If there is anything about the Reformers and the Puritans that we can all agree on, it is that they possessed a undeniable amount of zeal in their ministry. Their zeal for preaching the gospel, reaching their neighbors, writing, and the like quite literally evokes awe in me.
Here’s some perspective. I recently passed the 1,000-page mark in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Every time I pick the book up, I gawk at the size (I still have a third of the way to go). I’m consulting Calvin’s commentaries sporadically as I study through 1 Corinthians, and I’m floored at the amount of material. I read a story of Calvin recently that he preached two different messages at 9AM and 3PM on Sundays, and preached every single day on alternate weeks. He averaged about 170 sermons per year, and still found a way to minister to his congregants, and write, and eat, and sleep (maybe?).
This isn’t necessarily unique to Calvin, either. This kind of ministry schedule was commonplace for men like Calvin. George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon…these men seemed to work non-stop. There is virtually no modern-day equivalent to this kind of work (save the freak-of-nature Al Mohler of course). Because of this, we tend to make monuments of these men for their zeal. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the labors of the men who carried the torch before us. But I feel if we are not careful, the museum-like curations we tend to create around the work lives of popular theologians and respected pastors will coerce us into thinking our ministry must always be on cruise control at 200mph, and further, to not do so is unsuccessful.
We must know ourselves better. Pad the brakes. Here’s why.
The Puritan work ethic may make for a rousing sermon illustration or an inspiring computer desktop quote, but righteous, good zeal can overstep boundaries and become unchecked, unhealthy, self-glorifying zeal. “Unchecked zeal,” or passion without its proper boundaries and gaurdrails, will give birth to a host of issues that actually make our ministry much tougher than it should be.
First, unchecked zeal can make us forget to rest. It can give us the feeling that rest is not essential, that zeal automatically means pedal-to-the-metal, that anything short of this lifestyle should bring pastoral shame. I hope to free us, particularly pastors in this context, up a bit. We all need rest. Think about it: We spend at least 1/4 of every single day of our lives devoted to recharging, because our body simply cannot handle the absence of rest. And that’s just sleep. Our bodies, when awake, cannot go at 100% for the 16-18 hours we are awake. Even God rested from His work in creation, not because He was exhausted, but to set the precedence for rest from work for us. Eugene Peterson says, “The body needs to rest, the spirit needs replenishment and the soul needs to delight itself in God.” Sometimes our minds and energies can be so set on the task that we forget the Who that we are supposed to be working for. Rest is a critical boundary for ministry zeal.
Second, unchecked zeal can give way to sinful pride. Being “zealous for good works” (Ti. 2:14) can easily can become pride, self-righteousness, and fuel for a desired identity, a “zealous for good self” lifestyle if you will. It can lead us into unhealthy comparison among our peers. It causes us to become more white-knuckled than we ought to be. It can put a strain on those around us and entrusted to us. One of the most arrogant verses in all of Scripture is Matthew 7:22. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'” Not only do we try to earn God’s favor, but unchecked zeal makes us believe we deserve it.
Thirdly, unchecked zeal gets wrapped up in results. It can easily deceive us into believing that our work will automatically produce something. We cannot begin to drift into thinking that ministry output is based off of ministry input. Pastors don’t need to buy the motivational bumper stickers that say “You only get out what you put in.” We all know of times where we’ve spent days upon days pouring into people that never bore fruit, projects that never came to fruition, sermons that didn’t stick with anyone. It’s good to be vigorous, but the notion that vigor will get us what we want is to be deceived.
Wanted, Not Needed
A pastor friend of mine, one of the hardest working pastors I know, came down with flu-like sickness that knocked him out of ministry for a few days. He was so frustrated, beside himself in bed as the world went on. He later told the story of a mentor texting him and checking on him, to which my friend said that he was certainly not okay being cooped up while he’s missing out on so much he could be doing. His mentor told him (my paraphrase), “Isn’t this a wonderful reminder that God doesn’t need you for His work, but that He wants you for His work?”
Here is what I hope to say: Let us so appreciate the tireless effort of Calvin and Spurgeon and the like, for without them, we would be all the poorer. But without Calvin and Spurgeon, God is still powerful enough on His own to bring about His plans, to transform hearts, to reveal the gospel to sinners. He doesn’t need us, and yet, He wants us. This means that while ministry is demanding and causes us to sacrifice our time deeply, we cannot fall into zeal that compares, zeal that strokes egos, zeal that fears shame, zeal that wins favor. Our zeal must be set on a desire to serve the Lord, and a remembrance that while God does not need us, He certainly wants us.
Here’s the truth: John Calvin did sleep, after all. Jonathan Edwards got fired. Charles Spurgeon was forever wounded by the Downgrade. George Whitefield died from an asthma attack. These great men of the faith left wonderful examples, but they were human just like us, facing their own limitations and falling short sometimes. Their workload is certainly impressive, but not more worthy than yours or mine. Their example ought to inspire us to work hard for the Lord, but we have to put up guard rails around our zeal.
Heaven won’t look much different than Matthew 25:14-30. Calvin will have ten talents, I will have the two. Our Master will look upon us with no résumés in hand, no stat sheets poured over. He will simply evaluate us with one question: Did you steward what was entrusted to you? This is the secret to righteous zeal; it is always concerned with simply being faithful.
A great resource on this important topic: Check out my book review of Christopher Ash’s “Zeal Without Burnout”