An unusual image for God’s love: the jealous lover

December 3, 2018

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In The Problem of Pain, a masterpiece of Christian theology, C.S. Lewis argues that suffering is necessary for God’s children if God is the loving God revealed in scripture:

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of the terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.[1]

I thought of this passage when I read Zechariah 8:2: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy, and I am jealous for her with great wrath.”

As the Lewis passage implies, the Bible portrays the loving relationship between God and his image-bearing creatures in many ways: for example, father and son, friend (John 15:15), king and subject or vicegerent, master and steward, artist and his artwork. But one important if overlooked image for God’s love is erotic: the love of husband and wife. This kind of love is portrayed positively (Song of Solomon; Jesus’ parables of wedding banquets in the synoptic gospels; Ephesians 5:25-33; Revelation 19:6-10) and negatively (many Old Testament prophets, including the entire Book of Hosea and the verse from Zechariah above).

In this post I want to focus on the negative: What does it mean that the Bible portrays God, at times, as nothing less than a jealous lover?

First, if you’ve been in love you know what Zechariah means when he says the Lord is jealous for his beloved “with great wrath”: Erotic love is the kind of love that guards, protects, and fights for his beloved—fearlessly. I’m reminded of a song by the Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman’s band from the early-’70s, when he sings, “There’s a certain kind of girl that you care about so much/ You say, ‘I don’t care what you guys do to me, but her, don’t touch!'”

Surely you can relate to this feeling, right?

But I haven’t said enough. After all, parental love inspires parents to fight to the death, if necessary, for the sake of their loved ones. But erotic love adds a darker element. I describe it in my journaling Bible as follows:

Consider, too, how the jealous lover regards potential rivals: with pure hatred. This love isn’t merely the kind of love described above: it’s the kind of love that will kill, or at least wants to, when necessary. What does this mean for God and his relationship with us? It means he wants to destroy his rivals in our lives, which seek to woo us away from him and his love.

Given that scripture says he loves us in this way, doesn’t this make further sense of our suffering? Sometimes when we suffer, it isn’t so much that God is punishing us as God is killing within us those affections for people and things—whatever we idolize—that he himself deserves. We should expect this to be painful: If the only way that we will become more faithful members of the “Bride of Christ” is through suffering—whether caused directly by God or, more often, experienced as a necessary consequence of our unfaithfulness to him—then it would be UNTHINKABLE that our righteous Lover would spare us from it! He will not leave us alone until we are completely his—heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27).

We see this kind of love literally play out in Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20-40.

Indeed, as Lewis writes, “You asked for a loving God: you have one.”

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940; 1966), 39-40.

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