A misunderstood God leads to a misguided faith. If you think God is insecure and constantly assessing you on your performance, you will be insecure yourself. You will be forever wondering whether you have done enough to please him.
Some time ago I wrote that God loves us unconditionally, that contrary to what some scriptures say, God is not a jealous God. How dare I contradict the written word? Well, I’ve met the Living Word and I can tell you that Jesus is the very picture of love and grace.
However, the concept of a jealous God is hard to shake. We’ve heard so many times that he loves us with a jealous love that it begins to sound true, even though it’s not. In fact, jealous, clinging love is about as far from agape-love that you can get.
Recently, a reader suggested I take a look at this verse in James:
Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? (Jas 4:5)
This verse seems to suggest that the Holy Spirit within us envies us, that he doesn’t like it when we become friends with the world. In fact, he considers that to be adulterous behavior. So watch yourself, says James, because “friendship with the world is hatred toward God” (Jas 4:4a).
That sounds bad. But wait, it gets worse!
“Anyone who becomes a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4b).
I’ll admit, if you don’t know what makes the new covenant new, then this passage in James 4 will paint a scary scripture. But it’s actually good news – fantastically, wonderfully good news! – as we shall see.
The trouble with James 4:5
In fairness, James 4:5 is one of the strangest scriptures in the Bible. For starters, James says he is quoting scripture, but which one? Nobody knows. It’s a mystery theologians have been debating for centuries. But that’s not important right now.
What is important is that many people conclude from this verse that God watches us with the intense envy of an insecure lover. He watches to make sure we stay faithful and true. This is why we must not become friendly with the world. Love the world and you become God’s enemy. He will smite you.
Or so the argument goes.
Let’s leave aside for the moment the meaning of the words friend (it has to do with covenantal unity) and world (it has to do with that part of the world under Satan’s influence) and focus on the word envy. Is it true that God envies intensely? And if so, what does that say about God?
What is envy?
Envy is when you want what someone else has and you resent them for having it. It sounds bad and it is. Don’t let anyone tell you there is any such thing as “godly envy.” That’s ridiculous. Since envy is one of the so-called seven deadly sins, we might just as well speak about “godly gluttony.”
[Insert Homer Simpson voice here: “Mmmm… gluttony.”]
Even so, I know there are people reading this who are itching to correct me. They want to tell me that envy only seems wrong from our sinful human perspective, that when God does it, it’s alright. They’ll say, “Godly envy is okay.”
Then I guess we can talk about godly fornication, godly witchcraft, godly idolatry, and godly murder for these are all works of the flesh along with envy (see Gal 5:19-21). Paul says that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Hmm. Does that mean an envious God is excluded from his own kingdom?
This is really not a difficult scripture. God does not have an envy problem. How do I know? Because God is love and “love does not envy” (1 Cor 13:4).
So why does James say the Holy Spirit envies intensely?
He doesn’t! James is not talking about the Holy Spirit at all. He’s talking about the spirit within man. You are a spiritual being. You have a spirit. If your spirit is not one with the Holy Spirit – if you are alienated from God – then you have a big problem. And one symptom of that problem is envy.
Try and live apart from God and you will die. We’re not designed for independence but relationship. We were made to receive and give love. This is why those who aren’t satisfied by the love of God tend to be dissatisfied in life – they are inclined to envy. Remember, envy is when you want what you don’t have.
This is how James describes the problem:
You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. (Jas 4:2)
Some people are too proud to ask God for anything. They’d rather do it all themselves. Or they ask but with wrong motives. “If you do this for me God, I’ll do that for you. Deal?” Such pride is a recipe for disaster for “God opposes the proud” (Jas 4:6).
Envy is a symptom that something is wrong.
James is basically saying, if you’re not resting in God, you’ll be restless. If you’re not content with God, you’ll be discontented with man. You will fight and quarrel and covet and want what you don’t have.
I appreciate that many theologians would disagree with me – they would argue that James is referring to the Holy Spirit – so let me give you seven quick reasons why he’s not.
7 reasons why James 4:5 is not describing the character of God
1. In the preceding 4 verses, James is listing humanity’s problems: “You kill, you covet, you quarrel, you fight.” He’s not talking about God but people.
2. James uses the word “spirit” twice in his letter. In James 2:26 he refers to the spirit of man. Same here.
3. God, by nature, cannot envy (see 1 Cor 13:4).
4. Envy is a work of fallen flesh (Gal 5:19-21).
5. Envy (phthonos) is mentioned 9 other times in the New Testament. On every other occasion envy is considered evil, something to be rid of (2 Pet 2:1). God has no evil traits that he needs to be rid of.
6. James, like Paul, is an apostle of grace. Since grace can only be received by the needy, James is pointing out our need, not God’s insecurities (he doesn’t have any).
7. Spurgeon says so.
Of James 4:5, Spurgeon has said:
There is a spirit, resident in the natural man, the human nature of man, which is always inclined toward hate and envy, always wanting to get somewhat from other men, and always grieved if other men seem to be or to have more than the person himself has.
Spurgeon goes on to ask: “How is this spirit to be met?” James supplies the answer in the next verse.
But he gives us more grace. (Jas 4:6)
Pow! And now we come to the good bit.
The cure for what ails you
There is only one cure for fallen humanity and it is not fear and intimidation dished out by the guilt-shovelers. It is the supernatural, transforming grace of God. What can turn a sinner into a saint? Grace alone. What can settle a restless heart? Grace alone. What is the remedy for hate and strife and discord and envy? Grace alone.
“But James, I’m terrified that God is not pleased with me, that I’m not doing enough.”
“You need more grace!” says James.
“But James, I’m so restless, I’m so hungry, I’m so thirsty.”
“You need more grace!” says James.
“But James, there’s a lot of politics at church right now. Everyone’s bickering and taking sides.”
“You all need more grace!” says James.
God is not sitting in heaven doling out big green dollops of envy juice! He is sitting on the throne of grace lavishing the riches of his grace upon all who need it. Receive it! When you receive his grace, it’ll free you from discontentment, rivalry, insecurity, resentment, and all the other symptoms of lonely, loveless existence. God’s grace is the cure for a sick and envying world.
- God doesn’t change: we do
- God is good but how good is he?
- Forsaking your first love: What was the Ephesians’ problem?