October 18, 2009


Ardent Desire for God

“Zeal for your house consumes me” – Psalm 69:9John 2:16-17

“It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way. ” – Proverbs 19:2

Zeal and Zealots

Zeal, according to the dictionary is an ardent interest or desire. It doesn’t say what the object of the desire is. But the virtue of Zeal only has God as the object. Anything else is a waste, or even dangerous, because we can make gods of lesser things, and this nearly always ends in disaster. This is the case for zealots: they have created some idea and then pursue this shadow of themselves fanatically. Spiritually, the worst thing for a human being is to create a “God-image” in their head and then pursue it madly like a dog chasing its tail. It is an excuse for the worst crimes and atrocities, with an apparently clear conscience. Once a false God has been created in the mind, the human vices are amplified and rationalized, with the worst possible results: evil is done but God is blamed.

Some of the modern fear of Zeal comes from a rational distrust based on observation. We need very little persuading to believe the zealot is really pursuing God, because it provides such a convenient excuse for our laziness.

The Lord’s Name in Vain

The Commandment says not to take the Lord’s Name in vain, and we usually think of swearing, but it also applies here. When we take our own ideas, rooted in our vices, and declare them to be the will of God, we violate the Commandment. It is truly blasphemous to say, “God wants me to be rich.” It may be the will of God, but it is a safer assumption, given such an idea, to think it is we who will it, not God. In general, our desires for worldly success originate in us, not in God. To anoint our desires is to invest them with the dignity and authority of God. A healthy distrust of oneself is important in spiritual matters: if we stand to gain in a material way, we should doubt whether a course is truly the will of God.

True Zeal

True Zeal is informed. As the proverb says, knowledge is crucial to Zeal. Our visions and intuitions can lie, and we can filter out any knowledge that conflicts with our desires, but knowing God through prayer, Scripture, good counsel and fellowship is the best defense we have against ourselves. Obtaining knowledge is so easy in our modern world, easier than ever before, but avoiding it is just as easy. There are plenty of preachers, motivational speakers and self-help books to keep us delusional, and so few honest friends willing to risk a friendship for our sake. Many excellent and ancient books are available on the Internet, but few take the time to study them.

To prevent self-deception and misdirected zeal, there is no better corrective than the Gospels. Given the number of zealots who claim a Gospel basis for their actions, this may seem surprising, but there is a common thread to them all: they claim an ability (or right) to interpret the Bible in their own way.

For example, there are people who believe the pursuit of wealth is a divine command, but a brief reading of the Gospel should show otherwise: Jesus was poor, he said so. And nowhere in the New Testament are we counseled to chase after wealth, in fact, we are told the opposite. We are never told to use violence, but the Ku Klux Klan (and others) have claimed to be “Bible-believing” Christians while killing and terrorizing so many. Clearly, Jesus taught peace, so how can people kill in his name? Other examples include using Bible verses to justify cheating, cruelty, lies, bad marriages, divorce and adultery. The Gospel speaks against each one of these, clearly and without any room for doubt.

A good starting point for informed Zeal is to read the Gospels. Then read them again. Repeat until they are nearly memorized. “What Would Jesus Do?” is not a good guide unless we know Jesus well through the Gospels.

Some will say, “But I know Jesus without reading the Gospels. He speaks to my heart. A priest told me this is better than the Gospels.” There is no answer for such a person but the Judgement. Anyone who seriously thinks they have this kind of arrangement is seriously disturbed, possibly to the point of being mentally ill. And any priest or other spiritual leader who promotes this half-baked thinking is not fit for spiritual guidance. Jesus went to great pains (literally) to establish the Church in a certain way, and he never promised “personal revelations” that lead people away from what he did in his ministry. Claiming visions is a way of avoiding correction by a kind of spiritual intimidation. We are expected to accept even the most stupid or blatantly self-serving pronouncements because the person claims a vision, and forget St. Paul’s admonition, “Test every spirit.”

Others will say, “But some visions are true!” Yes, you are right, but what are the marks of the true visions? Visionaries never really benefit much from their visions. They are thought insane, examined, doubted, called possessed, impoverished, and often die young. Their fame is seldom great until after death. Miracles nearly always accompany true visions, and conversions always do. True visions never tell us what we want to hear, in fact they usually destroy the earthly life of the visionary and deny them the simple comforts we take for granted, like a bit of peace and quiet, family life and anonymity. But this is digression.

True Zeal has God for its object, not a “God-image”. Because we cannot know God completely in this life, there is a certain caution necessary in Zeal, and not a few “safeties”. Zeal should drive us to take the obviously right paths with great vigor: patience, gentleness, the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, prayer, self discipline, sacrifice and above all, selfless love. Strangely, doubt and uncertainty can help purify and direct Zeal, by focusing on the one thing we know for sure: “God is love”.

For Continued Reading

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2302, also 2262, 2286

“Mere Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis (also, “The Screwtape Letters”)

“The Little Flowers of St. Francis” (Franciscans are often reminded to use time well)

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