Zealous or Jealous?

Zealous and jealous are two concepts frequently encountered in the Bible. Generally we regard jealousy as a negative emotion. If that is the case, why is God said to be a jealous God? Zealous is usually seen in a more positive light, but we know it can be overdone. As it turns out both words derive from the Latin zelus and from the Greek zēlos. 

Over time, the meaning of zealous has evolved so today it does not really share the same meaning as jealous. You might say that zealous has become the poor stepchild from the common root. 

Today, zealous describes an excessive feeling, meaning “fiercely partisan” or “uncompromising enthusiastic.” We all know someone who fits this category, maybe all of us do in at least one respect. The sports fan whose team can do no wrong and never get a break from the refs is a zealous person. I have a friend who is fond of saying that there is nothing more obnoxious as a new convert to anything. This is where the negative side of zeal rears its head. Being enthusiastic is not bad, but it can be overdone. If we are seeking converts to our side, fierce enthusiasm is not the way to do it and may result in the opposite effect. But we admire individuals who are passionate, zealous about something, as long as they don’t overdo it.

In discussing zeal, Joel Ryan commented that, as Christians, we often long for the adoption of a childlike faith. Buy Ryan suggests that we might better adopt in our faith the zeal often shown by teenagers and young adults. When someone in these groups cares about something they are “all in.” We should be passionate about our faith.

From a Christian perspective we need to be zealous about the Word of God. We are told that we should treasure the Word to help keep us from sin. Read it, meditate on it, memorize it, sing it, study it. If we are zealous for God we will want to be in His presence. When we love someone, we want to be with them. It should be even more so in regards to God. We want a personal relationship with Him more than anything. We do not want to be separated from the love of God.

A zealous Christian will be bold in his or her stand for Christ. We proclaim Christ in a variety of ways. In Mark 8:35 Jesus stated “whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes into the glory of His Father.” There should be no thing as a “secret service” Christian. Not everyone is a gifted speaker. Not everyone can witness one-on-one effectively. But we can all witness. My wife was not a public speaker, she could not mount an effective argument one-on-one. But through her singing and the life she lived, she proclaimed Christ. Her favorite song to sing was Baynard Fox’s “I’ll Tell The World that I’m a Christian.”

Jealousy, on the other hand, is generally seen as a negative emotion. But God is frequently described as a jealous God. This may be hard to reconcile. However, a study of how this concept is used in the Bible sheds some interesting light. It seems that the Hebrew word  qanna is also translated as jealous, but is only used in describing God. Zelus is not used to describe Him. There are three contexts for jealousy in the Bible. Two are positive.

First, God is jealous for the hearts of His people. In  several passages in Deuteronomy we read “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” God chose the Israelites, they were His people. They agreed to worship, obey, and serve Him. Instead they strayed and worshiped idols. Even to the point where God wanted to wipe them off the face of the earth, but He relented.

Second is the feeling that a Christian gets when others do not give God the glory due Him. When we realize how much God has done for us, that He is the creator of the universe, we hurt when others disregard or disrespect Him. We are jealous that God has not received His due. But we must respond in patience and gentleness. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us “A soft word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Third is the use of jealousy that carries a negative emotion. It is a jealousy, envy, or even covetousness that we experience when we want to have something that someone else has. Or it can be a strong desire to keep what we have. We want to “keep up with the Joneses.” It is hostility toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage. Joseph’s brothers wanted to keep their position in the family and were jealous of Joseph’s ascendency. Jesus showed us that this type of jealousy was not appropriate. Matthew 6:25-34 tells us to not be anxious for material things. Also in Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus tells us not to seek riches on earth but focus on eternal treasures.

Two words: zealous and jealous. Both have good and bad aspects. We would do well to heed Paul’s words in Colossians 3:2 “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” Strike a balance in both cases.

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