Does God Envy?

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.”

Oh really?

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.


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32 Comments on Does God Envy?

  1. Phillip Waite // January 9, 2013 at 1:37 am // Reply

    A good devide and a good read. Thank you Paul.

  2. That was such a refreshing read! I have never seen it that way, and it clears up a lot of confusion!

    So can you help me with the scripture right after that passage, saying “God opposes the proud” -? I thought in the New Covenant He is accepting everyone and offering them grace through the gift of His Son, to be received by any and all who will take the gift. So the thought of Him opposing people confuses me. Can you explain what is meant by that term and how that fits in with grace??

  3. hmmm… i’m gonna shoot this through a hoop of bible truths: if Jesus is God… and Jesus kept and fulfilled the Law perfectly… and one of the big 10 was “do not covet/envy”… i guess that means God does not envy!
    mmmm… grace! 🙂
    excellent post!

  4. Thanks for clearing these things up Paul. When you look at all of James 4 it really does make sense. I myself thought it was that Holy Spirit was jealous for us. It made me think of other Scriptures I have read that use the word “spirit”. People automatically interpret that as Holy Spirit. Maybe there are some more bad interpretations out there that need addressed.

    Anyway, its good to be reminded that James is in fact a grace book. That’s one I have had a hard time with; not that I don’t think it should be there, but that I have had a hard time seeing grace in some of it.

  5. Patrick Hng // January 9, 2013 at 4:11 am // Reply

    Bravo Paul!

  6. chrisvanrooyen // January 9, 2013 at 4:37 am // Reply

    God jealously guards those that are his from harm, That is the correct interpretation.
    Only God can be possessive without becoming envious.
    We can only possess what God gives us and not become envious.
    Only when we believe that all we have is a gift (not earned) from God can we escape escape envy.
    God only takes away that witch he has not given.
    Anything we have that is not a gift from God is stolen and makes us a thief and thieves by their nature are envious.
    Grace gives you legal title to all you own and gives you access to all God owns.

    What changes a earned possession into a gift . Faith !
    But with God all things are possible.

    • I like that. “God only takes away that which He has not given.” Sickness, sin, curses, pain, sorrow, pride . . . thanks for sharing that brother.

  7. Soooo true. Thanks!!!!!

    Romans 5:17 For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; “much more” they which receive “abundance of grace” and of the “gift of righteousness” shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)

  8. Well done. James is so difficult to square with so many other scriptures. Sometimes we can’t be sure of what a specific passage says, but we can be sure of what it is not saying,

  9. Phil Dailly // January 9, 2013 at 5:47 am // Reply

    Thanks Paul…another awesome post! I really appreciate the insights you’ve given me through your writings. I gifted a kindle version of your book to a number of friends and can’t wait to hear back from them. Thank you for all that you do.

  10. Melchizedek // January 9, 2013 at 6:01 am // Reply

    Lovely Jesus! ”Spurgeon says so” that is just so hilarious. I still can’t stop laughing. OK, back to biz. I have had problems myself understanding this. I always knew envy was not the nature of God, but until now, did not know how to back my believe with Spurgeon, sorry with scripture. Just one phrase was enough to sort that out – God is Love and Love does not envy. (1 Jn 4:8 and 1 Cor 13:4). Thank you Paul for helping me grow more in the understanding of Grace. With teachings from you I am able to preach Grace to my friends. God bless you.

    • I’m glad that tickled your funny-bone Melchizedek! When I was doing my study on this passage, I came to my conclusion before discovering a rich vein of commentaries on Precept Austin. I went through them wondering if any thought the same way I did. I recognized a famous name – I won’t mention him but he’s a man known for his seriousness and ungrace – and thought, “If he disagrees with me, I must be on the right path.” He did, so I was happy. Then I saw Spurgeon’s name and thought, “If he agrees with me, I must be on the right path,” and he did. So I had a bit of a giggle there.

  11. Most excellent writing and clarity!! Thanks God and thank you Paul!

  12. Mmmmmm, tasty!

  13. Who knew! Love this.

  14. You lost me at “contrary to what some scriptures say, God is not a jealous God.” “Contrary to what some scriptures say”? All scripture is the Word of God. Yes it needs to be rightly applied and taken in context and in relation to the whole counsel of God. But it cannot be negated. When God Himself says “I am a jealous God” in the old testament, well He means just that. And even though it’s old testament, God does not change. What did change is the wrath of God was satisfied in Christ. And so on.

    I do agree whole heartily that God does not envy. And that fact is backed up by the Word not “contrary” to it. But there is a big difference between envy and jealousy. See-

    • Hi Barb,
      The scriptures say “Money is the answer for everything” (Ecc 10:19). Do you believe that? I don’t. Elevating the written word over the Living Word is the essence of idolatry. I don’t mean to offend, but the Bible clear states that only Jesus is the express image of his father. Jesus gives us a direct revelation of God’s character; Moses – who wrote the words of Exodus 24 – only gives us glimpses. You can’t wriggle your way out of this by putting a positive spin on jealousy either, for the Hebrew meaning of the word, as defined by Strongs, means “to be (causatively, make) zealous, i.e. (in a bad sense) jealous or envious:–(be) envy(-ious), be (move to, provoke to).” Even in Wikipedia jealousy is defined as something negative, “a combination of presenting emotions such as anger, resentment, inadequacy, helplessness.”

      God does not change. He is not jealous. According to Moses he related to Israel for a time as a jealous God but even during that temporary old-covenant arrangement, his true loving nature constantly broke through (see Hosea). This is meant to be good news!

      • chrisvanrooyen // January 10, 2013 at 9:47 pm //

        What could God envy , all is his, what is not his, was once his but has been disowned and is now a widow or orphan.You cannot envy that that you don’t want.
        If you really believe God is who he says he is ( the creator of all) it is impossible for him to be envious or jealous.
        You can only be envious of that which you want but cannot have.
        If God wanted us but could not have us he would be envious , and we would be the cause of this envy ,our will before Gods !!

      • i think we really have to look for any examples of jealousy in Jesus’ life… since He is the embodiment of God in the flesh… the one example that keeps popping into my head is when Jesus expresses His sorrow for jerusalem: how He longed to gather them under his wings (luke 13:34, matt 23:37)… i would have to interpret this example as a loving and earnestly passionate desire – and not at all an envying. God has everything He could ever want… except those who reject Him. He wants them, but they “are not willing.” (in response to “is god sovereign?” post – man’s free will is clearly a part of the equation…)
        in 1 cor 12:31, paul wants us to “earnestly desire” the greater gifts of the Spirit; and in 1 cor 14:39 he says “be eager” to prophesy – but some translations use the word “covet” and “envy”. paul also says he is jealous for the corinthians with a godly jealousy (2 cor 11:2), and this word translated actually means to be eager for…
        i have to conclude that when God calls Himself “‘Jealous” (ex 34:14) that He is describing Himself as being a God Who earnestly desires us and is eager for us… like the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep… like the woman who seeks for the lost coin… like the father who earnestly desires his lost son come home and then runs eagerly to embrace him when he does…

  15. chrisvanrooyen // January 10, 2013 at 10:59 pm // Reply

    Without considering the true nature of God, and trying to see things from God’s perspective many things as well as my comments seem confusing and the perception is that they contradict themselves.
    To illustrate .
    God knows the end at the beginning so he knows who are his before they become his , he also knows who are not his before they reject him. He therefore has no reason to be envious. God is not surprised by anything we do.
    God wants all to be saved but he knows who he will lose , so the question has he really lost them. From our perspective YES . But when seen through God’s eyes NO !!
    To challenge this you would have to attack the very nature of God, and say that he is constrained by time.
    Jesus predicted that Judas would betray him .

    I am humble and willing to learn .

  16. How can God who is Love, be envious or jeleous with us when in fact it would be contrary to His love which sent His son Jesus to suffer for us on the cross? Lets remember that God doesn’t give us ordinances or laws anymore, but freedom in Christ, and the Holy Spirit and God’s Own righteousness which now lives in us. We now can be free from fear, condemnation, works, and now freely share the Good News to people from non-believers to believers. Lets set them free.

  17. Errol Pietersen // March 9, 2013 at 5:34 pm // Reply

    Hi.God is jealous within the relationship we are at with him.espeacially when we give to much attention to others than to him.we belong to him.bought by the precious blood of Jesus.we should listen more to what his trying to say and show us.his afraid we might go astray.some of us is never there for him when he needs us.some always have excuses.seems the love is fading might end up in a relationship there are two parties to be considerd.spending time with god is our first love.spending time with our spouse is our second love.sometimes he just needs someone to listen.i guess it could get lonely out there.we know how it feels when our spouse act in that hurts him very fact its us who makes him jealous or to be a Jealous God.thx Br errol.

  18. What a great article, really great reading
    Im struggling with massive amounts of envy and jealousy … Its consuming me!!!

    Im looking for spiritual guidance out of my pain and misery that had consumed my mind to a cloud of fog

  19. Hey Paul I thank you so much for your clarity on envy but I have a question?(Btw I am not posing as someone who believes in Grace I literally do).The First part of the verse seems to suggest union as it says James 4:4 – NASB – YOU ADULTERESSES (Caps just emphasis only), do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever * wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.Calling them adulterers makes it SEEM like they were in union with God(i.e god’s people) and he is accusing them of being friends of the world now and this comes before the verse that says he causes his spirit within us to envy intensely. I get the envy part but what about the Adultery part? Is he adressing unbelievers here to? Thanks in advance

    • I know there are some who use James 4:4 to preach fear to the children of the Lord, but James is not addressing Christians, for we are hardly friends of the kosmos, or that man-centered, Satan-directed system of the present age. The adulteress people are identified in the first verse of James – the twelve tribes, the Jews. It’s the “wicked and adulterous generation” Jesus spoke of when addressing the religious Jews (Matt 12:39). It’s the New Testament version of the Book of Hosea. More here.

      • Thanks for the explanation Paul I actually came to see that when I looked at it in context. Your explanation just illuminates it even further. Thanks

  20. Why do you question James 4:5 as not being taken from scripture? It is straight from Proverbs 3:34.

  21. Hi Paul. Please do not paint God in a different light to who He is. There is a very clear distinction between jealous and envy.

    The written Word came from God. It is the perfect Word from God. To say it is incorrect is to blaspheme God. Please read the original text and do your translation from there.

    Jealous is to want something that is already yours. Our spirit belongs to God.

    Envy is to want something that does not belong to us. Everything in the world belongs to God. It is therefore impossible for Him to be envious in any way.

    An easy example. Jealously is when a husband does not want his wife to sleep with another man. Why? Because he loves his wife and they are one. They belong to each other.

    Envy on the other hand is when a husband wants to sleep with another man’s wife. He is envious of what he does not have and wants what does not belong to him.

    The bible has clearly stated that God is Jealous and he is jealous God. On the other hand he does not envy because it is impossible for Him to envy. All belongs to the All Mighty!! The written Word came from the Word Himself. Jesus!! God bless you brother.

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