Do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” (James 4.5-6)
It was 18 years ago last Monday that Walt and I first met; we’ve not been apart since. Learning how long we’ve stuck together, straight and gay friends alike want to know “our secret.” When these inquiries first started, we stuttered, “There’s no secret. We’re just… together.” Eventually, we tried to come up with a stronger, more helpful response. It proved a very instructive exercise. First, we realized we’re best friends. When we teeter on break-up’s edge, knowing the leap will end that pulls us back. Then, for friendship’s sake more than anything, we habitually avoid tension with three “policies.” 1. Regardless how little we care for one another at the time, no day ends without each doing a kind deed for the other. (There is a secret to this, and I plan to write about it soon.) 2. No day finishes but what we somehow make each other laugh. 3. We refuse to entertain jealous thoughts about one another. While we do a lot of things wrong—the lion’s share, I’d say—getting these three correct has cemented our friendship and hence our marriage.
Friendship and marriage find their greatest beauty as mirrors of our union with God. I believe Walt and I reflect this in the first two habits. Every day with God brings His kindness and joy. Dismissing jealousy is a major departure, though, because God is famously jealous. Right off, He establishes His covenant with us by declaring, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20.3) Then, lest we glide casually by that, His second commandment insists, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything”—or, “Don’t even look at something else”—prompting His admission, “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” (v4-5) Particularly as we grow more sensitive to God’s presence, when our eyes stray or temptation sets off heart-flutters, we commonly feel His displeasure. As a result, unavoidable tension exists in our relationship with God.
Nothing to Fear
If this were an ordinary affair, we’d be wise to end it pronto. Jealous people make the worst lovers. Their insecurities stifle happiness and spawn nasty suspicions. But our relationship with God is unique. His participation contradicts everything human experience teaches us to expect. Therefore, as James explains, God’s jealousy is nothing to fear. In fact, it's one of the best aspects our relationship with Him. For starters, it gives him opportunity to ravish us with love and mercy. Second, it obliges us to learn the best—the only—way to deal with God’s envy is by submitting to His will and pleasure. And once we discover the motives and principles underlying His jealousy, life without the tension it creates becomes no way to live.
James opens chapter 4 on a tear, blasting believers for fighting to satisfy “desires that battle within you.” (v1) He doesn’t toss any specific examples of such self-serving actions, leading us to presume anything we crave solely for our pleasure fits the bill. Instead, he lumps them together as “friendship with the world.” (v4) Well, anyone knowing anything about God knows that won’t fly. We can hear the quiver in James’s voice as verse 5 essentially asks, “Do you think God is joking when He says He’s intensely envious?” If he were writing today, he might add, “You need to get a grip on yourself,” as he seems to realize he’s losing his grip as well. He takes a deep breath, lowers his tone, and quietly explains why God’s jealousy is good for us. “But he gives us more grace,” James says. “That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” (v6)
God is a categorical Thinker Who defines what is by what isn’t. That’s the first thing we observe about Him. In Genesis 1, we find Him hovering in abstraction above a dark, aqueous void. When He calls for light, darkness becomes “night.” When He speaks land into existence, water becomes “sea.” As His world takes shape, our understanding of Him solidifies, and we realize He creates negative possibilities to activate positive outcomes. This is why we live with “the desires that battle within us.” Temptation isn’t our test; it’s His tool, His method of defining His role in our union, which—true to form—employs jealousy to secure our trust. Rather than accusing us of faithlessness when we fall to temptation, God uses our failure to prove His faithfulness. He gives us more grace.
Temptation isn’t going away. There’s no point hoping it will. It’s there and we have to deal with it. This why Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” It sharpens our sense of how easily our eyes wander and our hearts flutter. Trying to overcome temptation on our own is audacious rubbish. Remember: God opposes the proud. Battles with desire humble us to depend entirely on God’s grace—whether beforehand, to steer us clear of temptation, or afterward, for forgiveness and acceptance. When our will clashes with His, He gives us more grace. When what pleases us displeases Him, He gives us more grace. The unavoidable tension generated by God’s jealousy is in itself a gift of grace. It turns our hearts from temptation, a far more pleasant option than experiencing God’s envy when we put our desires above His. Yielding to temptation always makes a mess. It stirs up unnecessary trouble between God and us. But since it won’t leave us alone, God’s not going anywhere, either. He’s in this with us for the long haul. All the grace we’ll ever need can’t put a dent in His love and forgiveness. Day in and day out, He gives us more grace.
Jealousy in human lovers is dangerous. God’s jealousy is a gift of grace.