Religious Zeal—Helpful or Harmful?
NOT long ago, two “very, very religious” women in the United States prayed and fasted for their relatives. They kept it up until they starved to death. In front of a crowd of onlookers, a widow in India burned herself to death on her dead husband’s funeral pyre, following the banned Hindu custom of suttee. In the same land, men pierce themselves with hooks and walk on fire or razor blades in religious rituals.
In Canada five devout women attempted to set fire to a religious leader’s home and several other buildings because of a religious curse. In the jungles of Guyana, 900 followers of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide at his command.
In countries like Ireland and Lebanon, strong religious feelings are a root cause of bloodshed and civil strife. Hence, in the ears of many, the words “religious zeal” doubtless have an ominous ring. Do we need such zeal today? Would it not be better if people were less intense about religion?
Jesus was zealous. The intensity of his zeal was seen in many ways. After his baptism he devoted all his energies to spreading the good news of God’s Kingdom. Jesus gave of himself, never refusing to help those who approached him. He sacrificed material comforts, rejecting offers of worldly glory, and, ultimately, submitted to an agonizing and humiliating death, giving “his soul a ransom in exchange for many.”—Matthew 20:28.
Jesus’ zeal also embraced a ‘hatred of lawlessness.’ (Hebrews 1:9) Thus he boldly exposed the Jewish religious leaders, branding them as “blind guides,” and “hypocrites.” (Matthew 23:15, 16) Also, on two occasions, he drove out of the temple area profiteering merchants who were enriching themselves at the expense of faithful Jewish worshipers. This action reminded his followers of the prophecy: “The zeal for your house will eat me up.”—John 2:13-17; Matthew 21:12.
Jesus’ zeal was in connection with the doing of his Father’s will, which today is revealed to us in the Bible. If you read that book carefully, you will see that God has never required Christians to be fanatical, to commit suicide or to inflict needless suffering on themselves or others. It never took on a “self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body.”—Colossians 2:23.
Jesus’ ‘hatred of lawlessness’ did not lead him to advocate revolution or bloodshed. In fact, while frankly exposing the sins of the Jewish leaders, he recognized their position in the Jewish nation and gave his followers well-balanced counsel: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but do not perform.”—Matthew 23:2, 3, 13-36.
Neither did Jesus enter into a blood-feud with this group, although he became aware that some of them were seeking to kill him. When individual Pharisees approached Jesus, he showed kindness to them if their motives were good. It was during a discussion with a Pharisee, Nicodemus, that Jesus uttered what are among his best-remembered words: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”—John 3:16.
Jesus was always ready to help people. However, he hated wrong practices, such as profiteering, greed, oppression of the poor, immorality, theft and murder. Jesus, though zealous, did not lose sight of human kindness. On one occasion, a crowd had been following Jesus for some days. His practical concern for them was shown when, out of “pity for the crowd,” he miraculously provided food.—Matthew 15:32-38.
Hence, Jesus was zealous for beneficial things. He stressed respect for parents, forgiveness and love. In his Sermon on the Mount, he set a startlingly high standard when he said: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.”—Matthew 5:43, 44.
In today’s world, riddled as it is with tensions and hatreds, strong religious feelings that encourage strife, revolution and enmity are certainly harmful. However, a balanced but intense zeal—such as Jesus had—for doing God’s will, cultivating godly qualities and serving our neighbors is surely helpful.
Does such zeal exist today? Well, there are people who try to imitate Jesus’ zeal. They work with the help of God’s spirit at being “zealous for what is good.”—1 Peter 3:13.
A comment in the London, England, Daily Telegraph showed how this has affected them in one part of the world. It said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses have shown themselves, through Africa, to be decent, orderly citizens living up to a high moral code. . . . The sect inculcates habits of thrift, punctuality, honesty and obedience.”
A chief aspect of the Witnesses’ religious zeal prompted this comment: “Jehovah’s Witnesses have literally covered the earth with their witnessing. . . . It may be truly said that no single religious group in the world displayed more zeal and persistence in the attempt to spread the good news of the Kingdom than the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”—These Also Believe, by C. S. Braden.
Without doubt, Christian zeal is helpful in many ways. Such zeal can help an individual to maintain high standards. It can give him a hopeful outlook that few today possess. Such religious zeal is not merely helpful; for a sincere individual, it is the best way of life.
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God has never required Christians to inflict suffering on themselves
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Christian zeal should never advocate revolution or bloodshed
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Christians should be “zealous for what is good”