This past weekend was spent wandering around the Shaw Conference Centre here in Edmonton. I was attending a Christian conference, listening to various speakers and presenters in assemblies and workshops, listening to people’s testimonies, and speaking with representatives of various Christian ministries and institutions. Our worship times were led by some of the most famous Christian musicians in the world. It was a good opportunity to learn from teachers and be inspired by those on the front lines of evangelism and church ministry. For many of the attendees, including many pastors like myself, we went looking for something…
For many of us, the burden of service and ministry can leave one tired and dry. For those who are experiencing this kind of exhaustion, going to conferences like this are seen as opportunities to rekindle the lost passion and refocus their ministries. I believe passion, like many important words, has been overused, and therefore, devalued. It’s a victim of that inescapable English idiosyncrasy — the inclination to use one word for too many things.
In some circles, the word passion has a negative connotation. We are passionate about our careers, our hobbies, and our significant others. These are good things. In the Bible, when the word passion is used, it is more often connected with lust and therefore sin. But the Bible also uses a different but similar word to mean this sense of desire for God and serving Him.
In the Bible, the word, “zeal” is perhaps closest to what we typically mean when we talk about “passion” in a positive sense. Well-known examples include Titus 2:14 which says, “[Jesus Christ] 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.” Another time the word is quoted in John 2:17, a quote from Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Paul used zeal in the context of how one uses their spiritual gifts. He says in Romans 12:8, “the one who leads, with zeal” and later in verse 11, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
After conferences like this people go home full of zeal, ready to take on the world. I have seen this in my years of working with teens. They go to summer camp or a short-term mission and when they arrive home they are ready to transform their churches and communities.
But for most, their zeal and passion wane. Their intentions fade off like the resolutions we make at New Years. One author put it this way: “Passion and zeal are gauges that display what our heart treasures, and therefore what fuels our lives.” So the question needs to be asked, “What happened?”
The conference’s final session speaker is a pastor of a church in Vancouver. He style was course, kind of a “Hell and brimstone” approach, without the condemnation. His focus was on our mission… to take the Gospel into the world. His emphasis was to focus on God working in and through us. God’s intention in sending Jesus to live that perfect life, die on the cross for our sins and rise again was a picture of God’s passion for His creation. This is God’s main thing, His primary focus for mankind and I believe it should be our main thing as well! If we share God’s passion in this sense, it is a very good thing. It is a godly thing.
This is something many Christians know to be a good thing they should be doing but they generally aren’t motivated to fulfill it. But if we stop and look at the Scriptures, we realize that it is such a good thing that the Bible commands it. Did you notice the command in Paul’s statement in Romans 12:11: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord”? This means being passionate is not an option for the Christian.
Here is where we must let the Bible, rather than our society, define our terms, set our standards, and develop our expectations. The Bible doesn’t see what we call passion as something rooted in our temperaments. It isn’t about feelings. Laid-back personalities like myself are called to lives of fervent, dedicated focus every bit as much as intense, driven Type A personalities. Neither does it see passion as something rooted in our ethnic background. Those of Asian heritage, like me, tend to be careful, making sure all the “I’s” are dotted and the “T’s” are crossed before diving in. And even when they do, they make sure there is a lifeline… just in case.
When it comes down to it, the Bible sees zeal as a heart issue. When Paul says, “Do not be slothful in zeal,” we need to remember that Jesus called the slothful servant in Matthew 25:26, “wicked.” Slothfulness is not a personality quirk; it’s a sin. It’s a sin because to not “be fervent in spirit” as we serve the Lord is to be at some level indifferent to what He cares most deeply about. This indifference or apathy is evil.
Jesus said in Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.“ If God’s heart is for the salvation of the world, where should our heart’s focus be? Few things expose our shortcomings more than comparing what God is passionate about and what we are passionate about. I’ve heard many people pray to God, “Lord, give me Your heart…” but do we really mean it?
In God’s mind, fervency, zeal, or passion aren’t descriptions of how sensitive we are. They’re gauges that display what our heart treasures, and therefore what fuels our lives. Just like God is far more impressed by sincere prayers in secret than longwinded public prayers, He is far more impressed by a heart captivated by His heart. For what captivates us determines how we prioritize our lives.
No matter how genetics and environment have influenced the way we approach life, few things expose our true selves more than comparing what God is passionate about with what we are passionate about. But our zeal is not just about that, rather it needs to begin in our relationship with God. It starts with a humble approach to Him. As Revelation 3:19 tells, the zeal we truly need is the zeal to repent.
There is a story in Matthew 13 about a man who in search of pearls, discovers one more amazing than anything he has seen. The text says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” This merchant understood that when you find something of exceptional value or importance, you do whatever it takes to acquire it.
What is the issue with us? Our biggest issue in our relationship with God is… us. The sin that dwells within affects our attitudes and actions. Zeal is often quenched by our own unwillingness to get our hands dirty or take risks. We may look at God’s command for us to passionately serve Him and decide otherwise. We may look at the task and in our own minds deem such actions impossible for us to do so we back away. The truth is, it is impossible to obey God in our own strength. We may accept many of the Ten Commandments as doable, but some commands such as to love our God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we make excuse ourselves because of the difficulty.
But God’s impossible commands are actually mercies to us. 1 Peter 5:6 tells us we need to humble ourselves before God and 2 Corinthians 5:21 that the finished work of Christ made us righteous. They call us to deeper levels of prayerful dependence and drive us to ask God for our every need and to live on every word from His mouth. In other words, they work to teach us to follow Jesus in living the way humans were always meant to live: by faith.
It is true, we are not as passionate as we should be about the things we should be. But praise is to God that sin is covered and in His time, God will complete His good work in us. But for today, He wants us to ask Him for the zeal we are meant to have. And He wants us to ask Him boldly, and with faith.
That being said, I would encourage you to pray, as the days until the Lord’s return get fewer, to ask God to do whatever it takes in our lives to increase our zeal to do His will and reach this world with the Good News of God and His love for us.
**Zeal is dedication or enthusiasm for something. If you have zeal, you’re willing, energized, and motivated. Zeal is often used in a religious sense, meaning devotion to God or another religious cause, like being a missionary.** – Vocabulary.com