St. Theophan the Recluse, in The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, stresses the importance of zeal, which he describes as our “willingness to do whatever it takes to be saved.” Of course, saving is something that God does and has done (and will do). Nonetheless, we too must be active. This activity on our part is motivated by zeal. Zeal is an energy to do something, to do “whatever it takes,” as St. Theophan puts it.
But a life of extreme effort buoyed by emotional zeal in the face of repeated failure is exhausting. Something has to give way. Moral, physical or institutional burnout brings us to our knees. Sooner or later, if we keep trying and keep failing, we can come to the point that we begin to blame others. Like Job, we realize that we have done all that we could do, that the failure, the problem, lies not in our working the plan. We have worked the plan, we have done what we thought God wanted us to do: we believed, we confessed, we worked, we strove. We ask God, “what more could I have done?” We are tempted to curse God and die. We are tempted to blame God, we start to wonder—perhaps even out loud—if God exists at all. This is one of the darkest nights of the soul.
This is our calling. This is our ministry. No matter what else we may or may not do—and we may or may not do wonderful and noble things—but none of these are our calling, none of this is our ministry, if we are not truly bearing Christ in our hearts as we do whatever it is we do. And this is what spiritual zeal is for. Spiritual zeal motivates us to repent, to adopt ascetic disciplines, and to pursue spiritual help through prayer, study and obedience to holy guidance. This is how we accept Christ into our hearts. This is how we are saved. By cooperating with the convicting Grace of the Holy Spirit, often manifest in our conscience, turning our hearts away from what is displeasing to God and toward what pleases Him, we come to be ourselves vessels of Grace, Grace that can change the world—not because I worked a plan hard enough, but because God’s Grace is sufficient.