Once, when I was in college, I got into a discussion with someone about whether or not God is subject to passions. I was arguing that, as God, He is capable of loving us unconditionally, without any of the restraints or limitations we sinful people experience because of various passions. This person then asked me, “But why does God call Himself ‘jealous’ in the Bible?” I didn’t know how to answer. I think I said something about anthropomorphic language and not taking something like that too literally. But I realized I didn’t actually know what I was talking about, or what it means for God to be “jealous.”
Just the other day – more than a decade after that conversation – something clicked for me. I’m quite sure this is nothing original (God forbid). I probably heard this all explained during one of my seminary classes without it sticking. But in any case, the thought came as tardy news for me that not only can God be jealous, but only He can properly be jealous with absolute, perfect, and passionless jealousy, and that this jealousy is an aspect of divine love.
My reflection was actually prompted by the phrase, “I have been very zealous for the Lord Almighty…” in 3 Kingdoms (1 Kings) 19:10. I find this passage to be incredibly poignant. I feel the agony in Elijah’s words, and competing sympathetic voices of fear, faith, sorrow, and indignation seem to well up within me as I read. I wonder what the sound of the “gentle breeze” would be in my ears if I could be silent for a few minutes. Perhaps it would sound to me like this: “I have been very jealous for you…”.
It occurs to me that zeal in humans – true zeal, which is according to knowledge and coupled with love – is in some sense the faintly mirrored image of jealousy in God, which is always according to perfect knowledge and is in fact an expression of perfect, universal love. God, who alone knows infallibly what is good for us, and who alone loves with love as perfect as death on the Cross, is also alone in being able to say, “You are mine, and only mine.” And He says it to each of us, and He says it with perfect dispassion. Perhaps, then, it is not when we speak of God’s jealousy, but when we speak of human jealousy that we anthropomorphize, having substituted something from fallen human existence for something divine, impossible to experience outside the experience of God’s love.
There is, however, a very human image of this reality in the New Testament. When the Lord is staying with the sisters of Lazarus in Chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel, we hear an echo and interpretation of the Old Testament expression of God’s jealousy. To Martha, distracted by many cares, our Lord says, “One thing is needful.” Mary kneeling at the feet of Christ shows us what the Lord would have each of us do, for He is a jealous God. He wants our hearts, souls, and minds – undividedly, unconfusedly, unhesitatingly, and unhypocritically.
I see three practical implications flowing from this reflection. First, God certainly has the right to be jealous, but I don’t. Human jealousy is inevitably misguided and destructive. This is because God alone can demand and expect complete and utter devotion. My jealousy would only conflict with His, being an expression not of divine love, but of self-love.
Second, what God’s jealousy does demand of me is zeal. Like Elijah, when I become aware that God is a jealous God – and this because He loves all people and desires all to abide in Him – my response ought to be zeal for the Name and the house of the Lord, and deep sadness concerning apostasy. That includes both the apostasy in the world and that within me. It is the inner kind that I am most in a position to correct, so I had better get to work slaying the priests of Baal that lurk in the “high places” of my heart. On the level of human relationships (my marriage for example), what is required is a zealous pursuit of loving attentiveness to the other, rather than a jealous (or envious, or self-pitying) withdrawal into sulky defensiveness.
Third, and most importantly, neither the cultivation of holy zeal, nor the avoidance of unholy jealousy is possible apart from doing what both Elijah and Mary show us: silencing ourselves that we might hear continually that gentle, life-giving reminder that we are God’s and His alone.
Fr. Daniel Bethancourt (SVOTS ’07) serves at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (Antiochian) in Shreveport, LA. After graduating with his MDiv in 2007, he served as Director of Recruitment at SVOTS while his wife, Presvytera Maria (SVOTS ’08), completed the MA program. Following her graduation in 2008, they had a very full summer that included two ordinations, a move to Shreveport, the beginning of pastoral ministry, and the birth of their son, Peter Basil. Fr. Daniel is deeply grateful to God for his family, the people of his parish, the Orthodox Church, and the ability to speak of the summer of 2008 in the past tense.