Zeal is a word that gets good and bad press. Being zealous for a cause can receive praise or blame, depending on the cause. Persons who give their lives to alleviate suffering and those who become terrorists are commonly said to have zeal, but we judge the first as commendable and the second reprehensible.
In the case of controversial issues, zeal admired on one side is deplored on the other. But someone who goes to extremes even for a good cause may be considered a zealot, which is never a flattering term.
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) once said “It is false zeal to keep truth while wounding charity.” John Wesley would agree. History is filled with instances of persons passionately committed to what they believe persecuting those with whom they disagree. There is a need “to distinguish true Christian zeal from its various counterfeits.” And that Wesley proposes to do in his sermon “On Zeal.”
In defining true zeal Wesley argues that not only does it not wound charity, but in fact it is charity. It is “fervent love” for God and our neighbor. “True Christian zeal is no other than the flame of love. This is the nature, the inmost essence of it.”
If true Christian zeal is fervent love, then “the properties of love are the properties of zeal also.” Wesley follows the thinking of Paul in I Corinthians 13:4–7, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (NRSV) If this is a description of love, then for Wesley it also is a description of zeal.
So what does this mean for true Christian zeal? First, says Wesley, if zeal is the ‘flame of love, then hatred in every kind and degree, then every sort of bitterness toward them that oppose us,” is not only not zeal, it is opposed to zeal. Also “totally inconsistent” with zeal are “prejudice, jealousy, evil surmising, bigotry of every sort, and above all the spirit of persecution.” Instead these are works of the devil.
Second, zeal is marked by humility, not pride. “As is the degree of zeal,” Wesley says, “such is the degree of humility; they must rise and fall together.”
Third, zeal is marked by meekness, not anger. Commonly, Wesley notes, “zeal and anger pass for equivalent terms,” but when someone is “vehemently angry” at his neighbor, it is not true zeal but sin. “There is much such zeal as this in the bottomless pit,” Wesley warns.
True zeal is also marked by “unwearied patience.” Fretting at the ungodly or being “out of patience” with situations are often called zeal, but Wesley insists all “fretting at sin” is itself “a species of sin.”
It is important to note that Wesley (and Paul) are not saying one cannot contend for what is good, but are deeply concerned with how we go about doing that. To contend for what is right in a manner that is marked by hatred, bitterness, pride, anger, and impatience is not zeal but sin. Christians have no other way to be truly zealous than the way of love.