My cousin Joel and I have always had an interesting relationship, although by “interesting” I mean “deeply dysfunctional.” One year older than me, Joel had latched onto me, his only source of friendship and emotional support, early in our lives. As we got older, he became more skilled at clinging, badgering, and guilt-tripping me into doing whatever he wanted, and he started being possessive of my time and attention. I, a people pleaser through and through, never found a way to say no to him. Standing up to my big cousin fell firmly in the category of things I could not and would not ever do.
Then Honey happened.
The glossy, prancing, four-legged fulfillment of my childhood dreams, Honey had become the center of my world a handful of months before, when my parents had given their approval for me to adopt her. At the time, my new horse (yes, my horse!) was still living with her previous owner, so I couldn’t spend much time with her. But finally, at the end of August, my dad and grandpa finished construction on a sturdy three-sided shed, and I could finally bring Honey home.
“Honeymoon phase,” punny as it is, is the only term I can use for the first few weeks because I spent every waking moment at the barn, mooning over Honey. Honey herself was thoroughly sick of me, but she endured my presence with good grace. My cousin Joel was less accepting.
Technically, my barn (My barn!!! For my horse!!!!) was built on land that belonged to my grandparents. But Joel’s family lived on the property, so when I came over, it was usually to see Joel. Now I was there for hours each day, but my attention was only for Honey.
On an overcast day in September, I was lounging in the shed with Honey, brushing her satiny coat to a shine. As usual, Joel was with us, moving restlessly from foot to foot. He’d been telling me about . . . something. A tractor, maybe? He loved to talk about his mechanical projects. Unfortunately, tractor talk bored me to death, so for the last half hour I’d tuned him out to focus on Honey.
“Come and see,” he said finally, impatient with my lack of attention. “I’ll show you the new part that I put on the motor.”
“Umm, I’d really rather stay here with Honey,” I hedged. There was an edge in his voice that made me nervous, but I was basking in the warm, sweet-smelling presence of my horse. The thought of leaving her side was almost painful.
“Emily, c’mon—just for a second?” Joel turned his pleading eyes on me, but I shook my head and stared steadily at Honey.
“Nah, I’ll come see it tomorrow. I want to stay with Honey.”
“Okay, fine, y’know what—” My cousin’s frustrated tone morphed into something between teasing and smug. I hated that laughing “gotcha” voice because it usually meant that Joel was about to get his way, and we both knew it. Joel feinted toward me and grabbed my upper arm. “I’ll just drag you over!”
I tensed and dropped hard into a low crouch. Digging my heels into the bedding, I threw my weight backward against my cousin.
Joel was careful not to hurt me, conscious of his size in comparison to mine. He’d only meant to throw me off balance quickly so I couldn’t glue myself to Honey’s side. Clearly, he hadn’t expected me to hold my ground, and he let go with a huff after a long second of standoff. He deflated, irritated by my stubbornness.
“C’mon, Em! Please?”
I didn’t reply, out of breath and cross. My heart was jackhammering with adrenaline. Knowing my larger cousin was only teasing didn’t mean my fight-or-flight hadn’t kicked in.
“Fine.” Joel’s eyes lit with sly amusement. “If you won’t leave Honey, I just won’t let you get to her!” Moving quickly, he stepped between me and my horse.
(My horse. My horse. MINE.)
In a split second, the furious roar of blood in my ears swept away years of failing to resist Joel’s manipulation. Red static burst across my vision. A voice that I didn’t recognize snarled low in my chest.
Joel saw something in my face that made the color drain from his own and backpedaled. I ignored him, crossed the distance to Honey, and pressed my shaking hands into her mane.
“I’m just . . . gonna leave,” Joel said. I buried my face in Honey’s mane and didn’t watch him go.
Never in my entire life had I felt such instant, all-consuming anger as the fury that seized me the moment he’d gotten in between me and my girl. I understood suddenly why the Bible says in Exodus that “the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Jealousy isn’t the same thing as envy, a desire for what someone else has; it’s a possessive, protective, righteous love that cannot stand to let anything get in its way. Jealousy says, “You are mine, and no one may harm you, and no one may come between you and me.”
I had never been able to say no to my cousin, even when he walked all over my wishes, but in a fit of jealousy I had suddenly found a voice. I’d had every ounce of power I needed to remove what got between me and my beloved.
How much power, then, must the God named Jealous have? As a Christian, I’ve spent too much of my life wallowing in failure, wondering when God will finally agree that I’m not worth it, my mistakes are too big, sin is too strong for Him to truly restore me. I’ve let strongholds build in my heart, let my affections be wooed away, whispering “sorry” over and over to God but never hoping that He could actually deliver me.
In Isaiah 43:1 God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!” Do I really believe that my jealous love is enough to break down years of bad habits, but God won’t jealously fight for those He calls His own? Do I really think my habits are stronger than the ferocious love of my Lord? Song of Solomon says that love and jealousy are as strong as death; didn’t my Jesus conquer death? Did I think my sin was stronger than that?
Growing up in church, I had gotten so used to hearing “Jesus loves you!” that it had lost all its meaning. I thought it must surely mean something closer to “Jesus tolerates you, so don’t do anything to make Him mad.” But on the day that I experienced the true, ferocious power of jealous love for myself, I realized that the God called jealous was pursuing me, protecting me, and loving me in a way I was just beginning to grasp.