“I want to look confident but not come off as aggressive or too assertive – that just won’t do!” How many of us have thought that when preparing for a public presentation, whether it be a workshop we lead for our peers, a meeting with other leaders or even a job interview? We want to look professional, neat and tidy, but with a little snap, a little flair that gives us some edge. We want to avoid dowdy and boring, but we also avoid appearing gaudy or overdressed. It’s the age-old quest of Goldilocks – looking for that bowl of porridge that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Zeal is like that, too. It’s a good thing to have zeal and be zealous – to share our excitement and love for the Lord with others – but to be overzealous or to be called a zealot carries a whole different connotation to it. Zealot does not come with complimentary overtones. It implies your passion and fervor have crossed the line; you go from being an enthusiastic advocate to being a fanatic, unreasonable and so singularly focused that you become offensive and actually repellant to others. But, without zeal, not only do we not share our faith effectively with others, our faith languishes and grows cold, like the second of two bowls of porridge Goldilocks passes over in the quest for the one that is just right.
Most Christians can agree that there is a line distinguishing the difference between being eager to share your love for God with others and being so assertive that people seek to avoid you. But is it really possible to have too much zeal for the Lord? Or is it that in being overzealous or becoming a zealot our zeal is actually misdirected – distorted by falsehoods that are incompatible with zeal, becoming objectionable and obnoxious – even dangerous.
Contemporary issues with zeal are similar to problems Wesley noticed about this quality that is integral to sharing Christian faith. In his sermon, On Zeal, Wesley writes, “without zeal it is impossible either to make any considerable progress in religion ourselves, or to do any considerable service to our neighbor, whether in temporal or spiritual things. And yet nothing has done more disservice to religion, or more mischief to mankind, than a sort of zeal which has for several ages prevailed.”
Sadly, zeal might be misdirected towards inconsequential matters, either material objects such as our clothing, our accessories or even our worship spaces, that results in arrogance or conceit. Or zeal might be confused with pride which leads to being offensive to others. Tragically, zeal can be tainted by anger, even hatred, for those that don’t share or claim the same love for God, inciting violence, death and destruction. While Wesley cited the Crusades and the martyrs that suffered under Queen Mary as examples of this wrongly motivated zeal, ISIS is a contemporary manifestation of the same perverted sense of zeal. Zeal of this sort is neither too hot nor too cold. It’s just wrong: wrongly motivated and wrongly deployed.
Genuine zeal, however, is something that is true and lasting and good. It is ardor and energy that stem from love for God. It is directed to share God’s love with others. “True Christian zeal,” Wesley wrote, “is no other than the flame of love. This is the nature, the inmost essence of it.” Zeal actually is hot – as hot as fire.
Zeal of this sort operates in an attitude of confidence, but with humility, allowing the possessor of Christian zeal to know understand their place within the world, as a child of God and steward of God’s creation. Zeal is patient, not forcing its way on any person or group of persons, but allowing divine grace to operate in any and all circumstances. And, while it is a good thing to be zealous for the Church, Wesley commends it is a better thing to be zealous for actively doing the will of God through prayer and demonstrating love for neighbor, and an even better thing to be zealous for seeking the fruits of the Spirit and sharing in the love of God in order to share it with others. This is the zeal that we need: zeal inspired by God’s love to be zealous to share God’s love. This zeal burns with a holy fire that is controlled but cannot be quenched. This kind of zeal is not the middle ground of “just right” between two extremes, but it is zeal that is hot, truly hot enough that excites the Christian to share the love of God with others.
If there is anything we need today to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who seek the lost to share the love of God that others might know the transforming grace through the power of the Holy Spirit, it is zeal. Zeal that is hot, passionate and unafraid. We need zealous disciples, with hearts ignited for God in a flame that burns so hot and bright it does more than generate heat that warms the individual and lights a single disciple’s path.
Our zeal for Jesus Christ must overflow out of our hearts, attracting others to the light that is perfect and good and holy, shared in the power of the Holy Spirit so that God’s goodness and love is known and so that God’s kingdom is ushered in in real and tangible ways. This is the zeal that isn’t too cold, isn’t just wrong, but is hot and just right.