Good Religious Zeal

Many will read the title of this post and think that I’ve just stated an oxymoron.

“The word ‘good’ and the words ‘religious zeal’ do not belong together”, some will say.

This generation has certainly seen its share of religious zeal gone bad. History  also records a trail of religious movements that sought to forcefully impose their beliefs on others.

One of the unfortunate side effects of this is that today’s Christian church is feeling pressure to produce a brand of Christianity that is devoid of any zeal. There is a pressure to be moderate. There is an expectation for us to be entirely quiet and private about what we believe.

I want to suggest an alternative. The answer to “bad zeal” is not the absence of zeal. The answer to “bad zeal” is “good zeal”—what I would term “biblical zeal”. I say this because the Bible actually commands our zeal. The apostle Paul says to the Romans, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).

The Greek word, translated “keep“, literally means “to guard“. What is implied here is that every follower of Jesus begins with zeal—zeal for the Lord and all that He has done for us. We begin with zeal for the mission, and all that we are required to do. But it appears that there are things that threaten our zeal, and so we must “guard” it.

I appreciate Paul’s imperative while living in an age where there is pressure—sometimes even the expectation—that we will give up our zeal.

As I seek to guard my zeal from those who would have me give it up, I am challenged to examine the nature of my zeal. Because as I look at Paul’s command in context I see a particular kind of zeal being described.

The imperatives which surround the call to zeal are marked by selflessness. Paul begins with a challenge to love with sincerity (12:9). He goes on to encourage devotion to others, to the extent that we would honour the needs of others above our own (12:10). Paul exhorts Christians to be marked by joy and to be patient in affliction, while remaining faithful in prayer (12:12). Paul goes on to encourage generosity and hospitality (12:13).

Keep reading and you’ll find imperatives for humility, empathy, and harmony (12:14, 15). There is a call to integrity (12:17) and a call to peace (12:18-20), ending with the command: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21).

As I consider the placement of the command for me to be zealous, I cannot help but connect that command with the traits which surround it.

The answer to “bad zeal” is not the absence of zeal. The answer to “bad zeal” is biblical zeal.

Biblical zeal loves sincerely.
Biblical zeal acts humbly.
Biblical zeal serves joyfully.
Biblical zeal endures patiently.
Biblical zeal prays faithfully.
Biblical zeal gives generously.
Biblical zeal pursues peace.

Our world bears the scars of misplaced zeal. Biblical zeal is different. Biblical zeal promotes healing and transformation.

Don’t be shy about pursuing biblical zeal!

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“Be Zealous”, based on Romans 12, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

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