The most excellent way (part 4): The right desire

Love…isn’t jealous. –1 Corinthians 13:4 (CEB)

Love is not envious. –1 Corinthians 13:4 (NRSV)

Pop quiz: what’s the difference between envy and jealousy?

I was once taught that while you might envy what someone else had because you wanted it for yourself, jealousy adds the dimension that you think it’s rightfully yours.  Thus, you can envy others for the seemingly wonderful spouses they have, or be jealous that someone is paying too much attention to yours.  (How many tragedies have been written about jealous love?)

Having described love as patient and kind, Paul turns in 1 Corinthians 13 to describing what love isn’t.  He uses a series of verbs that seem to point negatively to how the believers in Corinth were treating one another.  But translators differ on how to render the first verb on the list: is it that love isn’t “envious” (NRSV), or that it isn’t “jealous” (CEB)?  And does it matter?

The word Paul uses is actually more generic than either translation: it’s the root of the English word “zeal,” suggesting a zealous desire that can be directed toward different objects.  The context gives the nuance.

In 1 Corinthians 3:3, for example, he uses the noun form to describe what’s driving the rivalry between believers who claim devotion to different leaders.  But he also uses the verb positively to suggest that the Corinthians should bend their desire toward “the greater gifts” (13:31), especially prophecy (14:1).  Paul, therefore, can’t be saying that love doesn’t have this zealous desire at all; the question has to do with the object and direction of that desire.

As we’ve seen in earlier posts, there appears to have been some spiritual one-upmanship going on in the congregation.  In that light, the Corinthians surely need little encouragement to desire the greater spiritual gifts (though they might disagree with Paul on the what and why).  But their true desire was probably not for the gifts themselves, nor for the opportunity to serve God and gospel.  What they wanted was the perceived status and prestige that accompanied certain expressions of spirituality.

And that, unfortunately, has nothing to do with love of God or neighbor.

When Paul says that love isn’t jealous, the implication is that love doesn’t desire the wrong things.  Instead, love zealously desires the right things.  To refrain from envy or jealousy requires having one’s priorities in proper order: instead of desiring my own good, I desire the good of the other and the glory of God.

It’s worth reflecting: in what ways do our self-centered desires do damage to our relationships?