In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul writes, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” We normally think of jealousy as being a negative trait or even a sin, akin to envy (see Galatians 5:20). Yet jealousy can also be a godly trait.
Sinful jealousy has at its root covetousness (Mark 7:22; James 4:2). To covet is to strongly desire something belonging to someone else. Covetousness is a dissatisfaction with what God has given us and an obsessive fascination with what He has given someone else. When we covet something belonging to another, we cannot love that person as we should because we see him or her as competition. Lust is also a form of covetousness (Colossians 3:5).
However, there are times when jealousy is appropriate. God is described as being provoked to jealousy over idolatry (Exodus 20:4–5). God is jealous when someone takes something that rightly belongs to Him and keeps it for himself or gives it to another. God alone deserves our worship and praise (Jeremiah 10:6–7). When we give worship to false gods, we commit a grave injustice, and God’s righteous jealousy is provoked (2 Kings 22:17; Psalm 78:58).
When Paul speaks of godly jealousy, he means the kind of jealousy that God has. The Corinthians had a propensity to embrace heresy and false teachers. They had encountered Jesus in powerful ways. He had filled them with the Holy Spirit and granted them supernatural gifts (1 Corinthians 1:7), yet they still tended toward gullibility and unfaithfulness. Verses 3 and 4 explain their problem in this regard: “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.”
In 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul compares his jealousy over the Corinthian church with that of a bridegroom toward his beloved. A bride has promised her heart to her husband alone, and, should she prove unfaithful, he would experience godly jealousy. Paul had an ardent love for the Corinthian church he founded. But the Corinthians’ ongoing tendency toward error grieved him, and he feared they were being spiritually seduced by smooth-talking false teachers. Paul rebuked, counseled, encouraged, and corrected them in his letters, one of which has been lost to us (see 1 Corinthians 5:9). And when he received word that they were again entertaining false teachers (2 Corinthians 11:5, 13–15), he was filled with God’s own jealousy for them.
We can discern the difference between ungodly, selfish jealousy and godly jealousy when we identify the desired outcome. With selfish, sinful jealousy, we are the beneficiaries of our covetous thoughts. We are the recipients of imagined admiration, wealth, or blessing. But with godly jealousy God is the recipient of our desire. We are jealous for the will of God in a situation. We are jealous for Him to be glorified. Godly jealousy wakes us up at night to intercede for a lost loved one. Godly jealousy motivates us to confront a sinning brother or sister when we don’t want to, in order to save them from the enemy (James 5:20). Godly jealousy created difficulties and sorrows for Paul because he refused to stop speaking the truth, even when his hearers did not want to listen (2 Corinthians 5:14). Godly jealousy is love in action (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).