Words like “extremist” and “zealot” get a bad wrap in our culture. While everyone wants to be called moderate, the reality is that no one is moved to action by being moderate. Recent shootings in the country have led to passionate protests from various perspectives. Devious terrorist groups are able to draw western twenty-somethings to their zealous cause. Presidential elections this year have been drastically polarizing, resulting in a deepening divide in american society. Zeal is winning the day, for it always does.
Of course, there are times to have a moderating influence for the sake of peace and civility. For example, in the case of interpersonal conflict, a third party acting to moderate discussion is of great use. Someone who is able to listen well to people of differing opinions will often thrive in various spheres of life. Yet, being moderate, in and of itself, is not truly the answer to any of our problems. As was stated above, simply being moderate is never a winning tactic. There is a reason for this. Being moderate is a tool for reaching a goal, not the goal itself. That goal is, broadly speaking, the good. Individuals, families, and societies should be zealously pursuing what is good, righteous, just, and true.
Everyone is zealous, or passionate about something. Typically zeal pursues what someone believes is “the good,” whether they are misguided or not. This zeal is part of what makes us human. It would be a foolish and vein pursuit to stifle passion all together. We simply need the right kind of zeal, a zeal that pursues what is truly good.
Theologians once spoke of a “sacred zeal.” The puritan thinker, William Fenner, said that zeal is “the fire of the soul.” He went on to say that everyone has zeal but not all have sacred zeal. Another theologian from a similar time period said that sacred zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory and the church’s good…it is not so much any one affection as the intended degree of all.” Jesus himself encouraged this sacred zeal: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).
Doesn’t sacred zeal produce ‘heavenly minded’ people that are of no ‘earthly good’? I do not believe so. In fact, the quotes above tell us that only sacred zeal has the momentum to drive us toward a desirable end in this life. The Christian’s zeal for God fuels his pursuits of goodness, justice, mercy, and righteousness. Zeal that finds its source and ultimate goal anywhere other than in God will produce burnout and imbalance. While it is good to be zealous about one’s career, this zealotry can lead to the destruction of a person’s family. Interest in popular media may be harmless for some, but it can be ruinous when it’s the passion of one’s life.
The typical evaluation offered for the examples above is that there is a lack of moderation. Moderation is the answer to imbalance, you may say. Yet, if we truly have a fire in the pit of our souls longing to burn brightly for something, a plea for moderation surely will not quench this flame. Maybe the reason zeal causes destruction in our lives is that human souls are longing to pursue that which the natural world cannot deliver. We have been designed for a sacred zeal, powerful to fuel every righteous affection. The chief end of men and women is "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever," as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it.
So, what kind of zealot are you? Is your life oriented around your family, your work, or your leisure? Maybe it’s time to orient family, work, and leisure around the Creator of all those good things. How? Well, a time-tested pattern for zealous Christians is this: six days should be taken-up in our work and other tasks, while one day is taken-up in the worship of God. This is the Christian’s sacred rhythm.
The one day of worship, the Lord’s Day, is the pinnacle of our week. On this weekly Christian holiday, the worshiper meets with his God. What greater respite could there be for the weary creature? The number of hours may be imbalanced in favor of family, work, or leisure, but these are not the apex of Christian zeal. Our zeal is oriented toward the heavenly and the eternal. This pattern is not restrictive, rather it frees the Christian to burn with love while avoiding the wildfires of self-absorption and pride. Be zealots then, dear Christians, first for the Lord.
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:11-14).