Is Jealousy a Sin?
- Heather Adams Contributing Writer
- 2020 5 Oct
There is nothing quite like the gnawing feeling of jealousy. It is fiercely strong, but can be sneaky, creeping in without us knowing until we are caught up in the thoughts and emotions it produces.
Many of us have experienced jealousy at one time or another, and felt the anger and angst. I've had my share of bouts with it, and they are moments I'm not proud of.
Jealousy can have such a negative impact on us and those around us - but is it actually a sin? The not-so-simple answer is that it could be, because surprisingly, the Bible mentions a second kind of jealousy. It comes from a very different motivation, and has a much more positive result.
To answer the question of whether jealousy is sinful, it's important to understand both kinds of jealousy and the contrast between them. Thankfully, Scripture gives us clear examples of each to learn from.
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Is Jealousy a Sin?
We have all felt it, but what actually is jealousy? One of the definitions of “jealousy” from Dictionary.com reads: "feeling resentment because of another's success, advantage, etc." This is the version of jealousy that we are familiar with. But the listing goes on to say: "In the Bible, 'Intolerance of unfaithfulness or rivalry.'"
According to Baker's Bible Dictionary, the Hebrew word qana (to be envious of or zealous for) is used in the Old Testament and relates to the marriage relationship, and ultimately to God's connection to His people.
One synonym the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus gives for jealousy is "covetousness," and in reality, the human form that jealousy is most closely related to is coveting. God issued coveting as one of 10 Commandments to Moses and the Israelites because He knew it would lead them to dissatisfaction and disobedience.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
Jealousy is sinful if it leads us to rebel against God and to grieve Him. In our human weaknesses, we often let jealousy fuel self-centered thinking and motivations. It then often provokes us to words and actions that go against how the Lord commands us to live. So, whether we are fostering jealousy toward someone else or provoking God to feel jealousy toward us by going astray, we are allowing sin to enter our lives.
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What the Bible Says about Jealousy
Scriptures talk about both God's righteous jealousy and the human sinful kind. To explain God's version, Bible authors often likened it to the sense of love and longing people in marriage feel toward each other. The idea that Almighty God feels this way about us can be overwhelming. Our best response to this gift is to accept it, and to worship Him.
In the Old Testament books, the mention of God's jealousy sometimes came with a caution for His people not to reject Him.
"'He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you" (Joshua 24:19).
Other passages share His promise of restoration for those who repent after turning away from Him.
"'Even now,' declares the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.' … Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people" (Joel 2:12,18).
Conversely, several of the Apostle Paul's letters in the New Testament address the quality of man's jealousy. Rather than a force tempered by love that is meant to bring reconciliation, human jealousy causes hurt and division.
Paul considered jealousy to be one of a set of attitudes that arise from letting ourselves become more focused on worldly things than on God. He also recognized it as a tool the enemy uses to distort believers' thoughts and destroy their unity. And he always called it a sinful behavior.
"Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh" (Romans 13:13-14).
"I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented…" (2 Corinthians 12:20-21).
"The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warned you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21).
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Why Does the Bible Say That God Is Jealous?
Scripture connects God's jealousy with His love. 1 John 4 says that "...God is love," and that "...He loved us first." Many verses describe this affection He feels for His beloved:
"I have loved you with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3).
"He will rejoice over you with gladness…" (Zephaniah 3:17).
"He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps 147:3).
"But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us...” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
Out of this basic characteristic comes God's yearning to possess and protect His people, and an envy of anything that rivals His place as first in their lives. Moses' last instructions remind the Israelite nation of this truth.
"Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God" (Deuteronomy 4:23-24).
God's jealousy also rises up when other nations mistreat His people.
"...this is what the Sovereign Lord says: In my burning zeal I have spoken against the rest of the nations, and against all Edom, for with glee and with malice in their hearts they made my land their own possession so that they might plunder its pastureland.’ Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel and say to the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I speak in my jealous wrath because you have suffered the scorn of the nations. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I swear with uplifted hand that the nations around you will also suffer scorn'" (Ezekiel 36:5-7).
Others in Scripture expressed this zeal for God, the desire to uphold His honor, and a motivation of love and obedience to Him. In the Gospels, the account of Jesus tearing down the temple marketplace stalls showed His righteous anger about God's holy place being misused.
"When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, 'Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!' His disciples remembered that it is written: 'Zeal for your house will consume me'" (John 2:13-17).
Later, Paul felt great zeal on God's behalf for the congregations of churches he planted.
"I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough" (2 Corinthians 11:2-4).
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What Should I Do When I Feel Jealousy Creep into My Life?
I wish I could say that I've felt more of the righteous kind of jealousy. But the truth is, the quality of mine has mostly been as Paul described. The emotions that unrighteous jealousy stirs up can be easy to defend and hard to shake. But there is a way out. Though it's uncomfortable, exploring when and why it happens can help diffuse it.
I've learned that negative jealousy starts with comparing, a bad habit of mine. Whether it's about someone else's house, job or personality, comparing always leaves me in second place. Doing that also blinds me to the blessings I've been given, and makes me listen to the lie that God cares less about me than others.
Jealousy still hits on occasion, and still stings. But I'm learning how to recognize it earlier and stand against it. The times when I've been most successful are when I follow a short process:
- I name jealousy for what it is, being aware of the thought quickly and stating it honestly.
- I admit my jealousy, owning it as my own feeling and not blaming anyone else.
- I turn to God in prayer, bringing my jealousy into His light instead of keeping it tucked away.
- I ask for forgiveness and help to combat my jealousy, letting God clean my heart and fight my battle.
- I let go of the jealousy, placing my focus on being more thankful and content with what God has provided for me.
- I pray for the person or situation that has triggered the jealousy, lifting requests for God to work things out for His best.
I've had to take those steps over and over again, and they can be challenging. But every time I do, jealousy's grip on me slackens, and my attitudes toward God and other people soften.
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A Prayer for When You Feel Jealous
Dear Heavenly Father,
I thank you for Your love - it truly is amazing. I know I can never really get a grasp of how full and powerful it is. And out of that love comes a jealousy for us. I can hardly believe that my Creator, the One that made the whole universe, longs so much to be with me! Help me to spend time thinking about this truth, Lord, and to respond correctly with heartfelt worship to You.
I pray that You will guide me away from the human side of jealousy, which is sinful and only brings about upset. Protect me from believing faulty thoughts and speaking wrong words. Make me willing and strong to stand against it so that the enemy would not gain a foothold within my spirit. Please, Father, change my heart to seek the good of others, while trusting in Your provision for me.
I pray all this in Jesus' name.
As someone who has felt my share of jealousy, I can agree with Proverbs 14:30 that "envy rots the bones." But God wants to lead us in a better way that brings life and health instead. Another verse in Proverbs, 23:17-18, lights up a new path to follow:
"Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off."
If we put God first, our passions will be directed toward Him. Then we'll find freedom from sinful jealousy, and experience joy as we pursue the righteous kind.
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