Christians today don’t normally use the word “zeal.” It is maybe a bit old-fashioned, and I has associations with a kind of fanaticism that most people want to avoid. I don’t think there are too many today who want be seen as “zealots”, although I suppose there might still be some who are ready to be labelled “zealous” for a certain cause.
We are more likely to talk about “passion.” Many evangelicals want to be “passionate worshippers,” or will talk about their passion for a certain kind of mission or for evangelism.
Religious passion, or zeal, however, can be a dangerous thing, if it is misdirected. Many people, following a disordered religious zeal of one kind or another, have done horrible things and inflicted great pain and suffering on others. Maybe that is part of the reason many would shy away from an overly zealous religion.
John Wesley recognized the potential danger of religious zeal, noting that “nothing has done more disservice to religion, or more mischief to mankind, than a sort of zeal which has for several ages prevailed, both in pagan, Mahometan (Muslim) and Christian nations.” And yet he also maintained that “without zeal it is impossible either to make any considerable progress in religion ourselves, or to do any considerable service to our neighbour, whether in temporal or spiritual things” (Sermon 92, “On Zeal,” §1).
How then, can we distinguish the necessary and good type of zeal from the destructive type? Wesley’s answer was to focus on true zeal as an expression of love.
In an interesting passage of his 1781 sermon “On Zeal” (§§ II.7-11) he outlines how this “zeal for love” ought to rule and direct all other types of religious zeal.
7. Every Christian ought, undoubtedly, to be zealous for the church, bearing a strong affection to it, and earnestly desiring its prosperity and increase. He ought to be thus zealous, as for the church universal, praying for it continually, so especially for that particular church or Christian society whereof he himself is a member. For this he ought to wrestle with God in prayer; meantime using every means in his power to enlarge its borders, and to strengthen his brethren, that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour.
8. But he should be more zealous for the ordinances of Christ than for the church itself; for prayer in public and private; for the Lord’s supper, for reading, hearing, and meditating on his word; and for the much-neglected duty of fasting. These he should earnestly recommend; first, by his example; and then by advice, by argument, persuasion, and exhortation, as often as occasion offers.
9. Thus should he show his zeal for works of piety; but much more for works of mercy; seeing “God will have mercy and not sacrifice,” that is, rather than sacrifice. Whenever, therefore, one interferes with the other, works of mercy are to be preferred. Even reading, hearing, prayer are to be omitted, or to be postponed, “at charity’s almighty call;” when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.
10. But as zealous as we are for all good works, we should still be more zealous for holy tempers; for planting and promoting, both in our own souls, and in all we have any intercourse with, lowliness of mind, meekness. gentleness, longsuffering, contentedness, resignation unto the will of God, deadness to the world and the things of the world, as the only means of being truly alive to God. For these proofs and fruits of living faith we cannot be too zealous. We should “talk of them as we sit in our house,” and “when we walk by the way,” and “when we lie down,” and “when we rise up.” We should make them continual matter of prayer; as being far more excellent than any outward works whatever: seeing those will fail when the body drops off; but these will accompany us into eternity.
11. But our choicest zeal should be reserved for love itself, – the end of the commandment, the fulfilling of the law. The church, the ordinances, outward works of every kind, yea, all other holy tempers, are inferior to this, and rise in value only as they approach nearer and nearer to it. Here then is the great object of Christian zeal. Let every true believer in Christ apply, with all fervency of spirit, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that his heart may be more and more enlarged in love to God and to all mankind. This one thing let him do: let him “press on to this prize of our high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
It sounds simple, but how often have people failed to focus their zeal on love of God and neighbour, with the result being various forms of bigotry, oppression, and persecution? The whole sermon is still worth a read today.