Using your zeal wisely

First published Nov 2012 in the Minnesota Christian Examiner.

The months preceding an election can be revealing in unintentional ways. Candidates, parties, and PACs fill the airwaves and our mailboxes with ideas and arguments, hoping to win our votes. This presents special challenges for the American Christian; challenges that, when understood, can have a significant effect on our daily lives.

As elections come into view, they bring with them the topics of the day. Sometimes these topics are transient and will scarcely be remembered 20 years later. Oftentimes the crucial themes of human existence will have reemerged. And we have, with our vote, the opportunity to affect our world.

So how have you moved through these months? Has there been a passion to support something? To change something? Lawn signs? Bumper stickers? Facebook posts hoping to inform or convince your friends?

Or perhaps it hopelessness: What can one vote change anyway? Or perhaps fear? Or disdain? Or grief?

I don’t trivialize or judge any of these responses. I understand them. I’ve felt all of them. But it may be profitable to see that these feelings can provide clues concerning where we stand with our Lord.

Why are we passionate? Is it zeal to do good? May it be so. But zeal can hide things. It can hide self-righteousness. It can hide fear. Well-founded zeal is good and important, but it’s worth examining what underlies it. Paul was zealous, but he eventually counted it as loss and rubbish. It is at least possible that our zeal may need to be refocused, as Paul’s was.

Why are we hopeless or fearful? Perhaps we fear a cultural slide, or maybe we see weakness or corruption. Perhaps we weary of war, or ache that the needy still need. Be comforted, because we are told ”do not fear or be dismayed.” But also be cautious that this isn’t an expression of faithlessness.

But I started by saying that we are presented with a special challenge: what is that? The challenge is that we are called to bring our faith to bear on our lives and decisions. In doing this, we each uniquely draw upon our faith, experience, knowledge, and skills. Bringing these to bear upon our political expression is complicated because usually the issues don’t really lend themselves to a simple vote.

I think zeal, fear, and challenge all come into view when Peter writes “and who will harm you if you are deeply committed to what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts.” Here zeal is commended and doubt is given voice, and Peter says you are blessed, don’t be afraid, but honor.

It seems strange that there is a sense of both safety (who will harm you?) and risk (even if you should suffer) in the pursuit of the good. But this should ring true for us. The servant is not greater than his master, and this is exactly how we saw Jesus operate. He only did good, and sometimes the results would seem wildly successful, and sometimes they seemed less so. But really he was always and perfectly successful. Though he suffered, unjustly, deeper good was pursued and obtained.

Some want to portray Christ as a political figure, and others as politically indifferent. I don’t find either of these compelling. He teaches us that it is the mere coin that bears the image of Caesar; man bears the image of God. The primary lesson here is not about our relationship to government, but our relationship to God.

Our passion, zeal, hopelessness, and fear all need to be considered. Are they expressions of the political moment? Or of a heart at rest in the love and provision of a God so at peace in His victory that his son could stand “judged” before Caesar? Here was passion. Here was fearlessness.

If we tend towards zeal, it might be that we should temper that with humility, because Christ was humble. If we tend towards hopelessness or fear, it might be that we need to be renew our trust in God, because Christ, seeing the true gravity of our situation far better than we ever have, had faith in that which His Father called Him to do.

Let us understand ourselves – our strengths and our weaknesses – by observing ourselves in the light of our circumstances, Scripture, and relationship to the one we call Lord. Because whatever our responses have been during this election season, this is merely one election. In the end, merely the exercise of a particular responsibility on a particular day.

But daily we have before us transient matters that won’t be remembered 20 days from now. And frequently the crucial themes of human existence – love, life, mercy, justice, suffering, death – demand our attention. We are called to bring Christ to bear on all these circumstances. We are the coin of the realm. Let us be spent well.

Ken Martin is a freelance writer, programmer, manager, father and husband … in reverse order. He loves reading, learning, thinking and teaching about the richness of the Christian life and what it means for the world.

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