On a physical, secular level, Theodore Roosevelt embodied the virtue that we call "zeal." He expressed a passionate enthusiasm for the things he believed in, and he pursued them with all the energy at his disposal. He left nothing on the floor, nothing undone, taking matters as far as he could—then he did some more. Not content with giving a little, he had to give his all.
Can we say the same about ourselves regarding our zeal for God and His way? Are we giving our all for Christ and the way of life that God has revealed to us? Are we giving our all for the Kingdom of God? Are we truly zealous?
In Galatians 4, Paul scolds the Galatians for allowing false teachers into the church. He was upset with them because they had shown a great deal of zeal for him and the truth while he was there physically in Galatia, ardently accepting what he preached to them, but as soon as he left and false teachers came among them, they were just as zealous for the deceivers. So he writes, "But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you" (Galatians 4:18).
Zeal is always good as long as we express it toward a godly purpose. It is appropriate to be enthusiastic, ardent, and fervent about good things: what we believe in, what we want to achieve, and especially what God wants us to do.
We live in a culture, though, that dismisses—if not derides—zeal and enthusiasm, its secular cousin. This is an era of cool, of being detached, cynical, even apathetic. It is not cool to be enthusiastic about anything. It is not cool to care about what is going on. We are just supposed to go with the flow. For many, the standard is fashion models, both male and female, walking down the catwalk with a smoldering look, effusing a haughty carelessness.
A person zealous about a cause is suspect: "He's a true believer, a fanatic. He won't listen to reason. He's a bit off." Someone with a little bit too much enthusiasm must have an angle: "He's trying to sell me something. He wants something that I'm probably not prepared to give him." So people tend to grow up believing that it does not pay to be wholehearted or too enthusiastic about anything because others will consider them to be a bit kooky. Especially, one should not be religiously enthusiastic—zealous—because that is just weird. Such people are labeled "Jesus freaks."
Zeal receives a bad rap because there have been too many examples of overzealous behavior, which has jaded people on it. Many people see zealots as hucksters or charlatans. They say, "It's all made up—just an act. No one can be that enthusiastic about stuff like that."
Or zealous people are considered to be Pollyannaish: "You're an idealist. You don't see reality. If you really knew how bad things really are, you wouldn't be so ardent about it. You need to calm down."
Others see it as mindlessness, that the enthusiastic person has been brainwashed to feel that his belief or cause is good or worthy. Still others look at it as overwrought emotionalism or mere foolishness. In this vein, Ambrose Bierce's satirical The Devil's Dictionary defines zeal as a "certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced; a passion that goeth before a sprawl." John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the seventeenth century, felt the same: "Zeal is fit for wise men but flourishes cheaply among fools." An English poet from about the same time, Sir John Davies, wrote, "Zeal without knowledge is the sister of folly."
A standard dictionary, however, like Webster's American Dictionary, defines zeal as "fervor for a person, cause, or object; eager desire or endeavor; enthusiastic diligence; ardor." Zeal, then, is a projection of passion, conviction, and confidence about something—whatever it happens to be. As Christians, using Webster's definition, we need to have zeal, fervor, ardor, wholehearted enthusiasm, or eager desire for a person (Christ), for a cause (God's righteous and holy way of life), and an object (the Kingdom of God).
We probably all say that we are zealous because we do not want to be thought of as not zealous, but are we truly zealous? Truthfully, realistically, do we show zeal for Christ? Do we show zeal for God's way of life? Does thinking about living God's way fill us with fervor and ardor? Does the prospect of the Kingdom of God motivate us to do what God wants us to do?
And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, "These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, "I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing"—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.'"
This spiritually lethargic attitude is prophesied to dominate a good portion of the end-time church of God, and we can see in our congregations that there are members who display this lukewarm attitude. Being lukewarm—tepid, indifferent, unexcited, even apathetic—is opposed to everything that zeal represents. A word commonly used to describe the Laodiceans is "complacent," as they are satisfied with how things are, both in the world and in the church. They do not have much drive for God's way because that would rock the boat. They are satisfied with knowing the basics of the truth, and that is about it.
The Head of the church, though, is definitely not satisfied with their level of commitment and zeal for Him and His way of life! He would prefer them to be fervent for the Kingdom of God. Notice, too, that He says, "Be zealous and repent." A lack of zeal is a sure sign of underlying sin, of which a Christian needs to repent. Zeal, then, is not just a matter of emotion or personality but of righteousness. And that makes it especially important.
- Richard T. Ritenbaugh