There are few topics that were closer to the heart of St. Theophan the Recluse than that of zeal, both in its divine manner and in its ungodly forms.
He sometimes characterized Christians in one of three categories:
1. Those who are cold
2. Those who are neither hot nor cold
3. Those who are zealous
Little needs to be said regarding Christians who are cold. These would probably be those people who come to church only on Pascha and Nativity and see little practical use for God or religion in their daily lives.
NEITHER HOT NOR COLD
Those in the second category I would call the “nice guy” Christians. On the exterior, they’re nice folks who are easy to get along with. They show up at church regularly, they have an icon corner in their home, they know many of the exterior forms of worship, but their hearts are not zealous for God. Therefore, they tend to mix a great amount of worldliness into their lives. They will readily take their cues and beliefs from culture as from the fathers of the church.
All of us quite easily drift into being neither hot nor cold. It is a dangerous place to be, as the Lord Himself said in Revelations that He will spew such Christians out, which is a frightening image and should be remembered by us frequently. I think the parable of the ten virgins could also apply in this circumstance:
In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of ten virgins, five of whom are foolish and five are wise. The wise ones had oil for their lamps while the foolish ones did not. The oil speaks of ascetical labors and works, following the commandments of God, and mercy (generosity toward the poor, etc). The flame itself is provided by God: it is divine grace that kindles zeal within us. St. Seraphim of Sarov called this divine flame the acquiring of the Holy Spirit. Five virgins worked to please God and acquired divine grace and the Holy Spirit within them.
The five foolish virgins, on the other hand, had some good works. They are called “virgins,” which means to some degree they displayed a Christian life. They followed a couple commands of the Lord, but there was no divine zeal or grace kindled in their hearts. Therefore in the end, they heard the most dreadful words a human could ever hear from the Bridegroom, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
For those of us who fall into this fearful second category, what are we to do? We follow the teachings of the church, that is the commandments of our Lord, and then we ask for the fire of divine grace, the Holy Spirit, to enter into our lives and kindle the flame. When we are first brought into the church, some amount of “oil” is given to us, just as those in the parable of the talents were given an initial deposit by the king. So too, the foolish virgins were given a deposit of oil.
However, if this flame is not cultivated by a zealous life then we quickly burn through the oil initially given and nothing comes of it. We are merely Christians going through the motions of Christianity.
As long as we are still alive, there is always hope though. The divine flame comes from God Himself. We must ask God to kindle within us this divine spark. We then position ourselves into a posture of receiving grace. That posture is a life of prayer, repentance, and the fulfilling of the commandments. Every time we pray, “Lord have mercy on me,” with sincerity, we are asking for this divine spark.
God naturally endowed us with the ability to present Him with oil; He Himself will provide the flame.
GODLY AND UNGODLY ZEAL
In every path of God, there is an opposite imbalance that attempts to present itself as godliness. Zeal is no exception. There are those who are “zealous not according to knowledge,” and then there are those who display a true godly zeal.
A Christian who is caught up in ungodly zeal will often times feel as though they are aflame with the divine. I would venture to guess that most schisms in the history of the church, and especially today, occur due to this ungodly zeal. Like godly zeal, it is a fire, but it is one that destroys rather than purifies or illumines. It is a fire lit by hell itself, and it creates hell everywhere it touches.
So, how can a Christian discern what type of zeal he has? St. Theophan does an excellent job of painting a picture of both types.
Speaking of how we who live in the world must go about our business and partake in cultural norms and customs, St. Theophan writes that he who has godly zeal, is not alienated by others, though he does not act like them because he always acts in the spirit of love and compassion toward the infirmities of his brothers. Only a spirit of zeal beyond measure rubs people the wrong way and produces disharmony and division. Such a spirit cannot refrain from teaching and criticizing.
But the one [with the spirit of Christ] is only concerned with ordering his and his family’s life in a Christian way. He does not permit himself to interfere in the affairs of others, saying to himself, “Who set me as a judge?” He quietly makes everyone well-disposed to himself, and inspires respect for those customs to which he holds.
He who gives orders to everyone makes himself unloved, and evokes disapproval for the good customs to which he holds. Humility is needed in such cases…it is the source of Christian good sense, which knows how to act well in given situations.
In summary, all of us are given a measure of divine grace when we enter into the church. But this grace, this flame, must be maintained through a life of godliness and the continual reception of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
One who has godly zeal will be zealous for his own repentance. He will be aware of his own shortcoming and will therefore not make attempts to correct those outside his family. Even within his own family he will be kind and gentle, but with himself, he will be strict.
One filled with ungodly zeal will find the interior work of the heart difficult because he is always noticing faults in others. He is hard on his family, he is critical of those in his church, and he oftentimes despises his worldly friends. Such a Christian is in need of humility, which will only be granted by keeping his critical eyes to himself.
As St. Paisios would say, be a honeybee, not a fly.
For further reading, I recommend the teaching from St. Paisios linked above as well as these three books by St. Theophan the Recluse: The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, Kindling the Divine Spark, and Thoughts for Each Day of the Year. The first and third books are the ones from which I pulled the material for this blog.