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.
Zeal comes from the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to make us aware of our sin and to call to our remembrance God’s existence, arousing in us the fear of God, or the awareness that what we do has consequences that we cannot control, consequences that will affect us and others both now and in the age to come. But this action of the Holy Spirit is not enough. We must believe, accept and cooperate with this awareness generated in us by the Holy Spirit. This believing, if it is genuine, produces a kind of energy that motivates us to do what is good and cut off in ourselves what is evil. Or to put it another way, zeal motivates us to get our life in order, to straighten crooked desires and raise valleys of spiritual laziness and bring down mountains of high self opinion: to make a way acceptable to the Lord. Zeal changes us.
There are, however, some common problems we run into when we seek to arouse zeal in our lives. You might say that these misdirections or misidentifications of zeal all fall under the general category of zeal without knowledge. Misdirected zeal is the most common problem. Misdirected zeal identifies something outside myself that needs to change and works towards that change. Misdirected zeal often quickly becomes anger, anger toward whatever or whomever seems to be in the way of the good we are pursuing. This outward directed zeal is the zeal that one sees in politics (whether in politics proper or in the manipulation of relationships at home, work or in the church). Looking outside ourselves to identify the problems in our lives, we can easily identify causes, locate blame, and come up with a plan to remove the problem. All of this energy almost never actually changes much because it shifts our focus outside ourselves, so that even if a situation dramatically improves, we still have ourselves to deal with. As a friend of mine used to say, “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Only when zeal is directed inwardly can we begin to change ourselves. But we will talk more about this later.
There are two kinds of zeal that are commonly misidentified as spiritual zeal. These are intellectual zeal and emotional zeal. Intellectual zeal identifies a goal, identifies the steps or means of obtaining that goal, and then pushes to work the steps to obtain the goal. This is the kind of zeal common in the workplace or in many self-help programs. It is a zeal based on reason, based on figuring out what is needed or wanted and the steps necessary to get what you need or want. You figure it out—or more usually someone else does—you convince yourself of the reasonableness of it, and you commit yourself to the steps, to working the plan. It is a zeal that leaves you completely in control. You decide the goals, you decide the steps and if you obtain your goal, it is because you worked your steps and did what you were supposed to do. If you fail, it is also your fault—or someone’s fault (we are always so good at blaming others)—but failure is always someone’s fault.
When this intellectual zeal gets clothed in religious language, it can be quite damaging to us spiritually. To begin with, it is damaging because we call our own choices, God’s choices, or we say that we know what God wants. That is, we reason within ourselves that what we want is really also what God wants (according to our reading of the Bible or the advice of a parent or spiritual authority, or based on a particular feeling I have or set of serendipitous confirming circumstances or just based on the popularity in our current religious milieu of that particular outcome we are seeking to obtain). For example, if someone grows up in or has been influenced by a religious setting that emphasizes evangelism, he may feel a great deal of pressure “to do more” in the way of evangelizing those around him. Believing (perhaps falsely) that this is what God wants him to do, this person creates or adopts a strategy to accomplish his goal. He might begin by memorizing conversation starters. Then he might set a goal for himself: “to share my faith with at least one person a day,” for example. Then he must muster up the determination to work his plan (wrongly thinking this is spiritual zeal).
Or, for example, someone might experience a serendipitous series of events—a dream, a chance encounter, an apparently miraculous event—and interpret them as revealing God’s will to them. In my experience, these sorts of serendipitous or even genuinely miraculous experiences often carry with them an additional burst of emotional zeal, or excitement, which can make genuine discernment even more difficult. Many a earnest Christian has devoted years of his or her life to working the plan, to pursuing the logical steps toward a particular ministry or calling only to find out later, often in painful failure, that perhaps what they thought was God leading them was probably much less God and much more their own desire or ideal spurred on and guided by emotional and intellectual zeal. Intellectual and emotional zeal are not without their place in our lives, but when they are mistaken for spiritual zeal, they can get us into trouble.
Intellectual zeal clothed in religious language is also dangerous to us spiritually because of what it produces in us—whether we succeed or fail—because the success or failure of a reasonable goal is a matter of our working the plan. If the expected results are obtained, it is because we worked well; if the expected results are not obtained, it is because we (or someone else) failed. One of the common sources of soul-destroying pride is success in an endeavour. Whatever sin or passion or addiction we overcome, if we are not very careful, can quickly become a source of pride for us. The woman who has lost and kept off 100 lbs., must attend to her soul carefully lest she think that anyone can do what she has done if only they will do what she did. This is a dangerous spiritual place to be in—not far from the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel who prayed within himself, “I thank you God that I am not like other men.”
Of course the flip side of success is also dangerous: failure often leads to depression. On the simplest level, we damn ourselves because we were not able to work the plan. We assume we must be losers, moral failures, or just doomed to be stuck in the same place. We are depressed because we couldn’t keep up with the plan. We assume we didn’t keep up with the plan because we didn’t work hard enough or pray hard enough or strive hard enough. It is our fault, and it seems there is nothing we can do about it. We may even begin to wonder if God is willing to bother with us at all. We feel that we have let God down. This is the first level of depression that can come upon us when we come to rely on intellectual zeal and when we assume that what is outside us is what God is really concerned about.
One of the common ways we try to buttress intellectual zeal is by embracing emotional zeal, or excitement. Those who manage sales people know that the best way to keep your sales staff working the plan is to keep them excited. Emotional zeal temporarily buoys us, it can give a spirit of energy to keep us going even in the midst of failure-induced depression. When I was a young man, I was involved in a missionary-minded church group that put a great deal of emphasis on personal evangelism. I was a terrible at it. In all those years, I never got one convert. I was embarrassed by street evangelism, I hated going door to door, and I felt so uncomfortable with contrived and awkward conversations with strangers. Nevertheless, in that religious setting, those were the things that I had to do (the plan that I had to work) if I wanted to save souls and thus show myself to be a faithful Christian. I needed regular injections of excitement and emotional zeal. And these were provided. Testimonies of conversions and miraculous events were the constant fare from the pulpit in those days. So after a couple of hours of enthusiastic singing and preaching mostly about the missionary imperative and the End Times, I would get buoyed up enough to go out and try again, only to fail miserably and sink again into depression.
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.
However, this darkness can also be a womb, a place of preparation for a new birth. When we have come to the end of ourselves, to the end of our plan, our understanding, to the end of God as we thought we knew Him, then we truly become the poor in spirit. Then we truly are the orphan and widow—our false understanding of God has left us abandoned. Our misguided zeal based on what we understood with our intellect and bolstered by excitement and pushed forward by our determination, all of this is gone, and we are left whimpering, like an abandoned child. And here, if we can accept it, is where we need to be: broken and contrite, with nothing to offer God but broken pieces, without a plan and without a goal—without a goal except just to be, to just be with God, or rather to learn how to just be with God.
And here spiritual zeal can begin in earnest, spiritual zeal focusing on myself, on attending to Christ in my heart. Intellectual and emotional zeal always focuses on what is outside us. Spiritual zeal brings our attention to our heart, to our repentance, to what is needed for our turning toward God. In our heart is where we find what God cares about. Yes, there will always be things to do, and these things we do are not without a certain relative importance. However, it is only as we attend to our own hearts, as we embrace the humility of dependence, of not knowing, and only as we see our own participation in the brokenness of the world around us, only then can we hope to actually be the light in the darkness. Spiritual zeal helps us to repent, to change ourselves not so that we can do things in the world, but so that we can be something in the world: so that we can be bearers of Christ. Like the Theotokos, Christ’s Virgin Mother, we are called to become pure so that we too can carry Christ in our hearts.
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.