Is it OK for God to be “Jealous”?

by Larry Hehn on October 2, 2010

Oprah WinfreyOprah Winfrey is considered by many to be one of the most influential women in the world today. An incredibly popular philanthropist, activist, political advocate and media giant, her sphere of influence extends to millions of people in dozens of countries across the globe. Vanity Fair magazine once printed, “Oprah Winfrey arguably has more influence on the culture than any university president, politician, or religious leader, except perhaps the Pope.”

There is no denying that Oprah Winfrey has used her position of influence to positively affect thousands, maybe even millions of lives around the world, donating millions of dollars and drawing attention to many worthwhile causes. Yet she’s also had her fair share of controversy.

Let me begin by saying that I am not pointing to Oprah Winfrey as the source of all that is wrong with the world today. Nor am I expecting her to lead an infallible life simply because she is influential. However, one comment she made about a certain Bible verse has definitely caused a lot of debate.

Almost 30 years ago, Oprah was attending a church service. In her words:

“…this great minister was preaching about how great God was and how omniscient and omnipresent, and God is everything, and then he said, ‘and the Lord thy God is a jealous God’ and I was, you know, caught up in the rapture of that moment until he said ‘jealous’. And something struck me…I was thinking, God is all, God is omnipresent, God is…and God is also jealous? Jealous, God is jealous of me? Umm, and something about that didn’t, didn’t feel right in my spirit because I believe that God is love and that God is in all things and so that’s when the search for something more than ‘doctrine’ started to stir within me.”

When she heard the word “jealous”, no doubt Oprah thought of how the word is often used today – meaning fearful, suspicious, vindictive – hardly the attributes I would ascribe to a loving, perfect God either. It’s something that caused me concern as well when I first heard it.

It definitely raises doubts about God, since He now (apparently) has characteristics that are undesirable. Who would want a relationship with a God who is jealous? Isn’t jealousy a bad quality?

At this point we have a choice: do we dismiss what is now a less-than-ideal God in our eyes, and instead start to seek and define a God that operates on our terms? Or do we seek a deeper understanding of what God says about His own character?

This isn’t just about Oprah. It’s about how we all view and relate to God and his character. When God says, “I am a jealous God,” do we really have the right to say, “No, you’re not”? How arrogant it would be to reject God for who He is and replace Him with a god of our own design! But without knowing the true meaning of the word “jealous” in this case, it’s easy to have our doubts.

There is good news. “Jealous” in this case, or “El Qanna” in Hebrew, refers to the fact that God expects – and warrants – our exclusive worship and love. God does not want anything to interfere with our relationship with him. It is not an unhealthy jealousy, but rather an intense love that shuns everything that gets in its way. In this case “jealous” is a good quality.

As Steven Curtis Chapman aptly wrote,

God is God and I am not
I can only see a part of the picture He’s painting
God is God and I am man
So I’ll never understand it all
For only God is God

Like it or not, God is God. There are no valid substitutes. We’ll never fully understand Him, but that’s no reason to reject or doubt Him. It is not up to us to try to define Him, especially on our own terms. It is up to us to grow in our understanding of Him and accept Him for who He is. I’m learning to do that. Some days are easier than others. Now that I have a better understanding of what it means, I’m ok with God being “jealous”. I hope Oprah and her fans are as well. I don’t want anyone to miss out on His amazing love.

You must worship no other gods, for the Lord, whose very name is Jealous, is a God who is jealous about his relationship with you. – Exodus 34:14

“If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” – Saint Augustine

What parts of God’s character do you find hard to understand?

Have you ever found yourself wanting to define God on your own terms?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Lawrence October 3, 2010 at 8:49 am

Definition of doctrine: A principle or body of principles presented for acceptance or belief, as by a religious, political, scientific, or philosophic group.

Oprah did not reject God. She rejected doctrine. It's preachy, self-righteous zealots like you that cause many intelligent people like Oprah to turn away from formal religion.

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Larry_Hehn October 3, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Thank you for your input, Sue. I agree that focusing strictly on doctrine, like the Pharisees did, is not the way to go. It's possible to stick to doctrine and be miles away from the heart of God. For that reason I'm not a fan of formal religion either.

That being said, I feel that there's a difference between doctrine and God's character. In this case the word jealous was used by God himself to describe his own character. To me that falls beyond the definition of doctrine. My concern is that we often treat God like a buffet, and only honor parts of his character that appeal to us. When we do that, we tend to create our own doctrine and again miss out on a relationship with him.

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Larry_Hehn October 3, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Please forgive me for coming across here as preachy and self-righteous. Frankly, I'm just as guilty as anyone about wanting God to fit into a neat little box of my own design. My intent with this post was to point out a common area where we miss out on the blessings God has to offer, rather than trying to give the impression that I've got it all figured out.

Again, Sue, thanks for taking the time to comment.

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Sue Lawrence October 3, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I fail to see how Oprah's description of the event that triggered her spiritual journey is a "grave mistake". I think the tragedy in this whole controversy is the fact that not enough people listened to the whole clip and took away the message that I believe was intended.

Pardon me for borrowing your words, but I can't help but think … When Oprah says, “I began to search for something more than doctrine” how arrogant do we have to be to say, “She is rejecting God”?

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j4man October 4, 2010 at 8:12 am

I think you make a good point Larry – Doctrine and Character are two different things. I think she made the mistake of not seeking out what was meant in the portion of Scripture that uses "Jealous". I think you do a good job of describing the issue at hand. Thanks.
My recent post Spirit Filled Actions

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Larry_Hehn October 4, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Jim. I enjoyed your post on Spirit Filled Actions, and appreciate your feedback!

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Tony J Alicea October 5, 2010 at 6:02 am

I believe it is all about the lenses that we have which shape our view of God. Our experiences are part of how we define God. The more painful, disappointed and disillusioned we become in our relationships, the more narrow our lens becomes.

I believe that is why everything about an authentic relationship with God is supernatural. Sure He engages our mind, but it is so much more profound than that. Kingdom principles are a paradox and foolishness to those who are perishing. The more we learn about God, the more we realize how little we actually know.

Seek and ye shall find. The problem is, not everyone will find what they want.

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Larry Hehn October 5, 2010 at 7:21 am

Very insightful, Tony. I think you hit the nail on the head. I always find your writing to be thoughtful and encouraging. Thank you for sharing!

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Sue Lawrence October 5, 2010 at 10:25 am

I have a problem believing that the Kingdom of Heaven is reserved solely for those who discover the true essense of God. Without tangible proof as to the composition and character of the Almighty, no one has the right to condemn anyone else for relating details of their own spiritual journey.

I apologize for the name-calling in my original comment.

Larry, many of your blogs are thought-provoking and uplifting. I found your judgement of Oprah and the stand you took against her to be extremely disturbing.

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Larry_Hehn October 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I thank you and accept your apology, Sue. Space is limited in these comment sections. This topic warrants more discussion than they will allow, so I'll be addressing this theme and your concerns over the next two blog posts. I'm hoping that this will lead us toward an understanding. Stay tuned!

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Alex Marestaing October 8, 2010 at 9:25 pm

I actually find comfort in the fact that God knows way more than me. I can handle the fact that I don't understand all His ways because that's the way it should be, being that He is God and I'm not. I guess my point is that I don't want to paint my own feeble picture of God. I want God's interpretation of God, not my own.
My recent post nothing left to do but drive

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Larry_Hehn October 8, 2010 at 10:54 pm

A very interesting perspective, Alex. Now that you mention it, I am also very grateful and comforted that God is not limited to my own understanding.

Your latest post was simply amazing…thanks for your input!

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mdgrinnell October 10, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I am very late to this discussion, but maybe another 2 cents will be tolerated:
Perhaps there is some confusion in the definitions of "Doctrine". If we understand doctrine to be a list of man's understands and perceptions of God then they are truly subject to variability, interpretation and abuse. If, however, we understand doctrine as a statement of truth FROM God's Own Word, then we greatly reduce the amount of confusion and personal bias that otherwise enters in.
If God says He is jealous and I don't like that, I can chose to reject His statement or admit my own ignorance and ask God to teach me what He means. The same is true when God says He is Love. I can still choose to reject or accept, but I reject or accept what He says, not what some man says about Him.
The bottom line is this: a doctrine is not what I say about God, it is what He says about Himself – in His Word.
Ironically, that is my opinion on the matter 🙂
My recent post Chicken or Egg

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Larry_Hehn October 10, 2010 at 4:02 pm

You bring up a very interesting point there, Michael. From what I've found, the word 'doctrine' is, unfortunately, ambiguous. My 1828 Webster's Dictionary defines doctrine as "In a general sense, whatever is taught. Hence, a principle or position in any science; whatever is laid down as true by an instructor or master. The doctrines of the gospel are the principles or truths taught by Christ and his apostles. The doctrines of Plato are the principles which he taught. Hence a doctrine may be true or false; it may be a mere tenet or opinion."

I think you are right about the confusion in the definition of the word 'doctrine'. If we define doctrine as what God says about himself, that makes things much simpler. If we define doctrine as what we say about God, we open a potential can of worms. I'd really like to know how Oprah defines 'doctrine' as she used it in her quote. Thanks for joining in!

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