The Danger of Christian Zeal

It’s hard to believe that excitement and zeal for Jesus can actually be harmful at times, especially when the Scriptures plainly exhort us to “never be lacking in zeal” (Romans 12:11, NIV). It’s true, a lack of passion for Jesus is not a quality to be admired; but one who has an intemperate and uncontrolled zeal for Christ might actually serve to do more damage to the cause of the gospel than the one who lacking in zeal. Why? There are three primary reasons.

(1) Zeal has a tendency to make us quick with our words
Passion and excitement for the truth is good, but it can also cause us to speak too soon or too often, many times without patient thought or consideration of what we are talking about or to whom we are speaking. This can lead to saying things that are ill-supported, foolish, harsh or just plain dumb. “Of all unsafe places for truth to live and breath,” one author observes, “the excitement of good men is the most unsafe” (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography; Murray, 341). Yet, the Scripture instructs us to be thoughtful with our words, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil things” (Proverbs 15:28). In general, we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak…” (James 1:19), and be aware of talking too much: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 16:32).

The renowned preacher of the mid-1700s, George Whitefield, even confessed later in his life, “Alas, alas! How can I be too severe against myself, who, Peter like, have cut off so many ears, and by imprudences mixed with my zeal, have dishonored the cause of Jesus” (Murray, 221)? We must not fool ourselves into thinking that it cannot happen to us.

(2) Zeal has a tendency to make us hasty in our judgments
In the same way that zeal tempts us to be quick to speak, it also can make us quick to think and form opinions. For example, one may be so passionate for purity in the Church that when he hears that a young leader in the Church has been accused of sexual sin and the evidence appears to be in favor of the accuser, this person who is passionate for holiness may desire to quickly and decisively deal with this sin though confrontation and rebuke. His zeal, however, may cause him to make a hasty judgment that turns out to be dead wrong.

Consider the case of Joseph and Potipher’s wife in Genesis 39:1-18. If all we knew was the circumstantial evidence—Joseph was accused by Potipher’s wife of sexual misconduct; Potipher’s wife had Joseph’s garment; several witnesses attested to the fact Potipher’s wife complained to them immediately of the incident—then it would seem that Joseph was, in fact, guilty. In this case, however, we would be wrong. As it turns out, Joseph was not only innocent, he had actually reacted to the situation in a godly way. The initial appearance of the situation, though, made it seem as though he was guilty. One who is hasty in his judgments could very well condemn a godly, innocent man. In such cases, our zeal must be coupled with a patient waiting for all the facts before making a judgment. As the Scripture reminds us, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13).

(3) Zeal has a tendency to make us impulsive in our actions
One who is impulsive is, by definition, someone who primarily acts on feeling rather than thought. This kind of person rarely gives solid, patient reflection to the things they do—they think of something good to do, and they immediately do it!

On the face of it, this may seem like a commendable quality; especially since we are told that, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Sometimes it is commendable. As we are shaped more and more into the image of Jesus Christ, our affections are changed in such a way that we will find ourselves tending toward righteous deeds without having to give rigorous thought to each particular action. Natural tastes are like this. If someone were to ask me to explain to them all the reasons why I like chocolate ice cream, I would find it very difficult. I cannot give a series of reasons why I like chocolate ice cream, I just do! So it is with our spiritual tastes as we mature in Christ. We will find our hearts drawn toward good works because we behold them as good without having a multitude of reasons and explanations why we think such and such is a good thing to do.

Nevertheless, this does not remove the possibility that zeal may tempt us to be impulsive and to act thoughtlessly, nor does it exclude us from the responsibility to give thought to our actions. Perhaps after some reflection, we may see that our plan to do the “right thing” is not actually a good idea after all. We failed to ask ourselves, How will this affect others? Can I faithfully fulfill this responsibility? What are the long term implications of this decision? Zeal, however, can tempt us to skip past the thinking and go straight to the doing; often times, to the detriment of ourselves, others, and the cause of Christ.

We must carefully consider our actions (Ephesians 5:15) and guide our passion for Christ with solid thinking and wisdom. We must remember that “A man is commended according to his good sense” (Proverbs 12:8), and “In everything, the prudent acts with knowledge” (Proverbs 13:16). Let us learn, along with the great saint, William Wilberforce, that, “[We] daily become more and more sensible that [our] work must be affected by constant and regular exertions rather than by sudden and violent ones” (Roots of Endurance; Piper, 12). May we be steady, constant, thoughtful and wise, so that our zeal is mediated in a way that honors Jesus; not in a way that brings Him shame.

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