As often happens, I have taken a subject and found my thoughts on it to be more extensive than I initially had realized. Because of this, what was to be one posting will turn into several. For those of you who read my writing with any consistency, this will come as no surprise as I am often wordy. That said, sit back, have a read, and hopefully think a little bit about what is here so that you can share those thoughts with me. Blessings.
One of perhaps the greatest misunderstandings in scripture is how God can be perfect, and have perfect love, when He is also described as a jealous and vengeful God. This matters a great deal as it is a fundamental confusion with the nature and attributes of God. We are going to spend some time here flipping through Bible verses and talking a bit about them, so it may be helpful to have one handy as you read.
The misunderstanding generally starts with something like this. 1 John 4:8 says that God is love. 1 Corinthians 13 gives us one of the best examples of love, patient, kind, not envious, etc. Then throughout the Old Testament we have numerous examples of God being vengeful and jealous. The flood anyone? (Genesis 6-9) How about the Ten Commandments? (Exodus 20) That is not even taking into account the numerous prophets that pointed this out. We see it in the New Testament as well. 1 Corinthians 10:22, just a few chapters before the “love chapter”, speaks of God’s jealousy. How are we to reconcile these things? Are the scriptures faithful in their representation of God? If so, is God somehow not perfect as their is apparent contradiction in how He is described? These are important questions to the Christian as we all walk along the path of righteousness making every attempt to be holy because God is holy. They are important questions to the apologist as they make all sincere attempt to defend the faith. They are vital to the evangelist as they must explain these issues to those seeking God, but not understanding God. They are important to all who want to, as much as imperfect beings can, understand God. After all, as A.W. Tozer writes in The Knowledge of the Holy, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
The first thing that we need to take into account is that we simply do not have the ability, linguistically or intellectually, to completely describe God. This does of course start with the presupposition that God is eternal, from everlasting to everlasting if you will. (Psalm 90 and other passages) If you are not at that place, then some of this may not make any sense to you, and I, as well as a host of others (Plato, Augustine, etc.), think that you are not understanding one of the attributes of God. Because one of the attributes of God is His aseity, that must be taken into account in this discussion, as well as numerous other attributes as well. To go along with not being able to fully describe God, we also need to take into account language, translation and context as well as the difference between our modern understandings of a word and the understandings of the words when they were written.
Today, we often treat jealousy as a negative and seem to equate it with envy. Yes, we still call jealousy the green eyed monster (thanks Shakespeare). That is not the case, nor was it the case at the time of the writing of the scriptures. The reality is that there is both a positive and a negative aspect to jealousy. For example, Paul admonishes Christians to put off jealousy (Romans 13:13) and James tells us that where there is jealousy, there is also every evil and disordered thing. (James 3:16). What we need to understand is the difference between these, and other Biblical statements of jealousy that are negative (and rightly so!), and those passages such as 2 Corinthians 11:2 where Paul is speaks of a Godly jealousy, that is to say a righteous jealousy. This expresses a strong love much in the same way that God does in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 4:24, and others). God certainly was not envious of the Israelite people and their possessions, but rather was expressing His strong love for them using anthropomorphic language. If we are to be honest, we simply must admit that love has a jealous side to it. This is not to say that we should be envious, far from it! It is to say that there is proper jealousy. Let us use the analogy of husband and wife, as it is the analogy that is used in scripture for the relationship of Christ and His church. I dare say that no man who has an ounce of moral fiber to him wants to share his wife with another person. Neither does God. Is this jealousy? Yes! In it’s proper form is it born out of, and indeed an expression of, love? A resounding yes! If I were to see my wife speaking to another person and I become resentful and angry, that is self-centered possessiveness, or jealousy expressed in an improper and unhealthy way. It stems from my selfishness and/or insecurity, and not from my commitment to her, and to God. If however, I were to see another person trying to alienate my wife and seduce her (sexually or not, seduction is not always a sexual act. Think Eve in the garden), then I indeed have right to be righteously jealous. If there is ever a question over when jealousy is good or bad, the answer is simple. Healthy, that is to say righteous, jealousy always is a reflection of God’s holiness and sovereignty. Is there jealousy in my marriage? Yes, and the vast majority of the time, it is even righteous. Is there jealousy between God and His people? Yes, and on God’s end, it is always righteous. It does not deny His perfection, it points to it. It is not contradictory to His love, it is complimentary to it. It is not a contradiction of His other attributes, it instead works in conjunction with them.
Misunderstandings of God are certainly nothing new. We have been doing it since the garden after all. It happens because we apply our ideas and understandings to God instead of applying God’s understandings and actions to ourselves. Our thoughts on jealousy are flawed and generally negative, and scripture does indeed point to places where it is, but we forget also that scripture points to places where it is not as well. We look for contradictions, such as God being love, but also being jealous instead of trusting the God is love and then trying to understand how His jealousy is an expression of that love, and then translate that into circumstances where we can, as with all of the transferable attributes of God, properly reflect is as an expression of the Imago Dei that is restored. We have, for whatever reason, seemingly decided that there is never a proper expression of jealousy and then become confused because if jealousy is a bad thing and God is jealous then He can not be perfect. The reality is that we can not fully understand what perfect is, because we are so very far from it. What we can do is have faith that God is indeed who and what He says, through the scriptures, and then do our very best to understand how those things which confuse us fit into that. God is a jealous God, not because He is imperfect, but precisely because He is. The confusion seems to stem from our definition of perfection (the arrogance here is astounding if you think about it…we, and this includes me to be clear, are imperfect, but then we, and again this includes me, decide what perfection is), instead of accepting the definition of perfection from the source of it. God is a jealous God, and praise and thanks be to Him as He will ever be. Understood properly, it is one of the most comforting truths of scripture.