Last month we looked at Wesley’s sermon “On Zeal” as a way to distinguish “true Christian zeal from its various counterfeits.” What we found was this: “True Christian zeal is no other than the flame of love. This is the nature, the inmost essence of it.”
But what, then, are we zealous for? In the sermon Wesley says we should be zealous for “all good things,” but not to the same degree. Our zeal should be in proportion “to the degree of goodness that is in its object.”
Wesley asks us to envision a number of concentric circles, each representing something deserving of our Christian zeal. The closer to the center of the circle they are, the more they should elicit our zeal.
In the outmost circle is the church. Every Christian should be zealous “for the church universal, praying for it continually,” and especially for his or her own local church. In addition, being zealous for the church involves strengthening the Christian community within while inviting others to come to know Jesus Christ and become part of that community.
Moving toward the center, the next circle consists of the ordinances of Christ. Even more than the church, Christians should be zealous for praying, “for the Lord’s Supper, for reading, hearing and meditating on his work, and for the much neglected duty of fasting.” These are to be recommended to others first by example, and then by persuasion and encouragement.
But more than these, the Christian should be zealous for the works of mercy which constitute the next circle. Even prayer and worship should be postponed “when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbor, whether in body or soul.”
This may seem surprising since Wesley normally puts love for God first. It is the first of the two great commandments, with love of neighbor as the second. But if God is truly at the center of our lives, then in practice that means caring for others takes priority. God loved us in Christ even to the point of dying for us on a cross, and we are to love others with that same zeal.
“But as zealous as we are for all good works,” says Wesley, “we should still be more zealous for holy tempers,” the next circle toward the center. Holy tempers such as peace, joy, faith and hope are what enable us to be “alive to God,” to walk as Christ walked, to have the motivation and desire to worship God and care for others.
“But our choicest zeal should be reserved for love itself, which is at the very center of the concentric circles. There it “sits upon the throne, which is erected in the inmost soul;” it is the love of God and humanity “which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival.”
To have love at the center of our hearts and lives should be the supreme object of our zeal, for it is then we most fully exhibit the image in which we were created, that of the God who is love.