Our annual Wesley Covenant Service prompted this good question from Lindsay Cote: "Deep question as a response to your testimony today: Can zeal be quiet? Does it have to be "on fire" or can it just be firm and resolved, moving forward according to plan?"
Perhaps you were wondering the same thing. I myself have often felt threatened, insecure, or just "turned off" by the zeal I see in others. So here is my response to Lindsay's question for your consideration.
"That’s a good question, Lindsay, and I grapple with it too. The Greek word “zelos” from which we get the word “zeal” is a word that has to do with heat, and that’s why our English word “zeal” has the connotation of fervency and ardor. Some of the places where it is used in the NT, it is used negatively. So zeal is a matter of passionate intensity. The thing about passionate intensity is that some people are more naturally suited to it than others, and none of us can demonstrate it all the time. In John 2:17 when it says “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me,’” the picture is of someone who opened himself up to holy flame and provided himself for the fuel. That phrase I used, “passionate intensity,” I stole from Yeats. In his poem, The Second Coming, he says at the end of the first stanza that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” It makes you ask, ‘what would the world look like if the people of God were the fervent ones?’ But the quality of steadfastness is also a biblical quality and Paul’s portrait of the idealized Christian life in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 seems incompatible with zeal. So here’s how I’ve come to think of it: you know how the speedometer on your car seems kind of ridiculous when you consider the range of possibility that it suggests? 160 mph?!!! Wise operation of my car would seldom ever give me a reason to go above 80 mph at most, right? But it would be equally unwise for me to allow, through neglect or modification, for my car to be in the condition where it could not exceed 80 mph, or for me to refrain from exceeding 80 when an urgent situation arises. For much of the time my commitment to zeal is not going to be expressed in zealous behavior so much as in a careful cultivation of my capacity for zeal. That being said, as someone with a naturally placid demeanor and an aversion to emotional extremes, I can not hide behind my nature to excuse me from my responsibility to be, in general, a more fervent person."
What do you think? Is zeal a required quality in the life of a believer? And must zeal always be zealous?
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