A friend sent a text to share with me about an amazing restaurant she went to. She described the wonderful meal she enjoyed and included a photo. I began to text back, “I’m so jealous!” but paused, then hit delete and changed it to “I’m so envious!” before hitting “Send.”
Jealousy vs. Envy
Jealousy and envy. They are two words that I’ve often used interchangeably. Whether I admired a friend’s new purchase from the mall, compared my rambunctious children to a friend’s well-behaved children, or wished my ministry was as successful as another’s, I’ve often considered my responses to be a form of jealousy. But they are not.
You might think, “What does it even matter?” Let me first say that I’m not part of the police squad for how we use the English language. This isn’t just a matter of semantics. There is a subtle, yet real difference between jealousy and envy and it’s a difference that matters to us spiritually. When we understand the difference, it helps us better identify and repent of the sin in our lives. But more importantly, knowing the difference helps us understand the love of Jesus who has saved us.
But first, let’s look at jealousy. In his book Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges defines jealousy as “intolerance of rivalry” (149). A common reason for jealousy might be if someone were to try and win your spouse’s affections. This type of jealousy is right. A husband and wife ought to protect their marriage from intruders. An example of sinful jealousy is when Saul was jealous of David’s military success. If you remember, the women sang in the streets, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). Saul responded in angry jealousy because David’s popularity had grown in the eyes of the people. They honored David above Saul, making David a rival in Saul’s eyes.
Envy on the other hand occurs when we are resentful of an advantage someone else has. We look at the job, car, house, wealth, experience, or success of another and resent that they have something we don’t. When envy’s roots dig deep and are well nourished, it grows into covetousness. This is when we want and desire the advantage of another, such as a friend’s car, well-behaved kids, or success in ministry. Such covetousness is what God forbids in the tenth commandment (Deuteronomy [5:21]).
But the biggest difference between jealousy and envy is this: God is often jealous but never envious.
A Jealous God Pursues Our Envious Hearts
Our God is a jealous God. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath” (Zechariah 8:2). He is jealous for our affections. He is jealous for our love, our worship, and our heart. This is why the greatest commandment says we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He wants all of us. When our hearts are turned to other things, looking to them to take the place of God, using them as substitute loves, God responds in a righteous and holy jealousy. Scripture actually calls God jealous by name in Scripture, “For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus [34:14]).
Written by Christina Fox
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