I often regret making broad statements, but I think most Christians in North America and the rest of the developed world will probably agree with a statement like this one: There is too much complacency in our lives and in our churches. I recently received a question from a group of pastors who had been discussing this topic: “How do you deal with complacency in your own life and in the life of your church?” They had various answers for the first part of the question, but found themselves stuck on the second half. I thought I might take a shot at it.
But first, we do not want to be Christians who are un-complacent. The Christian life is not avoiding negative qualities as much as it is pursuing positive qualities. Therefore, we want to be Christians who are zealous, for zeal is the opposite of complacency. “Zeal” is a word that was once an important part of the Christian vocabulary, but has since diminished.
Sometimes the best approach to a question like this is to find people in history who have modeled what we are missing and to see what they had that we lack. To find zeal as an emphasis and to find zeal on display, we can travel back a few hundred years to the Puritans. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones dedicate a whole chapter of A Puritan Theology to the Puritan emphasis on zeal. I want to trace just a little bit of what they learned.
None of us is without zeal—we are all zealous about something. We are zealous for this sports team or that one, we are zealous for this brand of cell phone or that one. “Zeal runs in our veins for what we love and against what we hate.” What we want as Christians is zeal that is properly motivated and properly directed—a truly godly zeal. John Reynolds defined Christian zeal as “an earnest desire and concern for all things pertaining to the glory of God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus among men.” If we assume this desire and concern is not merely feelings but action, it describes the very opposite of complacency. Zeal is like a flame that brings a pot to a boil—it causes our affections for God to come to a boil so that we pursue what delights him and fight against what dishonors him. Zeal is spiritual heat, spiritual energy that flows out through the godly characteristics of love, joy, hope, peace, and so on. It is not a grace on its own as much as it is a quality that affects every part of the Christian life, making us zealous in the way we love, zealous in the way we express hope, zealous in every area and every characteristic and every fruit of the Spirit.
The Puritans identified four means through which God stirs up the Christian’s zeal. These means are equally applicable to individuals and churches. What may surprise you is how unsurprising they are. There is no great trick to zeal; rather, it is simply taking advantage of God’s ordinary means.