Overcoming Jealousy

By Daniel W. Petty

“A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones” (Prov. 14:30, KJV). When the Wise Man exhorted, “Keep thy heart” (Prov. 4:23), he was encouraging us to keep ourselves free from evil thoughts and improper attitudes from which all sorts of sinful conduct proceed. A “sound heart” is one that is free from such corruptions as greed, evil desire, resentment, or pride, and is therefore healthy. The heart that is free from envy (“passion,” NASB) is sound in the sense of being at peace with itself. Another good translation is “a tranquil heart” (NASB). There is a connection here noted between tranquility or soundness of heart, and good physical health. Whether the writer of the proverb was speaking entirely metaphorically (e.g., “a sound heart is [like] life to the body,” etc.) is debated. In any case, experience certainly teaches that people who are torn apart from within with envy or resentment toward others are not happy or healthy people; it is to them “rottenness to the bones.” And it is a sin sickness of the soul that can destroy us.

The Hebrew word qinah is found 46 times in the Old Testament, and may be translated “envy,” “jealousy,19 16 zeal.” The New Testament uses two words, primarily, to denote the concept of envy or jealousy. Zelos occurs in its various forms about 28 times, and means “zeal,” “jealousy,” or “envy.” Phthonos is found about ten times as “envy” or “jealousy.” These two Greek words are joined together by Paul in Galatians 5:20-21.

An interesting difference between zelos and phthonos is that the former word is sometimes used in a good sense. In John 2:17, Jesus quoted Psalm 69:9 to say, “Zeal for Thy house will consume me.” Here it referred to His passionate, jealous concern for the temple and its worship. Paul testified of the Jews that they had “a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). The Corinthians were noted by Paul for their exemplary zeal in giving, which had stirred up the Macedonians (2 Cor. 9:2). R.C. Trench says, “When zelos is taken in good part, it signifies the honorable emulation, with the consequent imitation, of that which presents itself to the mind’s eye as excellent” (Synonyms of the New Testament, p. 87). As used in this nobler sense, zeal is “that active emulation which grieves, not that another has the good, but that itself has it not; and which, not pausing here, seeks to supply the deficiencies which it finds in itself” (Trench, p. 88).

But zelos is most often used in Scripture to denote that baser passion of jealousy, into which that “active emulation” has degenerated. “Jealousy” and “strife” often are found together as fitting partners (Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. 5:20). That good which we see in another has become a symbol of resentment, competition, and even enmity.

Phthonos, “envy,” is always used in a bad sense. Vine defines it as a “feeling of displeasure produced by witnessing or hearing of the advantage of prosperity of others.” The distinction, Vine explains, between “envy” and “jealousy,” though very slight, is “that envy desires to deprive another of what he has, jealousy desires to have the same or the same sort of thing for itself.”

The condition of heart we are defining is therefore that feeling of indignation, resentment, or bad feeling that may result from pride, selfish ambition, covetousness, or inordinate competition. We all know what jealousy is because we were all children once, and jealousy is certainly a childish trait. Siblings naturally are jealous of one another, and parents know of the difficulty of trying not to give one child any apparent advantage over the others. Parents also know that as children grow to adulthood, they should learn to overcome such childish jealousy.

But such attitudes continue to linger in us even as adults. Uncontrolled, they are often the cause of the breakdown of marriages, of strife between Christians. The ugly monster of jealousy manifests itself because of some physical or material advantage of others; so-and-so makes more money, etc. It appears because someone was not included in a social activity. People are jealous because of someone else’s talents or abilities, because a good idea was somebody else’s, or because others get to have the “say-so.”

There are many examples of jealousy found in God’s word, and they illustrate what the consequences of this uncontrolled passion can be. Cain killed his brother because he was jealous that the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but not for his own (Gen. 4:4-5). Joseph was the victim of his brother’s jealousy, and was sold into slavery (Gen. 37:11; Acts 7:9). Joshua begged Moses to restrain Eldad and Medad from prophesying in the camp of Israel, because of his jealousy (Num. 11:26-29). It was for envy that Korah led his rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and met his unfortunate fate (Num. 16; cf. Psa. 106:16). Jealousy toward David became an obsession with King Saul, driving him to hound David in efforts to kill him (I Sam. 18:8). The chief priests of the Jews delivered up Jesus to be crucified “because of envy” (Matt. 27:18; Mk. 15: 10). Paul was driven from Antioch of Pisidia and Thessalonica as a result of the jealousy of the Jews, as they observed the crowds of people coming to hear the gospel preached (Acts 13:45; 17:5).

Jealousy and envy are not proper attitudes for Christians (Rom. 13:13). Paul classes envy among all sorts of unrighteous behavior which is more fitting for those with a “depraved mind” (Rom. 1:28-29). The church in Corinth was guilty of jealousy and strife, and Paul rebuked them as a bunch of immature, spiritual babies. Their behavior was of a carnal or fleshly nature. Paul was forced to deal with them harshly because they refused to put away such childish, unspiritual behavior (1 Cor. 3:1-3). As children of God who are led by the Spirit, we are to put away such attitudes as jealousy as works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20-21). As imitators of the love of Christ, we must learn that jealousy is not consistent with true love (1 Cor. 13:4).

The “wisdom from above” tells us that “jealousy and selfish ambition” only causes “disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:13-18). The person who is “wise and understanding” knows that “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” is a “lie against the truth” and the source of disorder, strife, and conflict. The Wise Man wrote, “Wrath is fierce and anger is a flood, But who can stand before jealousy?” (Prov. 27:4) “And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:2). At the heart of many a doctrinal controversy there is also “envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions” (1 Tim. 6:4). The Apostle Paul expressed his fears that at his arrival in Corinth he would find “strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances” (2 Cor. 12:20). Would he be afraid to visit many congregations today?

We hate to admit it, but some preachers are apparently motivated by jealousy or envy of others. The same thing existed in Paul’s day: “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will” (Phil. 1:15-16). What a shame it is when something as beautiful as the gospel message, and as noble as the work of preaching it, is tarnished by a jealous pride or selfish ambition that resents the God-given talents of other ministers of the gospel, or belittles and tears down the good work that others have done. The jealous attitude needs to be purged from the hearts of many Christians, and some preachers ought to lead the way.

We will eliminate thoughts of jealousy (“envies,” 1 Pet. 2:1, KJV) from our hearts as we grow in Christ. “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:1-2). The word of God can heal sin-sick hearts, if we will apply its teachings to our lives, “being not forgetful hearers, but doers. . . . “

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 4, pp. 112-113
February 19, 1987