yet unwavering lover. And when looked at as a whole, all the biblical accounts of God’s jealousy undergird His faithfulness and passionate commitment to those who bind themselves to Him. He takes His nuptial vows seriously and therefore can be relied upon to always be there for His bride. His potential for jealousy proves His love. Would we want it any other way?
What does this mean for us?
As followers of Jesus in a covenant relationship with God, you and I have the ability to grieve His heart. Just as the ancient Israelites provoked His jealousy through their love affairs with idols, we also have modern-day gods that lure us away from our covenant promises with Him.
Idols? I don’t bow down to statues.
No, but I do give valuable and intimate parts of myself to other things—things that easily draw my attention and heart away, things I turn to in my distress.
Who or what do I spend most of my time thinking about? A covenant with God means we belong to each other: I get all of Him and He gets all of me. Psalm 139:18 says that His thoughts for me outnumber the grains of sand. How many of my thoughts throughout the day are set aside for Him? Instead, I easily give them to meaningless entertainment, worry, complaining or some other self-indulgent practice intended to meet my own needs. What if I worked toward expanding the time in a 24-hour period in which God received more of my worship, more of my thanksgiving, more of my focused attention meditating on His Word? The One who loves me so much deserves so much more of my thought life.
Who or what gets the majority of my affection? I only have so much emotional energy to give away each day. To whom or where I give it says much about what I adore and what I’m ultimately devoted to. My passion and excitement easily get poured into my work, sports, hobbies, family and dreams for the future. How much do I long for God? His passion for me has been demonstrated through the suffering of His Son on the cross. What suffering am I ready to endure for the sake of a passionate love relationship with Him?
Who or what gets the majority of my respect? What I obey and fear reveal what I esteem, honor and ultimately worship. Idols in my life are uncovered when I consider the things that most easily cause me to tremble: other people’s opinions, being alone, lack of comfort and loss of control over my circumstances. The Bible calls me to fear God, that is make Him the highest recipient of my respect, reverence and obedience. I’m going to give these things to something—it’s my nature. Why would I give them to anything or anyone other than Him?
What do you tend to turn to for comfort when you are stressed or lonely? Where do you look when making decisions or seeking guidance? Your answer reveals much about who or what your god is.
You are passionately loved and adored! Does your affection for and dependence on other things make God, the great lover, jealous?
*The God Delusion, copyright 2006, by Richard Dawkins is a scathing, albeit in my opinion shallow, critique challenging the reasons people believe in God. It’s obvious that he has not dug into the deeper themes of scripture (like God’s faithful and passionate love), why they are attractive and how they connect with the needs of the human heart.