A number of years ago we camped on a beautiful site in the National Park at Jarvis Bay in New South Wales. Not long before us, several environmental groups had camped there protesting against the way people abuse the environment. After they left, the park rangers, who are usually very environmentally conscious complained that they had to clean up the mess the protesters had left behind them. They had left behind bottles, tins, bags and all kinds of rubbish that was dangerous to the animal life in the area. That’s passion without knowledge; without real understanding. What they did contradicted what they were advocating.
Yet passion or zeal is a God-given emotion. So, at what point does it go wrong? That’s a question I want us to consider.
Passion can lead us astray
A Christian should be the most passionate person in society. When Paul wrote to Titus, he said that
Christ has redeemed us for himself so that we might be eager, or passionate to do what is good. (Tit.2:14).
Passion can be used rightly or wrongly. It can be a sharing of God’s passion, or it can lead us astray.
The Pharisees were passionate for their cause. Jesus said to them,
Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. (Mt. 23:15).
Jesus became very passionate when he saw how the temple courts were desecrated by merchants and money changers, keeping out other nations from being able to worship at the temple. He drove them out with a whip, overturned their tables, and told them to Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! (John 2:16).
What was the difference? On the one hand we see passion that was misguided and destructive. On the other hand we see zeal that was fully justified. Paul’s life before his conversion is a powerful illustration of zeal that was badly misplaced, creating havoc among the early believers.
In Paul’s life
Paul was very conscious of how zeal can go completely wrong when trying to please God. When he looked back on his past, he said that he used to be zealous for God and his Law—as he understood them—but what terrible consequences took place as a result of his zeal. He said, I persecuted the followers of Christ to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison. (Acts 22:3). He did this because in his zeal he led himself to believe that he was pleasing God. After his conversion he admitted that it was in ignorance, but it was a culpable ignorance. We know the expression that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Whether we break the law in ignorance or deliberately, we are still guilty. Whether it was in ignorance or not, Paul was actually working against God, not for him, and that had terrible consequences.
Wrongly directed zeal has been a human problem from the beginning of time. It is particularly heinous when people claim that it is in the name of God.
When King Solomon was compiling the book of Proverbs he recorded one that says,
It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way. (Prov. 19:2).
Zeal, or passion, that is not based on correct understanding, always ‘misses the way’.
In our lives
We can become very passionate about all sorts of things. People become passionate about politics, about environmental issues, about Wall Street, and even about religion, but it is no guarantee that that passion comes from God or is informed by his Word, the Bible.
Following the failure of liberal theology during the 1940s, many church leaders in Europe looked for a way to revive the spirits of Christians whose hopes of a utopian world had been dashed by WW2. The credibility of liberalism had disappeared. People still came to church but the message the churches preached now sounded hollow and empty. Depression or apathy set in. Into this vacuum church leaders imported the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and pastor who died 100 years earlier, and of whom little was originally known. Kierkegaard was frustrated by the formality, the dryness and sterility of Danish society in general, and particularly of the Church in Denmark. He said that the problem with Christianity is not that the Christian lacks knowledge but rather that he lacks passion. Passion was everything. He set about promoting the idea that to be truly ‘alive’, a person had to be passionate about something. His philosophy has influenced not only people in the secular world but also in the life of the Christian church. That’s why we hear so much about the need to be passionate.
The danger of promoting passion without informed content, is obvious. People have been caught up in failed causes; in cults that have led to terrible consequences for them and their families; in fads that are here today and gone tomorrow.
We can be very passionate and miss the way, or be completely off track.
In Israel’s life
It is bad enough when an individual in his or her zeal has ‘missed the way’, as we see in the case of Paul, it is far worse when a whole group of people ‘miss the way’ in a misguided zeal that supposedly seeks to please God. This is what happened to Israel. Paul says,
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Rom. 10:1-3).
When Israel came back from their Exile in Babylon, they asked themselves, ‘Why did we end up being punished by God and sent to live under a nation that is worse than we are?’ It was quite natural for them to ask such a question. Correct diagnosis is always the first step to looking for a cure. Unfortunately, their leaders came to a wrong diagnosis.
Instead of seeing their disobedience to God due to lack of trust in him, they interpreted their disobedience as a failure to keep the law. So they set out to amplify God’s laws by adding their own laws to God’s laws and so to educate the people in God’s ways. Society still thinks that wrong behaviour can always be changed through education. The Jewish leaders said, ‘If you obey God the way we tell you, you will please God’. Paul says, ‘No. You failed to accept what God set before you because you failed to trust him. That was your problem.’
When Paul says, they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, he regarded the lack of understanding as wilful ignorance. It is possible to close our minds quite deliberately to what God has to say to us. When we do, we always substitute it with our own understanding or opinion about what we should do. That means we fail to submit to God. Not to submit to God’s Word is to refuse to submit to God.
The leaders failed to understand that what God expected of them was a relationship of faith and trust in him. Right behaviour follows from a right relationship. Israel ‘missed the way’, despite their zeal, despite their passion, despite their commitment to what they thought was right. Their zeal was not based on an understanding of what God had said, and what he expected of them.
Passion with knowledge
Right understanding in every area of life always begins with God. Let us see what Proverbs says about this.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)
Knowledge of God in the Old Testament was always a relational knowing—not just knowledge about Him.
For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Prov. 2:6).
What is God’s mouth? Surely, it is his Word. God always acts through what he says. David Cook, former principle of the Sydney Missionary and Bible College tells the story of an Italian family that migrated to Australia in the 1950’s. Ross was the 5th child and only son in the family. They were all proud of their son, and Ross was an excellent soccer player. He was actually selected to play with the under 18s soccer squad for Australia. You would think that that would fulfil all the ambitions of an Italian father, that his 17 yr-old son should get into the Australian soccer squad! Ross had packed his kit, and was racing out of the house one morning when his father called out, ‘Rosserio, have you read your Bible today?’ Ross didn’t have time to read his Bible. He was going to train with the soccer squad for all Australia! He said, ‘No.’ His father said, ‘You cut the Bible out of your life and you cut God out of your life.’ Ross couldn’t get those words out of his head. It ruined his soccer career, but it made him a believer.
To believe God is to believe his Word. And that involves coming to understand it correctly. The Bible not only tells us what we should be passionate about, but how that passion should be worked out in our lives.
Getting on track
The only way we can get on track and stay on track is to give the Word of God its rightful place in our lives. We have to believe that we cannot live the Christian life unless we allow God to shape us through his Word. As Ross’ father said, ‘You cut God’s Word out of your life, and you cut God out of your life.’ If we are no longer prepared to listen seriously to what God has to say, our claim to have a relationship with him is meaningless. It’s like a wife saying to her husband, ‘I love you dear, but I don’t have time to listen to you. Or, to say to God, ‘Lord, I love you, but I have too many things to do, to spend time with you.’
If we base our faith on what we hear others say about God and about the Christian life, whether it is from sermons, or small-group discussions, we have a second-hand faith; which in reality, is no faith at all. We believe what others say about God, instead of allowing God to tell us what we need to believe through his Word. A Ukrainian pastor told me that one of his parishioners told him that their family doesn’t need to read the Bible for themselves because they get all the information they need from Sunday sermons!
This is how we distinguish between people for whom Christianity is merely a religion, and not a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
But the Word of God is not something we can learn to understand simply academically. Let me explain what I mean.
As we grow through childhood and teenage years, we go through various experiences in life. They are important to us, but as we get older we face new experiences. Whether we grow in maturity as a result of these experiences or not, depends on us. That is true irrespective of our age. We can get older but not necessarily reach maturity appropriate to our age. We can get older and still act like a rebellious teenager.
We need to grow up!
Peter told the believers to whom he was writing, Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Pet. 3:18). The remedy for not slipping backwards, is to grow onwards and upwards into Christ who is our Head. We are to grow in grace, of which Christ is the author; and in the knowledge, of which Christ is the object.
When we come to the reading and study of the Word of God we bring our level of maturity to that study. If we have been growing in maturity as people, we will want to know how to apply Scripture to our stage of life. We will want to discover more and more how Scripture provides us with all that is necessary for us as Christians. Peter says,
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3).
At each stage of life we need to come to God’s Word with a more mature approach. It’s not that we understand things differently—if the foundations were laid correctly—rather, more deeply, more maturely. A less mature person might say, ‘I’ll accept what suits me, what makes me feel good, but skip what I don’t like.’ But a more mature Christian can never do that. We need to learn from the hard sayings and the corrections. We need to dig deeper when it comes to passages that are difficult to understand.
Had the study of the Bible been a purely academic exercise, a bright teenager could have mastered it. But it is not an academic exercise for any of us. It is a spiritual exercise, a relational exercise in which we continue to discover more and more about the lordship of Christ in our lives, and how we are to live under that lordship. It is an exercise in which our view of life changes more and more to how God wants us to understand life. This growth should never stop while we are in these earthly bodies. That should motivate us in what we do, and how we do it. That should be our passion in life.
Let me illustrate this process graphically. Life is like standing in a darkened room with the blind pulled down. As we begin to read the Bible, God pulls up the blind a little and we see things in the room we didn’t see before. As we grow in our relationship with the Lord, and long to know him better through his Word, he pulls the blind up a bit more. The more we go through various experiences in life and continue to show a hunger to know him better and to do his will, the more he pulls up that blind with more and more light shining into our room so that we see things more and more clearly. God only does that when he sees a genuine desire to know him better, to love him more, and a willingness to obey him more and more. This experience doesn’t come to ‘window shoppers’ of God’s Word; people who simply want to know more about the Bible in order to show off their knowledge of it.
In our daily lives we are constantly confronted with ideas of right and wrong, of truth and opinion, of what is real and what is people’s imaginations, and we have to develop discernment. How do we? Through the Word of God.
The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way:
Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:13-14).
What was good enough for us when we were a little child is not good enough for us when we get older. Our spiritual diet needs to change if we are to continue to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord. Our relationship with him should become firmer, more trusting, more intimate, more exciting, more passionate. Passion should not be the monopoly of young people. As we get older we need to be clearer about what is right and wrong in life, what is pleasing to God and what is not. Adam and Eve lost this understanding when they chose knowledge that was independent of God. As believers we are now offered a way of recovering that understanding, and it comes to us through God’s Word. His Word gives us the filter through which we distinguish between what is pleasing to God and what is not; what is true and what is false. These things should become clearer to us as we grow older and more mature in our relationship with the Lord. Satan is constantly sewing deceit both in society and in the Christian Church today. What is false can sometimes come in very attractive clothes. It can be very persuasive and it can catch us when we are least on our guard.
I remember a theatre sister in our congregation years ago saying that when the medical staff in the operating theatre was flat out, having to handle case after case, there was less likelihood of them making a mistake because they were very focused on their tasks. The mistakes sometimes came when the pressure was off, and the staff felt more relaxed.
We need to be constantly on our guard, especially in the life of the Christian Church, against Satan’s deceitful ways. We are more likely to be caught out when everything seems to be going well. Someone might say, “But we can’t live on edge all the time. No-one can.” That’s when we need to remember that well-known advice one of our politicians gave us, ‘we need to be alert, not alarmed.’
To be able to distinguish between what comes from God and what does not, even if it comes under a very attractive Christian umbrella, requires us to be alert. We need to train ourselves to distinguish between what is genuine and what is counterfeit. That kind of discernment does not come automatically, as Hebrews 5 points out. Training involves constant application of God’s Word to all of life, and at various stages of life. A bank teller is trained to identify a counterfeit bill. But, even after being trained he or she has to be alert to the possibility of handling such a bill when least expecting it. We need to be passionate about God’s Word, not just with lip-service, but in fact. That involves studying the Bible in a consistent and informed way, not because we are forced to do it, but because we genuinely want to. And then applying its truths to all of life.
When we become passionate about studying God’s Word, we will soon discover what God is most passionate about.
Living God’s passion
When I was a teenager I was only concerned with my own little world. I was busy studying, I was involved in Christian ministry, I was busy, busy, busy… Sure, I made my bed, and kept my clothes reasonably tidy, but that’s about all. I didn’t give a thought to helping around the house, or the kitchen, or the laundry. When I got married, the responsibilities ‘out there’ became real.
Spiritual maturity comes when we cease living just for ourselves and embrace God’s concerns and passion. And what is that? We see it in the cross of his Son Jesus Christ.
Many of us went to see the film, “The Passion of Christ”. It was difficult for some of us to watch the physical sufferings we saw on the screen. But the screen could never communicate to us the spiritual sufferings Jesus went through on that cross. We can never begin to understand what it meant for Jesus, the utterly sinless Son of God to take all the wickedness and evil of humanity upon himself, and face the judgement of God upon that sin, on our behalf.
Christ’s physical and spiritual sufferings were bad enough, but to have to face all the malice of Satan and the forces of darkness as they vented their hatred against God’s own Son on that cross, is beyond our imagination. That was the price that was paid to bring you and me into a right relationship with God. Nothing less could have achieved it. Can any one of us move from that scene untouched? We live in an age where we see human sufferings on the TV screen quite frequently. We might even be moved for a little while, but we have learned to get over that emotional roller-coaster pretty quickly. But, can we move away from the cross and forget about it as quickly? Is it possible for us to remain unaffected in the way we live, … or, the plans and priorities we set for ourselves?
What was at the heart of God’s passion? Was it not to see lost sinners come to a new relationship with him, and be part of that worshipping community that at the end of time will circle his throne in heaven and sing with every tribe and nation,
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise! (Rev. 5:12).
How related is our passion to God’s passion? Surely, it is to see people reconciled with God through Jesus Christ, and to experience freedom from the bondage of sin! This should be the controlling passion of every believer. But it must begin with knowing God; not just about him; knowing him personally, intimately, through Jesus Christ. Only when we come to know him well, will we understand what is closest to his heart. It is a lost world for which he has made every provision that people might be saved. What he has made possible, we are to make available, by sharing his passion.