Picture a man coming home a day early from a trip, pleased and ready to surprise his dearly loved wife. As he nears his home in the early evening he sees an SUV parked across the street. It belongs to a man in their church home community. Puzzled, the husband also notices that the living room and kitchen lights are off, but the glow of a soft light can be seen through the closed curtains of the master bedroom. With a heart that begins to fill with a quiet horror he gently opens the front door. Moments later, in the bedroom, he discovers his wife in bed with his good friend, sharing an intimacy with her that the husband thought was his and his alone.
Is it proper for the husband to be jealous? Should we be surprised if he expresses horror and outrage? Or would we consider him noble and properly self-controlled if he knocks on the half-open door and says, “Hi honey. Hi Sam. Sorry to catch you by surprise! When you two are done why don’t you come on out to the kitchen and let’s have some coffee. I had a great trip and I’d love to tell you about it!”
Of the two options—of fury versus passivity—God affirms the former. The jealousy of a betrayed spouse is a proper and powerful response to adultery; and one that God shares with us. In fact God’s confrontation of adultery is among the most commonly expressed themes in the Bible, with the Old Testament far surpassing the New.
In the Bible physical adultery is treated as fully parallel to spiritual adultery. This because we are ultimately spiritual beings—created in God’s immaterial, relational image—so that physical adultery is only the tangible extension of a prior spiritual violation (cf. Matt 5:27-28 & 1 Cor 6:12-20).
Yet jealousy can be a confused and unhealthy passion—properly dismissed as a selfish feature of narcissism. Think, for instance, of the jealousy of a 3-year old when he or she finds a new infant sibling in the home, now drawing parental attention in new directions. I can also think of a woman I knew years ago who, after having an affair with a married man, was angry and jealous when the man returned to his wife. With these kinds of exposures to jealousy this is hardly a passion suitable for God, is it?
The answer is, “yes”, it is suitable to God in the measure that jealousy is suitable in a marriage! A proper jealousy can and should exist when the bond of mutual, exclusive marital love has been violated. In a marriage the “two” have become truly “one” and that oneness is not to be adulterated by additional partners. It is a function of ontology—of the true union of marriage. Yet the unity of marriage is treated in the Bible to be subordinate to an even greater unity: that of the Godhead as reflected in the constitutional language of creation. “Let us make man in our image; male and female he created them.” Marriage, as this text reveals, is our closest point of continuity to God’s own being.
Not only that, we also find in Ephesians 5:32 that human marriage is merely a precursor to the greater marriage of Christ and the Church. Marriage offers a lens for looking ahead to our eternal estate as the collective bride of Christ. This, in turn, also gives us the context for God’s proper, powerful, and passionate jealousy. A jealousy so great that it accounts for his future judgment on humanity—as in the call of Psalm 2 for all of humanity to “Kiss the Son, lest he [God the Father] be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.”
Indeed, among the Bible’s ten commandments we find jealousy at the heart of God’s relations with Man:
for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:5)
This is not an arbitrary and selfish love, but the love of the Creator who stirs us with his own steadfast love; and he then looks for us to reciprocate that love or to face his jealousy. God, after all, exists in the eternal communion of triune love and our own creation was accomplished with the intent that we should see and experience the eternal glory of the divine companionship as Jesus shares in his great pastoral prayer (John 17:24). So the biblical narrative is one of love and hate—of jealous passion versus requited love. The measure of our standing before God is in what—or who—we love most.
I’ll leave it to readers to survey the entire Bible with this theme in mind, but at least two texts will get us started. The first is an extended warning from Joshua who anticipated the coming dissipation of Israel once they settled in the land:
Therefore we [the people speaking] will also serve the LORD, for he is our God. But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” (Josh 24:18-20)
While God invites such fear it is only because he made us for himself. Remember that when our hearts despised him before our salvation he was patient and persistent in breaking down the hostility that once held us. How? By sharing his love through the loveliest gift he could offer: his Son. By pouring that love out into our hearts by the Spirit.
Picture, then, someone trying to smuggle a foreign god into heaven! Can a spiritual opponent to God survive within the intense and holy embrace of the Father-Son-and-Spirit? It’s impossible! So it is that we must give over every alternative love to the pit of eternal destruction. God is properly jealous for our hearts, our whole hearts.
The other verse I have in mind is from James in the New Testament (4:4-6).
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?”
Let’s take that on board as an invitation: God yearns for our spirits! He made us for union with his Son by the working of the Spirit in a Spirit-to-spirit bond. He is the lover who finds us bedded with the unbelieving, disaffected world. How does he feel? As jealous as the husband of our initial story should feel! Yet he works for restoration and reconciliation. Why? Because of his steadfast love.
What a God and what a lover. One who comes to us with a proper and powerful jealousy. May all of us repent and be restored.