How do you know if your zeal for your cause is genuine zeal for God?
History is full of examples of people who were so zealous for the honor or glory of God that they justified great evil in the name of advancing that honor and glory. Christian crusaders killed Muslims by the thousands to defend the holy land from the pagan horde. Catholic inquisitors tried and executed numerous Protestants to purify the church from heresy. Scottish and English Protestants waged war against one another and against their Catholic neighbors with sometimes horrifying brutality all in the name of establishing and preserving a godly commonwealth.
Of course, one could think of numerous less violent examples of the misguided nature of religious zealotry, examples ranging from the self-righteous legalism of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day to the Protestant fundamentalism of the 20th Century, both of which tended to raise their own moral practices concerning food, drink, dress, gender relations and more, to the level of the law of God himself. Today the same zeal for God sometimes translates into the strident activism that seeks through politics to reestablish America’s Christian character.
Much of this kind of zeal has been recognized by the zealots themselves, or at least by their heirs, as misguided at best, and as outright evil at worst. But it is easy to judge the sins of the past. The question is, how do we know if our own zeal for God is real? How do we discern if we are simply using it to justify our own agendas, evil intentions or judgmental attitudes? As Paul notes in Romans 10, it is possible to have a zeal for God that is not according to righteousness.
Of course, there are numerous possible answers to this question, and many of them contain an element of truth. Are the practices justified by your zeal Scriptural? Do they tend to point people to the gospel, or to the law of God? But it seems to me that the most important test of whether our zeal for God is genuine is whether it expresses itself and stems itself in genuine love for the people around us according the example of Jesus, whether our brothers and sisters in the church, our neighbors, or our enemies. Simply put, are you more zealous for your conception of God, or for the practices you believe he demands, then you are for the people whom God has placed in your lives? Have you fallen into the error of thinking that you can love God while acting unjustly toward the person created in his image? Does your zeal express itself in arrogance or judgment, or is it a communication of the love of Christ?
The New Testament teaches this principle in numerous places. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his disciples to love not only their brothers and sisters and neighbors but even to love their enemies. The expression of this, he says, is prayer and the giving of good gifts, in imitation of our Father in heaven who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). He calls his followers to avoid worshiping God until they have first reconciled with one another, abstaining from judgment and division (Matthew 5:21-26). He demands that Christians take responsibility for the sin of their own hearts rather than judge the failings of others (Matthew 5:27-30; 7:1-5).
Later Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for presenting their own religious or moral rules as the doctrines of God (Matthew 15:1-20), a tendency that led them to emphasize these rules rather than “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Luke records Jesus as declaring to the disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For … I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).
The gospel and writings of John emphasize the same point, stressing especially the importance of conformity to the example of Jesus. In John 13 Jesus performs the actions of a lowly servant by washing the feet of his disciples. This action is not intended as a display of his own uniquely messianic calling as the one sent by the God who “so loved the world,” he makes quite clear. Rather, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:14-16).
Later Jesus explains this teaching in the form of a new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The call to imitate Jesus, in fact, goes beyond service and even to the point of suffering. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). Those who say they love God but do not love their brothers and sisters are liars (1 John 4:20).
Of course, we could pile up passage upon passage, exhortation upon exhortation. The New Testament is clear that Christians demonstrate their love and zeal for God primarily through their love for one another in conformity to the example of Jesus. But Paul sums it all up quite nicely in Philippians 2:5-8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Reformed types are often critical of the old “What would Jesus do?” bracelets because, as they point out, we are not Jesus and aren’t called to perform his messianic mission. We should focus on obeying God’s law, they say, because that’s what Jesus did.
But perhaps we should not be quite so hasty. In the passages above it is not simply God’s moral law we are called to fulfill. It is the example of Jesus. It is not simply Jesus’ obedience to God’s law that we are required to follow. It is Jesus’ unique display of love, service, and sacrifice. “What would Jesus do?” may not be such a bad question after all.
As Christians we often get in feisty debates or fall into conflict with one another over various moral, practical or doctrinal issues. We wage great moral, cultural and political campaigns that lead others to criticize us. But if we want to test whether our own zeal in these struggles is actually a genuine zeal for God, we might want to ask ourselves, does my zeal translate into love and sacrificial service after the example of Jesus, or does it look more like the domination and lordship characteristic of the world? Or to put it another way, do I care more about the abstract principle or practice at stake, or about the actual person, made in the image of God,with whom I am disagreeing, and whom I am called to serve? Remember, the servant is not greater than his master.