Dating: Good Jealousy and Bad – John Piper
Good jealousy and bad jealousy in dating relationships is the topic today. Not an uncommon question, but one we’ve never gotten to. It arrives in the form of an email from a listener named Charles. “Hello, Pastor John. I’m very thankful for your ministry and the profound impact God is making through you for the kingdom. I have battled with jealousy and control in romantic relationships all my life. I pray to be fully delivered from it, one day, but it hasn’t happened yet. Is jealousy normal in dating? And how can I fight it?”
I think we should put the question of jealousy first in its wider biblical context. We should not just start with dating, but start with God, then move to people in ordinary relationships, and then dating.
A Jealous God
Exodus 20:5 and 34:14 say that God is a jealous god. That means he has a strong desire that all the affections that belong to him in the hearts of his people come to him rather than going to other persons or other things. The form that this strong desire takes when the affections of his people go to him is joy. But the form this strong desire takes when they go somewhere else is anger.
“When it comes to jealousy among people, the New Testament is clear that there’s a good kind and a bad kind.”
Jealousy itself can be expressed positively as a joyful desire for the affections of the beloved and negatively as anger over the misplacement of the affections of the beloved. In either case, jealousy can be good, a proper emotion in the heart of God.
Sharing God’s Jealousy
We shouldn’t have the notion that says, “Oh — well that’s just kind of an Old Testament view of God.”
I remember reading that Oprah Winfrey was led away from traditional Christianity because she heard a sermon on the jealousy of God, and she didn’t think it was right. I think it was a sermon based in the New Testament where Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:22 warns Christians not to provoke the Lord to jealousy. In other words, don’t give your heart away to anybody but him when it belongs to him.
Then there’s jealousy for the Lord from us. God commended Phineas in Numbers 25:11 because he was “jealous with my jealousy.” In other words, it’s right for us to feel with God a jealousy that he get the affections from us and from others that belong to him.
There should be a joy within us when affections that belong to God are flowing to God. There should also be indignation in us when affections that belong to God are flowing to something other than God. That’s jealousy; that’s good jealousy that we share with God. We can have his jealousy.
Now, when it comes to jealousy among people to each other, the New Testament is clear that there’s a good kind and a bad kind. The New Testament has lots of warnings against the bad kind, the sin of jealousy.
“Good jealousy is a joyful desire to receive the affections from another person that really belong to you.”
But the very word translated jealousy can also be translated as zeal in a good way, as in “zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). That’s a good thing, a good kind of jealousy. The difference is not in the word that’s used; it’s in the context and the way it’s used.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:4, “Love is not jealous,” sometimes translated, “Love does not envy.” Well, there is another word for envy, but sometimes they overlap. It simply means love doesn’t grasp for and demand affections from the beloved that don’t belong to it.
Love is not excessive; it’s not grasping; it’s not holding on. It’s happy. It rejoices when the beloved’s affections go toward other things and other people that are appropriate — affections from mom or dad or friends or a night out or nature.
We’re not at all grasping, saying, “I want those. I want those. Those are mine.” No, they’re not. Love knows the difference, so we don’t demand that all affections come to us from our beloved. We’re not loving if we do.
Good and Bad Jealousy
James 3:16 says, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” On the other hand, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I feel a divine jealousy for you.” In James 3:16, jealousy is bad. In 2 Corinthians 11:2, jealousy is good. Paul says, “I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.”
What’s the difference between good jealousy and bad jealousy? I think the answer lies in the emotional route that gives rise to the feeling and the behavioral fruit that flows from the feeling.
My definition of “good jealousy” is a joyful desire to receive the affections from another person that really belong to you, or an appropriate indignation if the affections that belong to you are not being given to you. It is not automatically a sin if a fiancé feels jealousy because the fiancé is dating another guy or a girl.
Clearly, we know the difference between affections that belong to us at various stages of our relationships — at least if we’re healthy we do.
I would define “bad jealousy” as jealousy that is rooted in fear and insecurity and lack of trust in God’s promises. In other words, bad jealousy has an inappropriate need for too much attention from the beloved because of an insecurity and fear and unwillingness to trust God to take care of the beloved and provide for our needs.
Another kind of bad jealousy would be jealousy that comes from selfishness or pride. In other words, you feel jealous because you want to look like you’re the only person the beloved spends time with. You want to be made much of by this person instead of having him or her go after other people to spend time with them and act like they matter. You want them to act like you’re the only thing that matters.
“Bad jealousy has an inappropriate need for too much attention from the beloved because of insecurity and fear.”
Well, that’s just sick. That’s not healthy. That’s an unloving kind of jealousy that’s rooted in pride and not in love.
Good jealousy is rooted in a peaceful confidence in God for your own identity and security so that you have a wonderful, free, loving disposition to allow your beloved to have appropriate relationships besides the one he or she has with you, and to have appropriate emotions toward family and friends that don’t at all compromise his or her affections for you.
Good jealousy can discern the difference between what affections belong to you and which don’t, because good jealousy is shaped by genuine love and genuine trust in Christ. That’s the aim, Charles. You asked, “How can you work against it?” Those two things: grow in trust and grow in love.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary.