Archived Sections, Commentary

Too Zealous for God?

Our responsibility is to show love to others — even our enemies.

The evening news reports a murder. It happens so often it is no longer news. But this one is different. The assailant insists that God wanted it done. Mentally unbalanced, we conclude.
But it is not only mentally unbalanced people who have committed crimes in the name of their religion. Religious zealots, including Christians, have fought wars and tortured and killed people thinking they were doing God’s will — for example, in the Inquisition of the Middle Ages or the Crusades.
Paul speaks of people who have a zeal for God that is not enlightened (Romans 10:2). This zeal often leads them to use force — physical, political, social — against someone they believe is going against God’s will.
They think they must punish someone on behalf of God!
Something like that was happening in the church in Ephesus, as indicated in the letter to that congregation recorded in the Book of Revelation. The congregation is praised because it is zealous for truth and ferrets out false teachers. But in the process of upholding what they regard as truth, they have failed to show love to others. “I have this against you,” the Spirit says: “You have abandoned the love you had at first.”
It happens so easily. I find that the more certain I am that I have the right understanding of some truth or principle, the less tolerant, not to say less loving, I am toward those who differ.
Paul points out how important this is in the “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13): If we have all faith and knowledge but have not love, it is of no value. If we have love we will not insist that our way is the only way and condemn those who don’t measure up to our standard (that’s God’s prerogative). In fact, he says, we may have all faith and all knowledge and understanding, but without love we have nothing. Love, more than knowledge or strong faith, is the mark of a Christian.
God does not need our defense. God will take care of the opposition. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” Our responsibility is to show love to others — even enemies.
Truth is important. But perfect truth is found only in Christ, not in human attempts to define it. It becomes ours through our relationship with Christ, which also governs our relationship with others. If that relationship is not one of love, our zeal can become a hindrance and a sin.
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Aaseng is an occasional contributor to this page. A former Metro Lutheran Gold Pen winner, he lives in Northfield, Minnesota.