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Maintaining Christian Zeal
By Richard Gunther
A while ago I was having an interesting discussion about Christian things with a woman who raised the question: “How can a Christian maintain his or her zeal?” Within this question was a small amount of quite reasonable fear, because, as she pointed out, there are some people who begin their Christian walk with great zeal and commitment, but then gradually over time they cool down and become dull and worldly. How does this happen? How could a person who is strongly committed to Christ ever fall so low as to totally reverse their commitment and become as sinful and worldly as any unsaved sinner? The fact that this does happen is quite frightening, and it may be a valuable lesson to us to find out how such a fall could ever happen.
There is no short answer to the problem of maintaining zeal, so the following is more of a general discussion than a list of sure-fire solutions. It would be ideal if some simple list could be supplied which, if any Christian followed it, they could be assured of maximum zeal, and also with that the added security of knowing they could never 'slip away' and become dull or worldly – but unfortunately life is complex, and the variations of trial and temptation which bombard Christians are so unpredictable, no simple answer can be found.
However, there can be no harm in finding some useful means by which Christian zeal can be maintained. Ironically, it seems unlikely that a dull or worldly Christian would want to read this essay (!) so the most likely readers will be those who are already enthusiastic, or keen to remain that way. This does not make such an essay redundant, because it may serve to feed waning zeal, or supply pointers to concerned Christians who need some handy instruction as to how to increase or maintain their commitment.
Before beginning this essay, I sent the question (asked by the woman) out to several other Christians, whose zeal I have little reason to doubt, and their responses have been included. I have also looked at various areas of Scripture, and various personalities in the Bible who remained strongly committed throughout their Christian lives.
The topic is quite capable of mushrooming into a small book, so I will try to confine the study to a narrow window of study. Readers are welcome to pursue the topic as far as they like. Other lines of inquiry could include: detailed biographies of various Christians both in the Bible and outside it, typology from the Old Testament, i.e. the Tabernacle, an exploration of the topic by way of key words such as “zeal, fire, fear, devotion, faith, affection, brotherly love, consecration, sincerity, freedom,” etc, advice and instruction from Christians who have maintained their zeal, a summary of church history, and the balance between free choice and predestination.
The following responses to the woman's question are not listed in any order of priority. There is a good reason for this. It is because every Christian has a walk which differs from every other Christian. What might work with one may not be applicable for another.
One final observation, before we proceed. As far as I can see, all Christians are expected to take the initiative and not rely on other Christians for their zeal. The reason for this is very logical. God has given us free will. We make our own choices, and God holds us responsible for the consequences. If the Christian life was a matter of God-control, then God would be responsible for our failures. We must make the choices, and God is happy to endorse or empower us as we go, but He cannot 'run ahead' of us.
The supreme example of this is Jesus, who freely chose to come to earth, to 'learn obedience', to suffer and die. He chose to go to Jerusalem, knowing what lay ahead. He chose to preach, to teach, and to heal. He chose to work miracles. In every way he was a free agent, making free choices, and as he did so the power of God went with him. I think this principle is the most important part of maintaining zeal. No believer can sit back and expect God to do it all for them. God waits for us to take the initiative, but “He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6
I am not entirely convinced that Christians become stronger and more zealous if they are persecuted, but it seems clear, at times, that 'when the going gets tough, the tough get going', and there are many cases through history where Christianity has flourished when it has been attacked. Those who survive such onslaughts frequently come through with such devotion and utter commitment their example inspires others, and also provides a public display of the power of God. But there is very little said about Christians who fall away under persecution, probably because this would not make good reading. Persecution displays the credibility of the gospel because it vindicates the promise of Christ to be with all his saints through all circumstances. Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and any record of the Reformation, provide ample evidence of this. Saint after saint has testified to the glory of God as the flames of persecution licked at their bodies, and without that persecution the gospel would not have been given such public prominence.
Yet there are many notable examples of collapse, for example Wurmbrandt, a fine, outstanding example of a Christian who suffered immensely for the name of Jesus, but who in one of his books) admitted being ready to kill a fellow saint because he thought that saint would recant his faith during the next session of torture. A Biblical example would be Peter, who denied the Lord several times, openly and publicly before weeping in repentance, and although this lapse was only temporary, it was a total negation of all these believers confessed. When such repudiation continues indefinitely we have a saint who has fallen away.
A story is told of a gathering of Russian Christians, whose secret meeting was interrupted by the entrance of a man who claimed to be working for the KGB. “All of you who are not prepared to die for Jesus may leave the room” said the man, “But those who remain will be killed!” After a moment or two the man revealed that he was a Christian, and that he “Just wanted to make sure” the gathering consisted of only Christians. Persecution has a way of sorting out the committed from the fakes.
“All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” 2 Timothy 3:12
When I was a young Christian I first heard the expression “backslider” used as a criticism of any Christian who had adopted some worldly thing, such as some fashion clothing, a liking for secular rock music, tattoos, body-piercing, swearing, regular drinking in a pub, etc. I have since examined the context of the word in the Bible and come to a different conclusion, but the principle of 'sliding back' from the “faith once delivered” is still valid. I have also noticed that 'backsliding' is not usually a rapid thing. In my experience it happens very slowly, as a ship moves away from its mooring on a gently turning tide. Gradually the secular or sinful influence moves into the Christian's life, taking first that inch and then this, until a large area of commitment is gone, and then, as rain gradually dissolves soil, the firmness of commitment is eaten away, and through this process the Christian is not aware of the increasing amount of non-Christian material there is until it is too late.
“For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.” 2 Peter 2:20 The context of this verse is the whole chapter. It refers to false teachers and what to expect from then, then it warns Christians about the dangers of relapse.
The point Peter is trying to make is that the effect of false teaching can drag a Christian down to the level of the ungodly – so here we have one reason why some Christians fall away. False teaching. The antidote to false teaching is Bible-based teaching. How can believers ensure they receive good teaching? They must consciously make the effort to find it. As Peter says (2 Pet.1:10,11) “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure; for if you do these things you shall never fall.”Peter gives us a list of things to aim for in previous statements (1:5-9) but again the onus is on the Christian to make the effort. Believers are urged to “give all diligence” in adding to their faith virtue, knowledge, temperance (self-control), patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity.
Many pages could be written on this one! Christians are beset from within and without. They are buffeted by the world, and the devil and the flesh. They are tempted by people, sometimes by best friends, and sometimes by sworn enemies. They are trapped within an inherited Adamic nature, which has a bias towards rebellion. They are tempted by good things, which can become twisted into paths to sin, and by bad things, which have the appearance of being good.
In the parable of the sower, (Luke 8) one hearer of the gospel receives the word with joy, but has 'no root', which for a while believes, but in a time of temptation falls away. Another hearer of the gospel hears, and 'goes forth', but is soon choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life. This shows how even good things may be a cause of capitulation.
It was probably for this reason that Jesus warned us: “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41
“Take heed, watch and pray: for you know not when the time is.” Mark 13:33
“Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.” Mark 14:38
“Watch therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.” Luke 21:36
The fact that Jesus repeated these words underlines how important they are. What Jesus was saying was that all believers are personally responsible for their survival. God certainly cares for and helps believers, but He never forces that care on them. He has a line over which He will never pass, and believers are quite unrealistic if they think they will be carried along by the Spirit regardless of their freewill. In this way God gives believers the opportunity to prove themselves either willing sons and daughters, or unwilling. To overpower them would be to rob them of the credit they deserve for acts of courage.
“Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but to all them also that love his appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:8
“Blessed is the man that endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love him.” James 1:12
“And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, you shall receive a crown of glory that fades not away.” 1 Peter 5:4
Temptations are any persuasion which might pull a believer away from full commitment to Jesus. In this light they can be seen in a positive way. Temptations are like the weights which an athlete uses. They work in favour of the believer because they cause him to exercise spiritual muscles by resisting them. They help a believer develop habits of righteousness and self-discipline. I would not go so far as to welcome temptations, but they are not necessarily a bad thing, but rather elements of life, permitted by God, for the development of character.
Using the analogy of the athlete again, “For bodily exercise profits little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” 1 Timothy 4:8 In this verse the obtaining of godliness is compared to physical training. The means by which a believer may train themselves in godliness is through resisting temptation. Every time a believer chooses right from wrong, they grow stronger. Every time a temptation is overcome, the believer earns a reward.
“There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
In my experience, one of the scariest things any believer can do is try to share their faith. This is not surprising, because (at least in Western culture) it is not acceptable for one person to try to persuade another person in matters of 'religion' – as the unbeliever usually perceives Christianity. It would be fine if Christianity was made of money and tasted nice, but the message believers are expected to pass on is not very attractive. It has to do with death, and hell and Law and sin, and it speaks of a condemned earth, and repentance, and the forsaking of all material things, and the putting of Jesus before all loves, children and prized possessions. It means death to one's self, and quite often a Christian finds him or herself outside the group of people they once called friends.
Very few Christians are bold enough to stand on a street and offer gospel tracts to passersby, and few there are who are even willing to anonymously place tracts in letterboxes, even at night when no-one can see them. Most Christians in my experience, settle for the 'good works' method, in which they avoid speaking about God and simply do lots of nice things, but of course no-one can be saved unless they hear and understand the gospel. Being generous and kind and helpful are all very acceptable to God, and He desires all people to be like that, but an unbeliever needs more than money, clothes and compassion.
The first officially appointed witnesses (if you like, after John, and the 70) were the apostles, and they went forth with mighty miracles accompanying their preaching. The next wave of witnesses were believers, and some mighty signs went with them too, though as far as I can make out, the signs reduced as the churches became established. It seems that miracles were granted more in the areas where the gospel was first preached, than where it was already received. (In this I hope I am wrong) But who did the witnessing? It was all believers – not just a few members of the fellowship as is so common here in the West. For example: “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.”Acts 8:4 “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” 2 Timothy 4:2
There are certain Christian activities which most Christians, (in my experience) are either keen on or averse to. Prayer meetings are usually poorly attended, while picnics, plays and fun evenings are usually well attended. Witnessing falls into the former category. As the Bible says, “The fear of man brings a snare . . .” and it is fear of confrontation that deters many Christians from speaking out. Most people are already afraid of public speaking, or of addressing crowds, and it is not a part of the Western culture to meet strangers and plunge into a marketing campaign with them, unless it is over a product which is not involved with beliefs. But zeal can be expressed in public witnessing, and once it is attempted it certainly sorts out the men from the boys. What often follows is a sense of alienation, or isolation from other people, because the moment the gospel is presented the huge chasm between God and the world is made apparent.
Complacent sinners do not like to be pricked in their conscience, yet witnessing involves this very thing. Witnessing is like brushing a cat the wrong way, or draining a swamp, or prodding a sleeping dog. What was once hiding under the camouflage of normality is suddenly made visible, and quite often anger is expressed. In extreme cases physical violence follows and Christians suffer torture of death for their pains.
But something else happens. Suddenly the battle between God and Satan is revealed. The smiling, 'comfortable' neighbour, who was always pleasant and well-mannered towards you, becomes hostile and rude. Friends you always got along with change into vaguely distant acquaintances who quietly exclude you from their company. People you never expected to be argumentative suddenly throw rough words in your direction, and you wish you'd never bothered them with 'religion', as they like to call it. But this is where witnessing has great value. It is a window into the spiritual war which rages all around you all the time – as we see when we follow the life of Jesus. Wherever he went he challenged the hold of Satan over the world, and the great hostility that followed was the logical outcome of that challenge. Only crucifixion could come of it, but even there Jesus defeated the enemy.
“Wherein they think it strange that you run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you.” 1 Peter 4:4 Here we have the practical side of Christian witnessing. By abstaining from certain world sins a Christian becomes isolated from worldly friends.
“Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” 1 Peter 4:12 Here we have the normal consequences of living a godly life. Witnessing is a common trigger to the fiery trial.
I heartily recommend witnessing. It has been a breath of fresh air into my Christian life, and has kept me aware of the battle for this world which God has been waging since the first sin in Eden. It is also almost impossible to fall away when one regularly 'nails ones colours to the mast', and the expectations which other people tend to have of you become your own expectations.
Fear of God
It is a totally Biblical and normal state of affairs to fear God, and it would be a notable case to investigate any saint who claimed to have no fear at all. One would tend to think that those who had no fear also had no understanding – like a rabbit who had no fear of a gun, or a sailor who had no fear of tidal waves. To know God is to know fear, because God is fearsome.
“And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob.” Genesis 35:5
“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” 2 Corinthians 5:11
“O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” Deuteronomy 5:29
“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28
It is good to love God, and to respect Him. It is right to reverence God, and worship Him. It is good to teach children about Jesus in terms of a loving shepherd, who gathers His lambs and cares for them, but to stop at this point is to teach only a partial God. There is a great deal more to the Creator of the universe than these attributes. He is also Holy, and a Judge. His name Zidkenu means Commander, in the military sense. His name Shammah means Supreme. He has 'illustrated' His awesome power through the analogies of Nature – the majestic mountains, the roaring cataract, the sweeping hurricane, the rolling ocean waves, the heaving earthquake, the deafening volcano, and the immensely powerful flames of the sun. Who cannot fear the God of all creation when these things are but tiny attributes of His power?
There is a story about a coal that falls out of the fire, and loses its heat. If the coal had stayed within the heat and flame of the other coals it would have remained hot, but by itself it soon becomes cool and winks out. Fellowship is like this. When Christians gather together they may encourage and inspire each other, but the illustration falls down whenever we come across individuals in the Church who have remained 'hot', but have also lived relatively isolated lives.
Some Christians feel strongly about Sunday church-attendance, and oddly enough they quote from the Ten Commandments to justify it. “Remember the sabbath to keep it holy” does not even suggest that Christians meet in a building every Sunday, yet this commandment is often used as a basis for going to church. Besides that, no N.T. command even hints that Christians are bound by the O.T. Sabbath law, let alone the sabbath.
But fellowship is definitely enjoined. First of all by example: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2:42 Fellowship means a gathering together of people with something in common, i.e. A fellowship of chefs, model-makers, rock-climbers, etc. Christians naturally come together because they have a faith and a Saviour in common.
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another, and so much the more, as you see the day approaching.”Hebrews 10:25 Here the “assembling” of Christians is urged almost to the point of command.
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Psalms 133:1
Another aspect of fellowship is a thing called “community” which is not a Biblical word, but which carries with it the idea that Christians ought to be forming a new kind of society in which all members of the Church are related in the same sense as all members of a (strong, loving) family are related. As the numbers of Christians grow within a community they ought to have a revolutionary effect upon it, changing it from whatever it is, to whatever God wants it to be. This is not to say that unsaved communities are 'evil', or completely bereft of Christian ethics – many communities are full of virtue (generosity, helpfulness, tolerance, kindness, etc) – but the effect of a growing Christian presence ought to have a noticeable effect.
Finally, when Christians gather together, they are able to work together as a part of the Body of Christ. Fellowship is another word for 'integration' or 'symbiosis'.
“So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” Romans 12:5 (We ought to recognize the value and purpose of our Christian brothers and sisters)
“For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ”. 1 Corinthians 12:12
“But now has God set the members every one of them in the body, as it has pleased him.” 1 Corinthians 12:18
“But now are they many members, yet but one body.1 Corinthians 12:20
“Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary” 1 Corinthians 12:22
“And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.” 1 Corinthians 12:23
“That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.” 1 Corinthians 12:25
“And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:26
Logically, if we accept that all Christians are part of the family we belong to, and the welfare of those other Christians has some effect on our own welfare, and ours on theirs, we will seek to bless our extended family. By helping other saints, we help ourselves.
A word of warning. Too many Christians have been hurt, betrayed, let down, and discouraged by treatment they have received from so-called Christian fellowships. The lack of love, or some horrible experience they have been through has totally embittered these people, and they have nothing good to say about “Christians”. These poor, injured people limp about miserably in the shadows, occasionally expressing their hurts, but usually harbouring their pain and keeping away from Christians for fear of further injury. The problem is their expectations. These casualties have looked not to the sinless Shepherd but to the sinful sheep. The Church will always fail because it is made of sinners, and anyone who comes into a fellowship expecting it to meet all his or her needs is chasing a butterfly.
Fellowship alone cannot sustain a Christian. Neither will 'marriage', or 'family', or 'raising children'. None of the byproducts of God's provision to us will ever fully meet our needs. It is foolish to think that a group of Christians would ever be sufficient to maintain a Christian. Jesus himself spent time alone with the source of his power: God. Jesus drew strength not from fellowship but from the Word of God. It is better to go to the source of the river, than try to live away downstream.
For most Christians, the quality of leadership is crucial to their own zeal. Be it a Brethren elder, or a pastor, a priest, or a minister of outstanding moral integrity and enthusiasm. If there is an outstanding leader in a fellowship, the whole group can be raised to a higher level of zeal. Jesus raised the level of his followers to heroic heights, and the apostles carried this on, to a lesser degree. Paul himself urged his readers to follow him (1 Cor.4:16 and 11:1 but he pointed out that he himself was following Christ. See also Phil. 3:17, 1Thess. 1:6. We are also told to be followers of God (Eph.5:1)
“Be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:12
Leadership can do only a limited number of things. It can inspire, and encourage, but good leadership cannot force. Millions of people are willing to follow leadership, witness the droves who are inspired by political leaders, health gurus, pop stars, and certain authors. Characters like Bond, Potter and Gandalf have their own followers, and many charismatic cult and church leaders have built empires on their examples – Rutherford, Roberts, Spurgeon and so on.
It is clear from all the above that most of the maintenance of a Christian's zeal depends on him or her alone. That is probably the most important factor. If we choose to be zealous, we will be rewarded by results, and God will confirm His promises to us, but He will never force zeal upon us. He waits for us to make the first move, and when we choose to follow, He moves in. If it was the other way round it would not be God.
But we must not stop here, because it would be rather futile for a Christian to think that zeal meant only doctrinal purity, or only evangelical enthusiasm, or only the maintenance of good works. The example of Jesus shows us that to be a full Christian one must be zealous in every area required by God. This means doctrinal and practical. He worked tirelessly for the Cause, and for his Father. His good works, the practical side of Christianity, were not all miracles, and his early life in Nazareth, in which we assume he went about his daily chores, menial tasks common to poor labourers, and worked with Joseph, was just as committed as his public ministry. We must not think of his crucifixion and death as separate from his planing of a piece of wood for a chair-back, or his suffering on the cross as separate from his collecting of herbs for the evening meal. Everything Jesus did was part of the same task, and everything required the same quality of zeal. It is we who make one thing seem larger in importance than another and deal out subjective judgments.
Consider the time when Jesus washed his disciples feet. A washed foot will not stay clean very long, and it hardly seems important in the grand scheme of redemption to have a few temporarily clean feet, but Jesus performed this task with the same devotion as any other. By this we see that to maintain Christian zeal, we must see everything in life as an opportunity to serve God. It is primarily our choice.
“Choose you this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Joshua 24:15
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