By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: What is the difference, if any, between envy and jealousy?
Reply: Envy is resentment or displeasure in the heart because of the good fortune or blessings enjoyed by another. It is listed as a sin in the New Testament, being associated with such sins as murder (Rom. 1:29). It is declared to be a “work of the flesh” and Paul adds, “that they who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21). Envy is condemned in Titus 3:3 where Paul mentions it as characteristic of those in the world before they obeyed Christ. Envy was the reason Jesus Christ was delivered up to be crucified. Even Pilate himself recognized it as the reason (Matt. 27:18; Mk. 15: 10). So, we can see that envy is a very heinous sin.
The word “envy” is translated from the Greek word phthonos and is considered to be always evil, unless James 4:5 would be the exception. Some interpret the verse to mean “God’s intense love for man causes him to be ‘envious’ for man’s friendship” (Baker’s Dictionary of Christians Ethics, p. 213). But this interpretation is doubtful. The human spirit is probably meant here, rather than the Holy Spirit.
The word “jealousy” is from the Greek word zelos. Thayer defines the word from two different standpoints. First “zeal, ardor in embracing, pursuing, defending anything” and second, “an envious and contentious rivalry, jealousy” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 271). So, unlike envy, jealousy may be used in good sense as well as in a bad sense.
On the positive side, God is a jealous God (Ex. 20:5; see also Ex. 34:14; 39:25; Zech. 1: 14; etc.). Elijah said: “I have been jealous for the Lora God of hosts” (1 Kgs. 19:10). When Jesus cleansed the temple, the disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house shall eat me up” (Jn. 2:17), a quotation from David (Psa. 69:9). Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy: for I espoused you to one husband, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). It is obvious that the word in this sense is good. It is related to “zeal.”
On the negative side, Webster defines the word “jealous” as “hostility toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage” (Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 647). In this sense it is a selfish disposition which can easily turn itself into hatred. It was jealousy that caused the brothers of Joseph to sell him (Gen. 37:1 If); it was jealousy that prompted Saul to hunt David like an animal. When the women of Israel sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7), Saul became jealous.
The Jews at Antioch were filled with jealousy when they saw the multitudes assembled to hear Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:45). Thus jealousy, in a bad sense, and envy are closely related. Both are listed as “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21).
“Envy” and “jealousy” are to be distinguished because they are not used interchangeably. They come from two different Greek words. Jealousy, in its proper use, can produce an admirable devotion to what is pure and holy. A husband’s jealousy for his wife, or vice versa, and Paul’s spiritual jealousy for his Corinthian brethren, as we have seen, are examples. Envy is always evil. We may also think of envy as being the more passive disposition and jealousy as the more antagonistic and aggressive. Cain’s hostility was prompted by jealousy which led him to slay his brother Abel (1 Jn. 3:13). Neither envy nor jealousy, in its evil sense, should occupy the heart of the Christian.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 23, p. 710
December 3, 1987