People sometimes think envy and jealousy are the same thing, but they’re not. We use the terms interchangeably, but there is an important difference between them.
Envy is what you feel when you want something that another person has. You feel unhappy inside, and you may even have ill will toward the other person because you wish you had his or her good looks or success or intelligence or toys or family or whatever. That’s envy.
Jealousy is what you feel when you are afraid of losing what you already have. You might feel jealous when your lover gets a new co-worker who is very attractive and you worry that your lover will start to like this new person more than you. A firstborn child feels jealousy toward the new baby, afraid of losing a parent’s love and affection and attention. Jealousy happens when you feel threatened; it’s about wanting to protect what you already have.
In the bible, the last of the ten commandments (“You shall not covet”; Exodus 20:17) is essentially a check on envy. God says, “Don’t obsess about the stuff that your neighbor has.” The older I get, the more I understand how important this teaching is. While I have often envied virtuous things in others and tried to aspire to what I see in them, envy as covetousness has led me to many destructive choices, and has undercut important relationships.
What’s interesting to me is that in the same commandments that caution against envy, God is described as jealous. The second commandment, which begins, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” continues, “I… am a jealous God.”
God is not envious, but God is jealous.
We all have idols, to be sure. They are people and things we put in the place of God, by treating them as if they have supreme importance. The treasures of consumerism (only eight shopping days left!), success and status in a career, our view of ourselves, the people we want to admire us and please us, the military, economic or social power we wish to yield – all these are idols.
God doesn’t feel a need to be like these things, to have what they have. God doesn’t feel insufficient without the shiny allure of idols. God isn’t envious because God doesn’t think God lacks anything.
But God does feel jealous. For you and for me. God knows all about the things that want to steal our attention and claim our devotion, and God doesn’t want to lose us.