Seven Letters Seven Dangers: Zeal & Complacency

Dear Theophilus,

            You’ve just come to place your faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. Your heart is, no doubt, enraptured with the glorious grace which God has shown you; the beauty of Christ, your Savior. Your heart is on fire for the Lord. As well it should be, brother - keep that flame burning hot.

            I’m reminded of a quote from an older, wiser Christian - J.C. Ryle (read all of his books, by the way!) He made the comment that “it may be very true that wise young believers are very rare. But it is no less true that zealous old believers are very rare also.” This he wrote in light of God’s call to believers to “not be slothful in zeal, but be fervent in spirit, in serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11).

            I remember well a specific instance when I was a brand new believer, not unlike yourself, and I over-heard a specific conversation between a friend of mine talking with an older Christian saint. My friend, a younger man who had given himself to mentoring me in the faith, was talking about a particular point of doctrine, a point rather essential to the Gospel, and he was doing so with a fair bit of excitement and energy. The older Christian simply responded with the patronizing comment, “Oh, you’ll outgrow that youthful fire of yours. As you mature you won’t get so excited over such topics.” I remember my friend afterwards commenting on the conversation, saying “may we never outgrow our excitement for Jesus Christ” and in a moment of spontaneous prayer, asking the Lord to “keep us fervent for those things you, O God, are fervent for.” Amen! Theophilus, I am praying the same for you.

            I have found that one of the most pernicious dangers to the Christian life is a cold-hearted complacency. These are Christian believers who were once enlivened by the vivifying effects of the Gospel but have now, over time, been cooled into a stone-cold stoicism; living statues no different than the impassive victims of Narnia’s White Winter Witch.

            One of the causes behind this coldness is the unfortunate stigma now tied to zeal and excitement. Now to be sure, there are countless Christians and “churches” who are overly-zealous - their faith is not ultimately grounded in the sufficiency of God’s word or in the person of Jesus Christ, but more in the experience they can muster up on any given Sunday at the production they call “worship”. Lights dimmed, volume turned up; I think Paul’s words in Romans 10 is appropriate here - “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”

            But the stigma I’m talking about is that unhelpful affiliation between devotion and fanaticism. Those who show zeal are often seen as zealots, and in today’s climate that often translates into extremism, or worse, terrorism. This is an unfortunate and unfair connection. My hearts desire for you, Theophilus, is that you would keep the flames of zeal’s fire burning hot, no matter what others may think of you.

            Zeal is that fire which warms and enlivens all our other Christian desires and motives. It is the work of God’s Spirit enlivening a believer’s love to boil over into every part of his life. It’s opposite is what the Bible call’s a lukewarmness. In Revelation 3, Jesus confronts the church of Laodicea and admonishes them to “be zealous and repent” or else he’ll “spit them out”! Why? Because they had grown cold and complacent in their worldly wealth. In other words, their love shifted away from Christ and more to the things of this world.

            Complacency comes upon a believer when he finds himself enjoying anything else more than Jesus Christ. It could be worldly pleasure, what Jesus refers to as “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things which enter in and choke the word” within us (Mark 4:19). But complacency doesn’t have to be so obvious. Complacency can occur when we enjoy those secondary things connected to Jesus as still more important than Jesus.

            For many this looks like a love for theological study over and above the object of our study which is a zealous devotion to Christ. Perhaps this complacency might sneak in through the Trojan Horse of ministry, finding your enjoyment and identity more in serving people than in showing people to Christ. Whatever it is, if Christ is not at the center of your affections, the central object of your deepest love, than spiritual complacency will set in. So how should you fight for zeal and fight against complacency?

            I could write you countless more letters on this, but I’ll start with this one bit of direction: do not forsake the ordinary means of grace. What do I mean? I mean this. Jesus knew what he was doing when he commanded us to be a part of a good, gospel-preaching church (Hebrews 10:24-25), to read, memorize, and meditate upon the Scriptures (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:16), to pray both publicly and privately (Romans 12:12; Matthew 6:6), to fellowship often with other believers (Acts 1:14; 2:42), and to partake of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

            Or as the apostle Peter put it, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10). Diligently warm your heart, dear Theophilus, in Jesus Christ, growing in your love of Him through the means he’s provided.

            I am praying for you, friend.

            S. U.

  Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.