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 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.
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).
In the Old Testament, Israel was often compared to a Bride and God as her husband. Over and over in the Old Testament, Israel wandered from God. She envied the lives of other nations. She envied their gods and their sinful ways. She flirted with the other nations and played the harlot with other gods. In his holy jealousy, God sent her away into captivity.
But God promised there would be a day when Israel would return as his bride. He promised to make her pure and radiant and restore her back to him as his bride. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19–20).
God fulfilled his promise in Jesus. In his jealous love, Jesus pursued, redeemed, bled, died, and rose again for his Bride, the Church. He is now sanctifying her, making her holy and pure and readying her for her wedding day. And one day he will return and gather us all together, from the four corners of the earth to celebrate his grace in the Great Wedding Feast. “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7).
When we are envious of what others have, when we desire something that doesn’t belong to us, it’s because our hearts have turned from our one true love. We think that if we just had the success, opportunities, experiences, or fortune of another, we’d be happy. In our envy, we are chasing after the inferior pleasures of his world instead of looking to Jesus. In effect, we’ve forgotten whose we are.
The only cure for our envy is the love and grace of our jealous Husband as found in the gospel. Only the righteous jealousy of Jesus, seen in the redeeming grace of the cross, can cleanse our envious hearts. Time and again, he forgives our wandering ways. No matter how far our hearts might go, his grace can go farther. While our love for him ebbs and flows and is often fickle, his love is constant and unwavering. When we find our heart wandering in envy, we need to remember and return to him, the One who is always jealous for his Bride.
Christina Fox (@christinarfox) writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including True Woman, ERLC, and The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of Idols of a Mother’s Heart (forthcoming) and Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ helps Friendships to Flourish. You can find her at www.christinafox.com and on Facebook.