A Brief Sketch On Zeal

Dr. David Horner, DPhil; Mr. David R. Turner

An Ongoing Series of Sketches from the Contributors of Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, co-edited by Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). More info can be found at www.beinggoodnews.com.

Many are reluctant to identify zeal as a virtue. This is understandable, as zeal is frequently abused and easily confused. Acts of terrorism and brands of “Crusader zeal” shape our understanding of what it is. As a result, we tend to see zeal as vicious rather than virtuous, and to regard the actions of ‘zealots’ as universally bad. But is there something wrong with zeal as such?

The answer of this chapter is “no.” In fact, we argue, zeal is a good trait of character, a virtue. Certainly, some forms and expressions of zeal are bad and need to be condemned. But Scripture and history indicate that there is far more to the story. Jesus himself is lauded for zealously stewarding the purposes of God, and, in New Testament passages of particular ethical importance, Paul and Peter explicitly commend zeal for Jesus’ followers. Later Christian luminaries like William Wilberforce and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embodied zeal in working for justice and equality in their day. In these and other cases, zeal plays a crucial role in the morally excellent character and behavior of God’s people.

In this chapter, we develop a conception of zeal as a virtue, both theologically and philosophically, beginning with an account of zeal as reflected in Scripture. In Romans 12, which we examine in particular detail, the ethical framework in which zeal is commended is teleological in the classical sense: an orientation toward the pursuit of good (what is supremely valuable and excellent) as an end (telos) that is “perfective” of the agent. In fact, Paul strikingly casts God’s will in classically teleological terms (v. 2), as the good, pleasing, and perfect object of pursuit. In light of the strenuous difficulty of pursuing this good, a passionateresponse is required: zeal.

Understood within the context of Romans 12 and other passages, however, such a response has clear parameters; it is rationally guided by an accurate, transformed vision of reality, and motivated by and oriented toward love. We define biblical zeal, on this basis, as a disposition to pursue what is good – rationally, fervently, and diligently, motivated by and expressed in love.

We refine this conception by analyzing zeal’s opposing vices. On the one hand, our pursuit of what is good goes bad when it is excessive, to the tune of fanaticism, and/or when it is misdirected – with respect to the end sought, the means employed, or both. These forms of “bad zeal” give zeal its bad reputation; in reality, however, they are competitors to zeal, properly understood. Opposing zeal on the other hand is a disposition where passionate pursuit of what is good is deficient – the vice of sloth, one of the “seven deadly sins.” This latter condition, in our view, is the more common failure among followers of Jesus (like us) these days. To glorify God and grow in Christlikeness, we need zeal.

Like other virtues, zeal needs to be cultivated. In this chapter, we make a number of suggestions for developing zeal, including Sabbath rest, meditation on God’s goodness, community, the Holy Spirit, and practical acts of service.

But there is far more to this underrated and misunderstood virtue than we are able to develop here. For the reader who is properly zealous for zeal, several themes merit yet further exploration. Here are three suggestions, as a start. First, zeal tends to be associated with extraordinary passion and action. But feats that call for such response are rare. We need greater understanding of how zeal may be reflected and developed in the context of ordinary action as well.

Second, as with other considerations of action and virtue, whether ordinary or extraordinary, we need a mature and robust picture of the role of the Holy Spirit in the development and expression of zeal. What does cooperating with the Holy Spirit involve in this case? How do we understand his agency in relation to ours? Where do our actions, such as practicing spiritual disciplines, fit into the process of cultivating zeal? Zeal is an important part of the morally praiseworthy life for followers of Jesus, but the ultimate source of biblical zeal (and other virtues) is God, not us. We err when we try to generate such passion in our own efforts rather than let such passion be fanned into flame by the Spirit (Romans 12:11).

A final area for further consideration concerns how we might ally zeal with the other virtues – particularly courage. Biblical zeal helps renew our mind and align our will to fervently pursue the purposes of God. But hindrances and challenges dot the way; courage is needed to overcome and continue in passionate pursuit. How then do courage and zeal relate to each other – conceptually, biblically, developmentally? There is plenty of room here for fruitful interdisciplinary work between philosophers, theologians, and psychologists.

David Horner & David Turner

Biola University