Passion, like many important words, has been overused, and therefore, devalued. It’s a victim of that inescapable English idiosyncrasy — the inclination to use one word for too many things.
Zeal is the word in our English Bibles that perhaps gets closest to what we typically mean when we talk about “passion.” Well-known examples include
- [Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:14)
- [Jesus’s] disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17)
- [Let] the one who leads, [do so] with zeal.” (Romans 12:8)
- Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Romans 12:11)
At this time of year, this is the kind of zeal Christians hear most about:
To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6–7)
“Passion and zeal are gauges that display what our heart treasures, and therefore what fuels our lives.”
In modern English, we’d say the consuming passion of the Lord of hosts is to redeem lost sinners through the Messiah’s sacrifice (Isaiah 53), and to establish and uphold the Messiah’s eternal kingdom. This is God’s main thing, his primary focus for mankind.
If we share God’s passion in this sense, it is a very good thing. It is a godly thing.
Passion from the Heart
In fact, it is such a good thing that the Bible commands it. Did you notice the command in Paul’s statement, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11)? This means being passionate is not an option for the Christian.
Here is where we must let the Bible, rather than our society, define our terms, set our standards, and develop our expectations. The Bible doesn’t see what we call passion as something rooted in our temperaments. Laid-back personalities are called to lives of fervent, dedicated focus every bit as much as intense, driven personalities. Neither does it see passion as something rooted in our ethnic background. Those of Scandinavian heritage (like me), who might tend toward being emotionally reserved, are called to feel deeply and strive intensely every bit as much as those whose ancestors were “passionate Latins.”
No, the Bible sees zeal as a heart issue. When Paul says, “Do not be slothful in zeal,” we need to remember that Jesus called the slothful servant in his parable “wicked” (Matthew 25:26). Slothfulness is not a personality quirk; it’s a sin. It’s a sin because to not “be fervent in spirit” as we serve the Lord is to be at some level indifferent to what he cares most deeply about. Such indifference is evil.
“Few things expose us more than comparing what God is passionate about with what we are passionate about.”
In God’s mind, fervency, zeal, or passion aren’t descriptions of how emotive we are. They’re gauges that display what our heart treasures, and therefore what fuels our lives. Just like God is far more impressed by sincere prayers in secret than longwinded public prayers (Matthew 6:5–6), he is far more impressed (or not) by what truly enthralls us than by any outward emotional exhibition. For what enthralls us determines how we prioritize our lives.
No matter how genetics and environment have influenced our emotive natures, few things expose our true selves more than comparing what God is passionate about with what we are passionate about. Frequently the zeal we need most is the zeal to repent (Revelation 3:19).
Whatever It Takes
We are emotionally and affectionally disordered by our indwelling sin. We find God’s command for us to passionately serve him impossible to obey in our own strength. Of course we do, just like many, many other impossible commands, such as “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “do not fear those who kill the body” (Matthew 10:28).
But God’s impossible commands are actually mercies to us. They humble us in ways we desperately need (1 Peter 5:6) and push us to rest more and more in the finished work of Christ for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). They call us to deeper levels of prayerful dependence and drive us to ask God for our every need (Luke 11:9) and to live on every word from his mouth (Matthew 4:4). In other words, they work to teach us to follow Jesus in living the way humans were always meant to live: by faith (Hebrews 12:2; 2 Corinthians 5:7).
“Whatever it takes, Lord, increase my zeal to do your will.”
No, we are not as passionate as we should be about the things we should be. But that sin is covered (1 John 1:9), and God will complete his good work in us so that someday we’ll perfectly share his passions (Philippians 1:6). Today, he wants us to ask him for the zeal we are meant to have. And he wants us to ask him boldly (Hebrews 4:16), and with faith (James 1:6). Therefore,
Whatever it takes, Lord, increase my zeal to do your will and my urgency to make the best use of my time during these evil days. In Jesus’s name, Amen.