There he goes again. I hid my smile as four-year-old Matthew, who had just joined our children’s choir, closed his eyes and, in perfect rhythm to our song, enthusiastically strummed away on his air guitar. He was totally unaware that this might not win the approval of everyone in the church. I assured his embarrassed father that if I ever felt he was “entertaining” the congregation, I would put a stop to it. Right now, I wasn’t about to dampen his zeal to joyfully praise the Lord.
Over the years, people would tell me not to be so ambitious. Don’t take those hard classes. Why work so hard? Don’t push your students to do so much. Take it easy.
I bristle at these unsolicited life suggestions. If it is something I know is good, something I know is helpful, something I know will achieve amazing results, why should I step back? Why should I accept second best from myself, my students, my choir, my family?
What’s wrong with having ambition, that strong desire for achievement? When there is determination and willingness to put in hard work, why should someone else stand in the way of someone’s plans and hopes and dreams?
After all, our God was ambitious. He had an ambitious agenda for everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and He was willing to sacrifice His own Son, our Lord Jesus, to make it happen.
He has ambitious plans for us to “go into all the world” to reach people of all nationalities and cultures (Matthew 28:19).
Our Lord God also wants us to be ambitious in our lives, our work. He doesn’t want us to just sit around and let life happen to us. He has plans for our future, for each one of us (Jeremiah 29:11). And He knows it will take determination and hard work on our part and blessings from Him along the way.
Most of all He wants us to be ambitious to talk about His Son, our Lord Jesus. Like the Apostle Paul we need to be full of ambition to take the gospel message to the far corners of the world. At the same time, we need to heed Paul’s warning to watch out for selfish ambition in ourselves and in others, especially those whose goal is to lead us down the wrong spiritual path (2 Corinthians 12:20; Philippians 1:17).
While ambition is something I admire, passion is something I celebrate. And zeal takes passion to a new level for me. It goes beyond enthusiasm and energy. It’s something we can’t easily fake. It springs from within, coloring everything we do with a fire that can’t be quenched.
Now some people who display their zeal do so with gusto. There is a fervor that erupts, sometimes in indignation, like when the Lord Jesus cleared the temple of the money changers (John 2:13-17). Others have such joy in their zeal that it just flows from them, like that little boy with his air guitar.
Our zeal, however, can be misplaced. The Apostle Paul condemned his own zeal for persecuting the early church (Philippians 3:6). If we aren’t careful, we can fall into those same legalism traps of condemning others. Like Isaiah, we wish the Lord would call down fire on those people (Isaiah 26:11).
Thank goodness the Lord’s zeal, His wisdom and His plan are His own, including the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah: “The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7). His zealous love extends to the whole world so that whoever believes will experience His zeal forever.
Unfortunately, our zeal doesn’t always get results. How many times do we spend time and energy on a project or a program, on leading our company or organization or family in a direction we feel is vital, only to hit a wall? The psalmist certainly understood this when he said, “My zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words” (Psalm 118:139). Elijah, running for his life, escaped to a cave where the Lord found him (1 Kings 19:9-11). He would understand our frustration when we also ask, “Where has my zeal gotten me?”
As leaders we need to be careful with our zeal. Scripture warns about zealous people who want us to think the way they do, taking us in a direction away from our Lord Jesus and His Word (Galatians 4:17-18). I know I have been caught up in someone’s passion and enthusiasm and then later realized I wasn’t thinking clearly or was being used to advance their agenda. We too must guard against pressuring others with our zeal when it only promotes our selfish ambitions.
But there is a zeal we should never abandon. The Apostle Paul urged the Roman church to “never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11). That’s a zeal with focus. It reminds me of a performer or athlete who is “in the zone.” Their concentration allows them to reach the top level, the peak of their capabilities. While this usually relates to mental or physical powers, it can also be applied to our spiritual capability.
The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds me of this spiritual “in the zone.” After their conversation with the risen Lord Jesus and breaking bread with Him, He suddenly vanished. They turned to each other and commented on how their hearts were burning inside of them as they had listened to Him explaining the Scriptures (Luke 24:32). They were so focused that their zeal for understanding the truth took them to a new level of concentration.
I like to think I can have that kind of fire without being overly zealous. Even if I’m not the demonstrative type whose zeal overflows for everyone to see, I can be “in the zone” for my Lord Jesus, striving to never lose my focus on Him. Striving to use that focus on His love to color everything I say and do.
That’s a fire I don’t want to ever go out. That’s a fire I can tend and feed with His Word, with prayer, and by reaching out to others with my Lord Jesus’ love and mercy.