In praise of zeal and ardor

Photo: Pexels. Photo: Pexels.

As NASA’s Perseverance rover skidded on its heat shield through the final miles of its interplanetary journey, its parachute unfurled and caught on Mars’ sparse atmosphere while an up-facing camera documented the action. NASA broadcast the footage to the world.

Somehow, in a way incomprehensible to me, the parachute’s nylon patchwork encoded a dual message: “Dare mighty things” it read, along with the coordinates for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (where said mighty things might presumably be dared).

I like it. I keep wondering if we need to adopt a motto like that in the church. If not “dare mighty things” exactly, then perhaps we should take to heart Paul’s words to the Romans: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord” (12:11).

Paul calls the church to cultivate a burning-heart, Spirit-filled zeal that serves the Lord. “Zeal” means a fervent longing for God and the things of God. Being “ardent in spirit” means having a fire in our belly for the Lord.

Of Paul’s three commands in 12:11, most of us are on board with “serve the Lord.” Zeal and ardor, though, can make us squirm. Isn’t that snake-handler stuff? And don’t zeal for the Lord and an ardent spirit risk running counter to the humble bearing we so prize?

Yet zeal and ardor are painted all over the early church. Think of Jesus’ words to Peter after the resurrection: “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). He was calling Peter to a superlative love, a passion for Jesus and for his church that would lead Peter to dare mighty things. The humble fisherman would end up in Rome and suffer martyrdom.

Paul too. Elsewhere, he called the Thessalonians to love “more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:10).
In his own life, whatever obstacle Paul faced, he always laid plans to push himself beyond what was comfortable or seemed possible. He told the Romans that after he had visited them, he would set out for Spain, the edge of the known world (Romans 15:28).

If Christian tradition is any guide, this was the case for nearly all of the first disciples. Thomas headed for India. Matthew ended up in Ethiopia. Jude found his way to Armenia. Their encounter with the risen Lord Jesus sparked a fire in their hearts.

One of the great tragedies of the generational decline that so many of our churches have suffered is the way it has crimped our imaginations. We don’t believe our congregations can grow and learn to engage people in our communities who don’t look like us or start from our same value set.

Rather than daring mighty things for Christ, we play it a certain kind of humble:
Whatever will be will be. And our churches languish.

But humility is not opposed to zeal and ardor. Biblical humility is taking the focus off ourselves and placing it on God. In this most basic sense, holy humility and holy ambition spring from the same root: an ardent desire to lift up the name of God. We might even speak of humble ambition.

Humble ambition would mean challenging ourselves for Christ and kingdom. Looking beyond the horizons of what we know. Refusing to sink into the padded cushions of privilege.

And being willing to fail.

Sometimes it’s fear of failure that haunts our choices.

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). The truest failure is not to run the race.

I’m working on a book on the rural church. As I’ve interviewed pastors in thriving congregations across various faith traditions, one commonality I’ve discovered is their willingness to dare something new for Christ. They play pool in the local bar and strike up a conversation with the guys. They move back to their hometown and plant a church. They use their skills to renovate a downtown building as a job-training and community-assistance center.

Recently, several of us in my community had a burden for the junior high set. So we launched a youth group. (Trust me, a junior high youth group involves a bit of daring.)

Big or small, where is Christ calling you to dare going beyond yourself? Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord!

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