Real Zeal

Love: how can we understand it? Let alone live it? It is the greatest commandment, the summary of the Law, the New Testament ethic, and the measure of a Christian’s maturity. Just when I thought I was getting my minds around love ethics, we started studying worship. But when it comes to worship, what’s love got to do with it?

Worship results in Zeal, which leads to Significance, which equals Victorious Love. (With joy as essential to worship.)

Revelations 5:9-14 is the perfect picture of worship: “Worthy is the lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (v. 12). The heavenly beings in this passage as gushing about God’s greatness, because they’ve experienced it first-hand. We also personally know God’s glory through love relationship.

When we worship God we recognize and respond to God’s zealous love for us. Zeal is essential to understanding love, and it goes beyond the normal “love is a choice” formulation. God didn’t grit His teeth when He decided to love us, as we often do when we obediently and mechanically “serve” others without zeal. Rather, God went out of His way and stopped at nothing to redeem and reach us, so that we might experience His love in a personal, intimate way.

As a result, we can joyfully give our hearts to Him in gratitude and awe, seeking an ever-deepening love relationship with Him. When our heart worships God, rather than submitting out of sheer obedience, we experience joy as we delight in knowing God, His salvation, and His lavish provisions. Zeal is the natural outgrowth of joy: as we rejoice in God’s zealous love for us, He gives us the desire and zeal to love others. This is what it means that “We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Zeal is how we gain significance in people’s lives because it results in victorious love output. When I get functional and just go through the motions with people, even if I’ve thought about “what is best for them,” I don’t have zeal. And then I’m not loving victoriously, but half-heartedly or worse. Zeal isn’t about drumming up a bunch of sanguine excitement and warm fuzzies toward people. Rather, it means fighting for people’s good out of a heart-felt, God-given desire to love others. Zealous love is determined passion, and it will seek God’s will through prayer, the Word, godly counsel, and spiritual training so that we can love victoriously. When we have zeal for people we will become significant to them, and to be significant is to love and feel loved.

There are so many good verses about zeal, and I particularly like 2 Corinthians as a study of zealous love, which Paul expresses for the Corinthian believers. Perhaps it’s a little easier to get my mind around Paul’s zeal, although it’s invaluable to reflect on God’s zeal for us, especially as demonstrated through Christ’s ministry.

Paul refers to his first letter to the Corinthians, which included some much-needed rebuke, in 2 Cor. 2:4: “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.” Zeal includes the willingness to offend others when necessary for their good, but always “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), just as Paul did here. He wasn’t malicious or self-righteous about confronting them. He was emotional about writing words he knew would grieve them, but he hoped they would see it as the mark of his zealous love.

Zealous love is expressed in both actions and words. Sometimes we need to affirm our love for people, as Paul does in 2 Cor. 11:11: “Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” He is zealous for them to know that He loves them. When we put so much emotional and sacrificial effort into loving people, we want them to feel loved. But so often I avoid emotional statements about how significant a relationship is and how much I love someone because I’m afraid to be vulnerable.
Our actions demonstrate zeal when we sacrifice substantially for others and thus become significant to them. “For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). Zeal means living for the people you love, rather than for yourself. Paul lived for the sake of the churches and lost people. He was zealous to bring more people to worship and thank God for His grace. And it took an offering of his whole being. He was willing to suffer anything for their good; no cost was too high. That’s real zeal.

The all-consuming nature of zeal is described again in 2 Cor. 5:13-15: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” He is overcome by God’s love and consumed by the zeal that results from worship. He gives up control to become a bond-servant, willing to live for others, acting either sane or insane, whatever love requires.

We see again the sacrificial nature of zeal in 2 Cor. 12:15: “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?” Zeal will lead us to a level of sacrifice only limited by what is beneficial for the other person. And this offering of self is joyful, as Paul says he is glad to do it. He’s willing to sacrifice for them even if they resent it. People don’t always understand our zeal for them and may not respond as we hoped, but victory lies not in their reaction, but our active love for them.

Then he gets even more personal in a beautiful, heart-wrenching verse, 2 Cor. 7:3, 4: “I do not speak to condemn you, for I have said before that you are in our hearts to die together and to live together. Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf. I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.” Zeal produces an overwhelming sense of unity, emotional bonding, and spiritual significance. It is the eternal heart-connection of brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s like the parent-child relationship he uses to illustrate his zeal for the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:7, 11). He gains so much joy and comfort and pride from the Corinthians’ victories because he is significant to them, and as a result of his zeal they are learning to be significant to others.

I experienced this idea of someone being in my heart when Jen and Yana left our fellowship and friendships. Zealous love opens the opportunity for profound hurt because once someone is in our hearts to live and die together, an external severing of the bond is so painful. I feel like a part of my heart was ripped out with them leaving, and yet at the same time they are still in my heart. I was significant to them and their leaving doesn’t change that. But we shouldn’t need a tragedy to feel the eternal, intimate bond we have with our friends. There are so many more people who are forever united with me
through the bond of Christian love relationships.

And there is an opportunity for great joy in such friendships. We rejoice when those we are zealous for gain their own zeal and significance, as in 2 Cor. 7:7: “and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.” Such an outcome produces joy upon joy. And as a disciple’s character grows, so does their worship and thus their zeal. 2 Cor. 7:11, 12 says, “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the offender nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God.” Paul’s zeal for the Corinthians led to their repentance and righteous handling of wrong, and this led their hearts to deeper worship of God.

Here is what we all hope for our disciples: 2 Cor. 7:16: “I rejoice that in everything I have confidence in you.” But do we work zealously toward this goal of victorious love output? Can we say, as Paul did in 2 Cor. 11:2, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin”? God is jealous of us because we are rightfully His! He has substantially sacrificed for us; He is unquestionably significant to us. And when we lead someone to worship God, we betroth them to Christ as part of His church. Like parents betrothing their child, we should be jealous and zealous (both from Greek zelo, to burn with passion), to present our spiritual offspring as a pure virgin to Christ.

When we zealously love a disciple or someone else, their welfare becomes more important than ours (Philippians 2:3, 4). “For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete” (2 Cor. 13:9). Zeal takes a high emotional toll on us; it is simultaneously wearying and energizing to love victoriously. We may feel weak as a result of sacrifice or sin, but we still rejoice and worship God, motivated by the spiritual power growing in our disciples. This leads us to pray earnestly that God will mature and “complete” them as a result of their worship.

There are so many more verses about zeal, but one I especially like is 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” The zeal I’ve just described from 2 Corinthians is a goal to strive for as we worship God and let Him transform our hearts. I fall so far short of zealous sacrificial love, and yet by God’s grace I’m still building significance in people’s lives. God is most interested in our heart attitude of zeal for others. Our sin will always get in the way of perfect execution. But this verse is a beautiful and reassuring promise that if we let God grow zealous love in our hearts, He can work around and through our sinful blunders. And that brings us back to one more reason to worship and rejoice in Him.