This blog was inspired by John Wesley’s 1781 sermon titled “On Zeal”. John Wesley founded the Methodist movement to restore passion and zeal to the Anglican Church, which had become dull and lazy. Wesley was passionate about God’s Kingdom and urged Christians to serve with passion and zeal. God’s Kingdom was to be their first priority in life and they were to serve with their whole hearts.
It is impossible to experience any real spiritual progress in your life without considerable commitment and zeal. Furthermore, it is impossible to make a lasting difference in our community without passionate commitment. Yet, religious zeal scares many people—perhaps for good reason. We have seen the evil acts “religious nuts” have perpetrated in the name of God.
Critics of the early Methodist movement in England considered Wesley’s teachings and religious devotion too radical and extreme. To the apathetic church leaders of the day, Wesley and his followers were dangerous fanatics.
Perhaps you have known someone you considered a religious fanatic—someone who was too radical in their religion, a real "Jesus freak". My Grandma loved Jesus and she loved the church. As a kid, me and my siblings used to joke that you didn't want to bring up the subject of religion around Grandma. You didn't want to get her started on that subject because she wouldn't stop talking about it. We thought she was a fanatic. We were fine with religion, just in moderation. We thought Grandma should be more like us and tone it down a bit. Funny thing is, now that I am more mature, I embody much of the same passion for Jesus I once scorned in my Grandma. I'm sure there are many people who think I should "tone it down a bit." (Someone once told me a good definition of a fanatic. “A fanatic is someone who is more committed than you are.”) We always think we've got religion in just the right dose. Maybe we need to consider if we need to have a little more religious zeal.
There are different kinds of religious fanaticism—some are healthy and some very dangerous. Religious extremism of the wrong sort can lead to horrific violence and terrorism. Is there a still a place for religious zeal in our age? Is there such a thing as healthy Christian extremism? What is the difference between a good and evil religious fanatic?
Perhaps the Apostle Paul is the best example of the wrong and right ways to be a extremely devoted to God. Before he became a Christian, Paul was an extremely zealous Pharisee. His misguided passion led him on a crusade to destroy Christianity. Graciously, Jesus appeared to Paul and set him on the right path. Paul became as zealous for Jesus as he had once been against him. Paul’s passionate work as a Christian missionary eventually got him in trouble with the religious authorities. He was arrested and put on trial and ultimately gave his life for Christ. In Acts 22, Paul is on trial as a Christian extremist.
3 Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. 4 And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison.
Paul Was a Religious ExtremistHere we see Paul testifying how his religious zeal before he became a Christian led him to persecute Christians. Yet after Paul became a Christian, his religious zeal swung completely the opposite way. He didn't lose his zeal or become lazy; he became an extremist for God's love in Christ.
Before he was a Christian, Paul sought to destroy anyone he felt insulted, disobeyed, dishonored, or lied about God or threatened the Jewish religion. Paul was a religious extremist, but his misguided zeal motivated him to do evil and not good. He thought loving God meant destroying people who disagreed with him about God. One must be very careful with extreme devotion to religion. It can lead to the most horrible acts—as Paul showed in his early life.
Thankfully, God changed Paul’s life and he learned the right way to serve God. In 2 Corinthians 12:15, Paul reveals his new attitude towards people for the sake of Christ. He said, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for you.” As a Christian, Paul was even more extreme in his devotion to God, but his new core value was love. Paul was willing to sacrifice his own comfort, reputation, even his life for the sake of saving as many souls as possible.
We, also, must learn the right way to serve God—with our whole hearts as Christian fanatics of love, committed to the Kingdom, willing to put our lives on the line for the sake of love.
But is it possible to tell the difference between good and evil Christian extremism? It is and John Wesley’s instructions on the matter may be the best advice on the subject.
What is the nature of the extreme love we show?
The Christian extremist is full of humility. We count others as better than ourselves. We willing surrender our rights for the sake of others.
The Christian extremist is full of gentleness. We are careful with other's feelings. We gently woo them to Christ.
The Christian extremist is full of patience. We are long suffering, drawing our patience from the eternal well of God’s love.
Moreover, the Christian extremist doesn’t just have flashes of all these traits. The true Christian extremist is steadfast, showing these traits in all seasons.
Strengthening Christian Virtues
Do not fret if you lack these characteristics in you in the measure you want. You can strengthen them within you.
Strengthen them with Christian practices. The more you pray, the more you read your Bible, the more you worship Jesus in church, the more you receive Holy Communion, and meet with other Christians for fellowship and accountability, the more God will strengthen the characteristics of love within you.
Strengthen them with Christian service. The more serve God and the people around you, the more you offer charity in our community in the name of Jesus, the more you seek to love your fellow man, the more you will exercise and strengthen your humility, gentleness, patience, and love.
These are the ways to strengthen God’s love within you and become the kind of Christian fanatic that Jesus wants you to be.
The Priorities of the Christian ExtremistLet’s look at some of the ways Christian zeal is expressed and consider which ways are most important.
First of all, a Christian extremist will be zealous for the church. I hope one of your top priorities in life is to come to church. Come for worship. Come for study. Come for fellowship. Come for opportunities to serve. Commit to miss no more than 5 Sundays a year. Support the church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. If you are truly a Christian, you should have a deep, abiding love for the church. You will want to be here more than anywhere else. Your desire to be present for church should be near the very top of your commitments in life—above sports, above travel, above recreation, above friendships, above politics. A Christian fanatic, a true Jesus freak, loves the church.
However, the Christian extremist has an even higher priority than attending church. A Christian fanatic is even more passionate about the teachings of Christ than the church in general. For Christ gave us the church, Holy Communion, baptism, the songs of our faith, and the traditions of the church. Since it is Christ we worship when we gather here, the Christian extremist is more devoted to what Jesus said and did than to the church itself.
But there is more! A Christian extremist who is a fanatic follower of Christ, should be even more zealous to serve in Jesus name—for the Jesus said, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.” (Matthew 9:13). Whenever one interferes with the other, acts of mercy are to be preferred above coming to church and even Bible study.
However, as zealous as Christian extremists are for good works, we should be even more passionate about Christian virtues—humility, gentleness, patience, contentment, submission to God—for these are the attitudes that lead us to serve God and humanity, and serve in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.
The greatest zeal of all is reserved for the most important Christian virtue—love. This is something the Apostle Paul finally discovered when he became a Christian extremist. He said in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 – “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”
Taking Back the Word Extremist
Perhaps you are still afraid of the idea of a Christian extremist. Isn't it too dangerous? No it isn't and I think Christians should take back the word from evil people who have kidnapped extremism. True Christian extremism, rooted in love, rejects all forms of evil.If true Christian extremism is extreme love, then it rejects every kind and degree of hatred and bitterness. A Christian fanatic refuses to retaliate, but rather loves his enemies and prays for those who curse him.
If Christian extremism be nothing more than sacrificial, wholehearted love of God and humanity, then it will never have anything to do with prejudice or jealousy or any form of bigotry, racism or xenophobia. Persecuting or mistreating others in any way—even in the name of God—is totally inconsistent with Christian zeal. It is not Christianity at all, let alone Christian extremism.
If humility is a chief trait of Christian zeal, pride is utterly incompatible with it. The Christian extremist will gladly have their pride hurt for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom.
Moreover, the Christian extremist cannot be both gentle and angry. And we must be careful of any so-called “Christian” whose chief characteristic is anger. Yes, anger is part of the human experience and sometimes serves a useful purpose to energize us, but the truly zealous Christian will be one who is known for love and not anger. Love is the motivating factor that energizes and excites us. Even anger about a world that has turned its back on God will only be a minor footnote in the life of a Christian extremist. The Christian extremist will devote themselves to gentleness, patience, and love and any anger they feel will be fleeting, dissolving quickly in the far superior attitude of grace.
InvitationSearch your heart and discover your own attitude. Are you like the Anglican church John Wesley sought to revive? Is your faith dull and lifeless, lazy and uninspiring? Are you just going through the motions and not really growing spiritually or making any real difference in your family, your community, or your world? Perhaps today, Jesus is challenging you to get serious about your faith.
Are you like Paul before he became a Christian? Is your religion full of the wrong kind of passion? Is your religious zeal motivated by anger when it should be motivated by love of God and your fellow man? Is your zeal all about following the rules or trying to impress God when it should be about God’s grace and forgiveness? The greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Perhaps today, Jesus is challenging you to be born again—like Paul—so that you turn your passion to the right things.
Are you a Christian who needs to go deeper, become more committed, be filled with passion for Jesus Christ? Perhaps today, Jesus is challenging you to look deep in your heart and reprioritize the elements of your faith so that love is the motivating factor for everything you do.