Finding the Balance Between Zeal & Empathy

By Thailer

My devotional thought for today comes from a series of quotes from C.S. Lewis in his book Reflections on the Psalms that I believe accords with a principle found in many passages of Scripture. The principle has to do with that of balance. In many Scriptures, we can see that our God expects a restless and fervent spirit about us which is always better than the dangerous apathetic and mellow spirit we’re all prone to from time to time. However, if you’re like me, zeal can get you into trouble if it’s not balanced.

“It seems that there is  a general rule in the moral universe which may be formulated ‘The higher, the more in danger’. The ‘average sensual man’ who is sometimes unfaithful to his wife, sometimes tipsy, always a little selfish, now and then (within the law) a trifle sharp in his deals, is certainly, by ordinary standards, a ‘lower’ type than the man whose soul is filled with some great Cause, to which he will subordinate his appetites, his fortune, and even his safety. But it is out of the second man that something really fiendish can be made….It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become merciless fanatics. Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it….The higher the stakes, the greater the temptation to lose your temper over the game.” (p.28)

As you can clearly see from the quote above, there is a lot of truth in the assertion that zeal can overflow in a dangerous direction. However, apathy is no better as in the following quote.

“If I am never tempted, and cannot even imagine myself being tempted, to gamble, this does not mean that I am better than those who are. The timidity  and pessimism which exempt me from that temptation themselves tempt me to draw back from those risks and adventures which every man ought to take.” (p.29)

I think Lewis’ point is pretty clear: one that has no zeal is in a dangerous way spiritually because he will not be driven to take some risks that Jesus, in all honesty, asks us to take. And one that possesses zeal must also possess the kind of self-control necessary to bridle it from leading us to sin.

Zeal is good and even necessary in the life of a Christian if we’re to bring any honor to God’s table. The apostle Paul says, “Do not be slothful (or lazy) in zeal, be fervent (or boiling over) in spirit, serve the Lord,” (Romans 12:11). The zealous spirit that God can give us will cause us to do amazingly glorious things for His name that we, otherwise, would not have done. We will go places we never would have gone, done things we never would have done, said things we never would have said. However, there is an aspect of zeal, like a flame, that can consume a person. The psalmist says, “My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words” (Psalm 119:139).

I, personally, have been on the apathetic end that has caused me to seek and love isolation. The problem with this is that apathy controlled me versus my Lord who said, “Go, make disciples” and thus I’ve been content with the privacy of the corner of my home while souls perish without the light of Christ and no one to tell them about it. But I’ve also let zeal push me into the judgment seat, in which I chastised anyone who was not doing as much as I for the kingdom of Christ (sadly, even my closest friends). With this principle, Lewis agrees.

“For the Supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities both of good and evil. From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility, the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal….Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.” (p.32)

So – what’s the answer then? Balance. I’m amazed at how often the Scriptures relate the principle of balance. The wisdom writer once said, “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them” (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18).

There is a balance we must find. Don’t mellow out like so many others. Find your zeal, seek it, pray that God would provide you with a fervent spirit. But control it, don’t let it control you and lead you to go much further than God intends and push those you love away.



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