"For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God." —Deuteronomy 4:24
In Galatians 5:22-23 appears a list of what the apostle Paul calls the "fruit of the Spirit." The fruits of the Spirit also have counterparts, called the "works of the flesh," which are listed in verses 19-21. We realize that, while striving to produce good fruit can be a constant challenge for us, we rarely have any problems perfecting the works of the flesh!
Have you ever wondered why the good traits are called "fruit" and the evil ones are "works"? A person can work all day, but that does not mean he is producing fruit because good character takes time and prolonged effort to grow. On the other hand, being carnal, we find that it takes little effort to produce—even perfect—the works of the flesh. It is not very hard at all to lust, to be envious, to create strife, or to harbor hatred.
How about holding jealousies? Paul tells us in Galatians 5:21 that those who practice the works of the flesh will not be in the Kingdom of God. Yet, Deuteronomy 4:24 says that "God is . . . a jealous God," and Exodus 34:14 declares, "For the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God." How can one of the works of the flesh, jealousy, be one of God's names?
To most of us, jealousy has a negative connotation. We know that it can lead to such things as covetousness, bitter envy, and hatred. In the story of Cain, his jealousy grew until he rose up and murdered his brother, Abel (Genesis 4). Joseph's brothers also exhibited jealousy to the point that they sold him into slavery (Genesis 37)! Perhaps the longest running bout of jealousy in the Bible is that of Saul against David in the book of I Samuel.
We have probably read these verses in Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 4 many times, and maybe even said to ourselves, "There's no way that God can be associated with jealousy! Something must be missing in the translation." But it turns out that it is our understanding of jealousy that is at fault.
What It Means to Be Jealous
That Jealous is one of God's names—and He is thoroughly good—means that jealousy must have a good side, and in it is something for us to learn and appreciate. Since God does not change (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8), He has always been jealous. However, can He be jealous to the point of envy? Can He be jealous of someone or something? Can He be bitter and selfishly possessive? Like many other attributes of God, Satan has tried his best to distort our understanding of jealousy and to make us believe the negative.
In its definition of jealousy, The American Heritage Dictionary reads, "fearful or wary of being supplanted; apprehensive of losing affection or position; resentful or bitter in rivalry; envious; inclined to suspect rivalry; having to do with or arising from feelings of envy, apprehension, or bitterness." This sounds nothing like our God so far. The spirit of the definition seems to change direction at this point, as if the word has a positive side and a negative side: "Vigilant in guarding something; intolerant of disloyalty or infidelity, autocratic." An example of this would be a father watching protectively over his children.
In order to distinguish the difference between the two sides of jealousy, we have to ask, "What is the motive and object of the jealousy?" We need to consider these definitions from this point of view. We see "fearful or wary of being supplanted or losing . . . position" all the time in the workplace. When a new employee is hired, almost immediately the older and longer-term employees make sure that the new guy knows his place on the company totem pole. Fearful of losing their positions, they jealously begin protecting their turf right away.
We also see "apprehensive of losing affection" in our everyday lives. People allow themselves to become bitter when they feel that they are not getting the attention that they deserve from a girlfriend or boyfriend or even from a spouse. This kind of jealousy can lead to harsh words, affairs, and even murder. How many murder mysteries are based on the actions of a jealous partner?
"Envious" is another descriptor of jealousy. People often react jealously when they see others prosper. A neighbor or coworker may buy a new car or a new house, or perhaps he or she finds a new job and now makes more money. Suddenly, human nature makes friends and others think, "Why doesn't that happen to me?" Worse, a Christian might think, "Why doesn't God bless me like that? I'm just as good as he is."
Many years ago, a church member gave me a set of golf clubs, and I excitedly shared this news with a friend in the church—at least I thought he was a friend. Looking straight at me, he said, "Why did he give them to you? Why didn't he give them to me?" I had never been confronted so directly with such an envious attitude in all of my life! Our relationship was never the same after that.
Of course, animals do not have carnal human nature, but we can certainly learn from some of their actions. My family used to have two basset hounds named Skipper and Gilligan. When it came to feeding time, I would separate their food onto two plates, one for each dog. Even if Gilligan had T-bone steak, he would always go over and try to take Skipper's food! Did he think that Skipper was getting something more or better than he was?
After I finally broke Gilligan of trying to steal Skipper's food, he would still stand as close as he could to Skipper's plate while he was eating and continuously bark in Skipper's ear. Much to Skipper's credit—if we can give a dog credit—he ignored Gilligan and just kept on eating. Our dogs did not have the spirit of man in them, but sometimes they acted like they did.
On some level, we all understand or have experienced human jealousy, but how about godly jealousy? How can something seemingly so negative be an attribute of God?
The second part of the definition of jealousy seems to lend itself to what we understand as godly jealousy: "Vigilant in guarding something; intolerant of disloyalty or infidelity, autocratic." God is always watching and protecting us in ways we often fail to realize.
Job suffered one of the most difficult trials recorded in the Bible. In Job 29:2, he cries out to God, "Oh, that I were as in months past, as in the days when God watched over me." In this instance, Job had misjudged God, feeling that God had left him. Little did he know that, as his trial progressed, God was probably watching more intently than ever! He was jealous for Job and wanted to see him prevail over his ordeal.
A few years ago, my wife and I faced what we thought was a serious spiritual trial, and although we had been praying constantly, we felt as if God was ignoring us—or at least not moving fast enough in intervening. At the time, I had to haul a cargo van—weighing at least as much as the truck I was driving—down a two-lane road near Atlanta. As I drove, feeling somewhat like Job, I cried out to God, "Where are You?"
This is a prayer I do not recommend that anyone pray. Within an hour, I had been saved from two traffic accidents!
The first incident happened while I was driving down a hill around a curve to the left. As I rounded the bend, I saw a pickup truck heading straight toward me, trying to pass another vehicle in my lane. I hit the brakes, but the trailer started to jackknife. Easing up on the brakes, I moved over to the right as far as I could, but because of the hill, the road had very little shoulder. The truck was still coming at me, even seeming to accelerate to pass the other car. There being nowhere to go, I gripped the wheel with both hands and closed my eyes, expecting to crash head-on into the truck. When I opened my eyes again a second or two later, all I saw was a silver flash across my windshield. We never even touched!
Greatly relieved, I proceeded on, unloaded the van, and still pulling the trailer, began to return home along the same two-lane road. About five miles from home, an elderly woman pulled her car out across the road in front of me, hitting an oncoming car in the left rear wheel. This car then spun directly at me. I could see that my truck was going to ram this car right in the door, so I snatched the wheel hard to the right. The truck and trailer veered off the road and down into the ditch. Looking up, I realized I was headed straight for several telephone poles, so I jerked the wheel back to the left. The truck came up out of the ditch, darted across the road into the other lane, and finally moved back to the right, sliding sideways and blocking the whole road as it came to a stop.
I had not hit anything. Two cars had spun wildly, and my truck and trailer, like threading a needle, passed between both of them. The only sign of an accident on my truck was a wedged-in clump of grass. Just after I stepped out of my truck, a man came up to me saying he could not believe that I had not hit that car. He said that the trailer flew so high off the ground that it looked as if the car passed under it! Incidentally, very soon after this both of these areas had accidents involving fatalities. God is vigilantly watching and jealously protecting His people.
In II Corinthians 11:2, Paul writes, "For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." Being the one who wrote about the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh, Paul understood the difference between carnal and godly jealousy.
What was Paul's motive for teaching and guiding the church? What was the object of his jealousy? Was he hoarding this little group for himself or keeping enough people in his group to support his lifestyle and agenda? The various definitions of the Greek word zeloo (often translated as "affect," "covet," "desire," "envy," "jealous," or "zealous") provided by Vine's Dictionary of New Testament Words give us some insights: "to seek or desire eagerly," "to desire to have," "to take a warm interest in," "to seek zealously." From this perspective, we see that Paul's motives were virtuous. He was eagerly desirous to do everything in his God-given power to present the church to Christ as a chaste virgin! He was closely watching over these people with godly jealousy.
Notice, Paul was not jealous of these people but for them, and maybe that is part of our misunderstanding of godly jealousy. God has no reason to be jealous of us or anything else, but He certainly has a burning desire for us!
Has something ever caught our interest so much and fired a yearning for it that we could not rest until that desire was satisfied? These two ideas, jealousy and consuming fire, have something in common, as Deuteronomy 4:24 suggests: Our jealous God is a consuming fire!
This is one of God's attributes of which we might at first be afraid, as the author of Hebrews points out (Hebrews 12:29). When we think of fire, chances are we first think of being burned or consumed. Yet, fire can also be used as a purifier, and it can sure feel good on a cold winter morning. Many people can sit and watch a fire in the hearth for hours, listening to the soothing crackle and pop of the wood and enjoying its warmth.
A fire is a beautiful sight. It contains many different shades of red, orange, and yellow flowing together, and if it gets hot enough, one can see deep shades of blue in it as well. The coals or the burning embers seem as if they are pulsating with heat and energy all the while they are slowly being consumed and their energy dissipating.
Yet, recall the burning bush where God commissioned Moses to lead His people out of bondage (Exodus 3:2). It was totally enveloped in fire, yet it was not destroyed. As long as God was in it, the energy never diminished! The sight was so brilliant in depicting God's glory that Moses dropped to his knees and bowed to the ground. This event demonstrates that godly jealousy comes first, and it issues in fire!
What, then, is the motive and object of God's jealousy? In seeking to reproduce Himself, God is preparing a bride for His Son. The practice of parents' choosing their children's spouses is not common in our Western world, but many of us wish our children were so likeminded with us that they would totally trust us with their happiness for the rest of their lives.
Jesus trusts His Father because He knows that He is a jealous God, and His jealousy is directed toward Him and the perfecting of His bride, the church. The Father desires that we be given a spirit body and be filled with His mind and power. He is eager to give us His only companion in wedlock, bestowing on us His Family name and making us heirs of His mighty Kingdom!
On the other hand, Satan begins very early in our lives to plant seeds of carnal jealousy, never missing a chance to tempt us to react according to his evil spirit. The sin of jealousy begins in our minds, and if it is not eliminated, it will inhibit God's Spirit from dominating our thinking. The two cannot dwell together.
In Joshua 1:5, God encourages Joshua, "No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you." Much as He does in the promises of Deuteronomy 31:6, 8 and Hebrews 13:5, God is letting him know that He will always be there for him. Though Moses was dead and all of the responsibility of leading Israel into the Promised Land was on Joshua's shoulders, God reassures him that He would always jealously watch over him.
God truly is a jealous God, for which we can be thankful because His jealousy is divine and righteous. God's jealousy is the perfect example of fatherly love for His children, and as such, we cannot survive in Satan's world without it. God is always closely watching over and protecting us to preserve us for His Kingdom. In turn, we can learn godly jealousy by watching out and caring for each other.