The jury is out on whether zeal is a good or a bad thing. This scene from ‘Cabaret‘ has been seared into my memory since I saw the film in 1972. I was born three years after the end of the war, and had been brought up with the facile notion that Nazis were wicked people, quite unlike anyone I was ever likely to meet. This clip shows you, in three minutes, just how easy it is to get sucked in by zeal to a cause which, in your saner moments, you do not believe in at all.
I had known the theory since studying Mark Antony’s funeral speech in ‘Julius Caesar’ in which he whips up the crowd to do a 180° turn, but it was ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’ that convinced me that zeal, unmixed with wisdom, is a very dangerous emotion.
Today’s readings, from Proverbs 1.20-33 (about Wisdom, and her revenge if ignored), Psalm 19.1-14, James 3.12 and Mark 8.27-38 are about being ’fervent in the fellowship of the gospel’ and following Christ to the extent of taking up one’s own cross. At the same time, we are told to remember Wisdom, and to curb our tongues, in other words to temper our zeal with common sense. This advice seems as pertinent today as when it was first written, and I congratulate the compilers of the lectionary on this juxtaposition.
Lord Dunsany, however, liked to point out that even the excesses of zeal that led to ten years of the Trojan War led to mixed results:
‘And were you pleased?’ they asked of Helen in Hell.
‘Pleased?’ answered she, ‘when all Troy’s towers fell,
And such a war was fought as none had known,
And even the gods took part; and all because of me alone! Pleased?
I should say I was!’
With Dunsany’s Helen, there was no nonsense about considering anyone else’s welfare. Her passion was strictly egocentric. But then, consider what Hamlet promised Ophelia in Act II Scene II:
‘Doubt thou the stars are fire
Doubt that the sun doth move
Doubt truth to be a liar
But never doubt that I love.’
Unfortunately for Ophelia, there are five acts in Hamlet. Still, I expect he meant it at the time.
Very often, though, the problem is not that the zeal is transitory but that it isn’t.
The assassination of the American ambassador to Libya this week is the latest in a long line of jihads (not forgetting the Crusades), where the zeal may have religious origins but becomes overlaid with political and colonising motives as well.
“It is wonderful to have a high regard for the truth, but zeal for the truth must be balanced by a love for people, or it can give way to judgmentalism, harshness, and a lack of compassion…Sometimes zeal is less than righteous. Zeal apart from knowledge can be damning. Zeal without wisdom is dangerous. Zeal mixed with insensitivity is often cruel. Whenever zeal disintegrates into uncontrolled passion, it can be deadly.” John MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men
“For zeal’s a dreadful termagant, That teaches saints to tear and cant.” Samuel Butler (Hudibras pt. III, canto II, l. 673)
“Zeal without knowledge is fire without light.” Thomas Henry Huxley
“Zeal is fit for wise men, but flourishes chiefly among fools.” John Tillotson
“Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it.” William Shenstone
“Zeal without knowledge is like a mettled horse without eyes, or like a sword in a madman’s hand; and there is no knowledge where there is not the word: for if they reject the word of the Lord, and act not by that, ‘What wisdom is in them?’ saith the prophet (Jer 8:9; Isa 8:20).” John Bunyan
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going”: Ecclesiastes 9.10 (RSV)
“Blind zeal is soon put to a shameful retreat, while holy resolution, built on fast principles, lifts up its head like a rock in the midst of the waves.” William Gurnall
“Awake, my soul! stretch every nerve, And press with vigour on; A heavenly race demands thy zeal, And an immortal crown.”Philip Doddridge Zeal and Vigour in the Christian Race
It is no marvel that the devil does not love field preaching! Neither do I; I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit. But where is my zeal if I do not trample all these underfoot in order to save one more soul? John Wesley
“If we have no zeal for the glory of God our mercy must be superficial, man-centered human improvement with no eternal significance. And if our zeal for the glory of God is not a reveling in his mercy, than our so-called zeal, in spite of all its protests, is out of touch with God and hypocritical.” John Piper
“Learn to break your own will. Be zealous against yourself”. Thomas a Kempis
Now the danger, which among Anglicans is perhaps greater, becomes:
“When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal, corrected ”I believe” to ”One does feel.”” Ronald Knox
Joseph Addison concludes:”Whether zeal or moderation be the point we aim at, let us keep the fire out of the one, and the frost out of the other”.
John Newton’s hymn says it all – its seven verses begin:
Zeal is that pure and heavenly flame,
The fire of love supplies ;
While that which often bears the name,
Is self in a disguise. True zeal is merciful and mild,
Can pity and forbear ;
The false is headstrong, fierce and wild,
And breathes revenge and war.
If you want to hear what zeal sounds like at its best, with a heart set on fire by God, try Mahalia Jackson singing ‘How Great Thou Art!’