Romans 12:10-11. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor serving the Lord.
I would like to address that inner energy that is required to live life to its fullest, and this energy is called zeal. Zeal is the power that moves us forward; it is the faculty that keeps us coming back regardless of what happens. Zeal is the nature, or the virtue in ourselves that allows us to follow through with whatever it is that we began. Zeal is zest; it’s passion; it's eagerness.
The word zeal has lost its favor over the last few 100 years, hasn’t it? How many of you have used the word ‘zeal’ in a sentence recently? Maybe while playing Scrabble. Zeal has lost its favor in the current vernacular because it has taken on this idea of a zealot - somebody that expresses an uncontrolled, excessive, thoughtless, and sometimes boisterous energy towards something that's kind of negative, or dark, or meaningless. That's what it has come to mean, and that's where word zealot comes from. The word has come to mean an overly confident or delusory belief that one is inspired by God, which can then lead to ill regulated religious fervor, religious extremism, and fanaticism.
Today zealous means to be fanatical. And that’s not a good thing. Islamic jihadists can be said to be filled with zeal, but its misguided and it's destructive. Although zeal is a powerful virtue on our spiritual journey it must be rooted in truth, good and love. Galatians 4:18 teaches us: “It is fine to be zealous provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.” We're supposed to be filled with energy, filled with fervor toward what's good, right, and true, not toward a destructive end.
Thomas Aquinas said, “Zeal is the ordinary byproduct of love.” Zeal. Donald DeMarco is a philosopher, theologian, and author said this, “Zeal begets zeal. We should not be fearful of the virtue of Zeal. It springs from love and does not exclude moderation. It fires our passion to flame and enables us to be more effective, productive, and alive.” That is zeal.
But because of the negativity that today surrounds the word ‘zeal’, it has been replaced by the word ‘enthusiasm.’ Enthusiasm and zeal are basically the same thing. The word enthusiasm came into our vocabulary in about the year 1603. It's derived from two Greek words: ‘en’, meaning ‘within’, and ‘theos’, which means God. So, enthusiasm really means ‘God within,’ or ‘inspired by God.’
But even the word enthusiasm is gaining notoriety. Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed mixed feelings about the word. He wrote, “Everywhere the history of religion betrays a tendency to enthusiasm.” So, he’s being a little critical there. Then he also writes, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
And today I think the word enthusiasm is frowned on by some people. Some people look at others who are all excited and they think, “Can’t they control themselves?” And I think that there is a danger when we start to eliminate words from our vocabulary because they are attached to thoughts. If we start to eliminate the word zeal from our vocabulary, we eliminate the thought of energy and fervor and enthusiasm. If we start to avoid the word enthusiasm, we avoid the idea itself. And as soon as we start culturally blacklisting positive thoughts about being zealous and about being enthusiastic and being filled with zest and energy and vim and vigor, as soon as we start to exclude those things, we open a vacuum for the very opposite - for apathy, for indifference, for uncaring, for sloth.
Samuel Ullman said, “Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years; we grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”
So, Patrick, how do we generate more enthusiasm, more zeal. That is really a trick question because God has given it to us; it is part of our nature. We already have it; it is already within us. It's not something that we have to find or uncover. It's already there; it's within us. We just need to expand our awareness of it.
So, here are a few suggestions. Find enjoyment in every day. Find humor or excitement in ordinary things. Sometimes, especially men, I think, we men think it's kind of silly or beneath us, somehow out of character to simply delight in things. Delight is not really a quality that you associate with men. How often do we say,
“That man, he really delights in life.” I think a lot of men need some help in this area.
Here's what some of the men are thinking – I’ve thought this myself. “I'm a man. By definition, I do not delight in things. I do not acknowledge beauty. I’m a man. People would ridicule me if I stopped to smell these flowers.” The sad truth is that some people probably would ridicule us for stopping and admiring things that are beautiful. My response to that is, “So what?” Whose life are we living - ours or theirs?
There is accountability in our lives, but are we accountable to that person? Do we answer to that person who is ridiculing us for doing what is natural, for enjoying the beauty of God’s Creation? Do we think that if we lose the respect of that person because we love our neighbor as Christ commands - then isn’t that the type of person we must love from more of a distance? We wish them well; we would help them if they were in trouble, but do we need to spend time in their presence? We can love them but not walk their path. Why should we give that person, or any person, control or influence over us? As CJ says, don’t let them rent space in your head, unless they’re paying for it.
By confining ourselves to an old image of our self, or someone else’s image of us, we really are short-changing enthusiasm. It's OK to stop and smell flowers. It's OK to shine our light and it’s OK to show delight. We can allow enthusiasm within us to express when we do that. Try this. Just focus showing delight and enthusiasm for over 21 days - isn't that how long they say it takes to form a habit? For twenty-one days dare to show delight. Allow zeal to flow as a byproduct of the love we express, and then observe how our self-image has changed after those three weeks.
A couple more suggestions. Find value in the simple. Cherish a smile as much as an expensive gift. Treasure a moment with your beloved more than
an expensive vacation. Another suggestion, open our mind to the uniqueness of people and ideas. This will be tougher for many of us. An opposing idea doesn’t necessarily mean that there's going to be an argument to follow. Simply because we disagree doesn't mean that one of us must be called wrong. We can change our reactions to how people differ from us. We can learn to enjoy the diversity of ideas just like we enjoy the diversity of wildflowers blooming in a field. If we choose.
Another one, and this is particularly for me. Dare to participate. It is so easy for me to just not participate, to just not show up, to not take my swing at the ball. “No, no. You go ahead. It’s really not my thing.” We need to dare to be the hero in our own drama, We need to dare to be the star in our own movie. We can get excited. It is OK to get excited about our personal growth and our spiritual journey. It's OK to do that. It's OK to be involved with others and talk to people. Patrick, just dare to go up and talk to people.
I’ve shared this before, but as much as I try to make my presence as a minister look easy, warm, friendly, inviting, and light-hearted, it is difficult for me. Those are all things I feel toward you, but it is difficult for me to express those qualities. Some of you are like me, more introverted. It doesn’t make us bad people or bad Christians. It doesn’t make us less loving. It’s just our personalities, and that’s why we have to dare ourselves to participate, because we have an important part to play, and God wants us out there.
So, while some of us have to dare to reach out, others of us, I think, have to dare to keep our nose out of other people’s business. We reach out so aggressively that we invade privacy. It’s just the opposite. We need to choose to participate, to volunteer, to help people, to share, to serve the world, but not force ourselves into someone’s life and try to take charge.
We can learn to acknowledge that the world is a better place because we are here. And we don’t do this from a position of self-righteousness or ego. We can make this claim because God has plans for us. That is the truth. If you aren't here, the world is not as good a place. But it is our choice to be a player or a spectator.
How often do we let the petty things of life distract us from who we are, where we are going, what we're doing, why we are here, and who were serving? We must resist the world’s demand that we become indifferent. Apathy can keep us stuck in our ego and focused only on our own needs. We can start to stagnate physically and mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, or we can open to the enthusiasm, zeal, zest, and fervor that is already in us to get us out of the house – where the people are. At least we get off the couch.
When Emerson made that pejorative reference to enthusiasm, I think he was referring to the idea that some organized religious thought seems more interested in sustaining itself, sustaining the machine of religion, than sustaining and feeding its members. It appears that there are some religious institutions and protocols that are more important than the souls who are attending church. I think that's what Emerson was referring to, that kind of enthusiasm. If we are interested in expressing more enthusiasm, more zeal, and increasing that power of zest within us, we need to keep that thought in mind, to direct our zeal toward the worthwhile, positive, and uplifting.
So, during our prayer time, and sometimes even during the day, we can just have a phrase that we like, an affirmation we can repeat, just to keep zeal in our mind. Here’s a couple to try on. “I am glad to be who I am. I'm glad to be living the life that God has given me.” If we just start to say that enough, we start to believe it. Isn’t it true with people, if we hear something loud enough, long enough, we start to believe it? We start to say, “Well, that’s true.”
And we can make these up as we go along. I do. “I am enthusiastic about following through and finishing what I started.” This one is not original: “I am alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic.” “I glow from the Christ energy within me. My smile radiates God’s energy.” We just start to say that, and we start smiling more. I encourage you to come up with your own affirmations; something that makes sense to you, and just keep it in mind so that you can create a constant state of enthusiasm, zeal, and zest.
Now some people have to be careful, because they could explode with more energy. Some of us don’t have to work on this as much as others of us have to. If you are more stoic, like me, we need to work on this. It is all about balance.
If we had zeal, how much more could we get done? We have just enough enthusiasm to start something… and then, “Whoo. I’m tired,” and it goes away. Still, zeal is rarely this overt, arm-flailing … that is not zeal. Zeal can be very calm.
It's a calm and perseverant passion. Yes, it’s a passion; there's energy there. It's a silent, steady, and persistent inner urging. You feel it from within. Once zeal is in action it establishes its own momentum. It’s a simple matter of being awake to our enthusiasm. Ephesians 5:14 says, “Awake, and Christ will give you light.” “Awake, Patrick. Open your mind, open your heart. Feel me in you.” That’s what God is telling me.
Having zest for life and for God is catching. I encourage you to become an enthusiastic contagion for God. Our gratitude, our love, our joy is infectious. It can spill out and land on people. Spread it around; get it on someone.
Christ expresses through us, through our lives, through our actions, through our attitudes, through our faces, and it is communicable. My prayer is that we live enthusiastically, love enthusiastically, laugh enthusiastically. Some people hear a joke and even if they think it's funny, go “Hmmm.” If we are going to laugh, let’s do it with fervor. I pray that whatever God calls us to do that we do it with zeal and maintain a happy passion for God.