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Monday, February 15, 2010

Dealing with Misguided Zeal

(Note: This is another oldie but goodie that I originally put together back in 2003. It was during a time that I was experiencing this first-hand with an overzealous but misguided co-worker who, although professing Christianity, was in reality attracted to some garbage that began to circulate in the Christian realm at that time like a bad infection, and it later ensnared a lot of people with its deception. It is a message that tells us that we need more discernment in this day and age, as there are tares in the wheatfield. Therefore, hopefully the following teaching will be a blessing to you as you read it.)


The Christian life is a very exciting one for those who live it, but it does tend to present its challenges. Enthusiasm and excitement are good, and it is vital to maintain a healthy enthusiasm - I wanted to say that right up front before getting into the teaching, because it is an important point to remember. Psalm 43:4, which is my favorite verse of Scripture, says in that regard that "I come to the altar of the Lord, to the Lord who rejoices my youth" (quoted from the Douay-Rheims translation). In the Syriac-Maronite tradition that I was chrismated into, this verse is sung as part of a hymn called the Wenobsugo, and it serves as the opening to the Divine Liturgy on Sundays of the Church year in the Maronite tradition (it is also used in the Tridentine Latin Mass as well, if I understand correctly). Indeed, the Lord does delight in the youthfulness of His faithful, and it helps to visit those landmarks in our pilgrimage in order to remind us of God's hand in our lives, especially when discouragement in regard to our faith begins to creep in. It is this that makes our faith a living faith, and a living fiath in turn is a faith that communicates to others the love of Christ that should abide in us. We are, in Eastern Christian terms, to be "living icons" of Christ to the world around us. And, only by a renewed faith in Christ - renewed as often as possible, I must add! - can we do this. It is a building-block of the testimony we have been given as God is faithful to us in so many ways.

On occasion, we run into others who profess Christ yet take that enthusiasm to extremes - in fact, I would argue that a lot of that enthusiasm is of the flesh, and not truly zeal for the things of God, but we will get into that later. This I have observed is particularly true in Pentecostal/charismatic circles, where emotionally-charged worship gives faith a new dimension more prominently than it does in other Christian traditions. This in itself is not necessarily a negative, because if it is genuine, the joy of the Lord can be contagious. However, the problem lies in recent years where some well-known religious writers have mass-marketed an entertainment-driven "worship" philosophy that more or less communicates that somehow we as modern Christians have miraculously come to know more than Jesus Himself does about "doing church," to use a term of these people. The "experience," then, becomes central, and in that environment the emphasis seems on being making the church look more like the world due to the fact it might reach more people. Unfortunately it does, but not for Jesus; instead, it reaches them for "christian rock" music, "seeker-friendly" shopping-mall churches (some of them even with their own Starbuck's franchise!) , and other such things. And, to assure that people come in and park their butts on the pews, such church leaders have more or less become ashamed of what the Gospel says, so they have re-invented it. This "re-invented gospel" talks a lot about people's feelings, it talks a lot about people being entertained by the guitar-slinging rebel "Jesus" who comes to kick butt and take names, but "loving" enough to "party down" at "Christian clubs" while knocking back a few "baptized Buds with suds" (all in Jesus' name of course!) while the yuppie 30-somethings attend a weeklong "business ethics" seminar with their pastor (this is what has replaced revivals nowadays, for those not up to speed with what is going on). And, unfortunately, these "radically sold-out" people end up in a rut of over-zealous religiosity that has little to do with the joy of the Spirit, and more to do with their fleshly lust of "rockin' on for JAYYYYYZZZZUUUZZZ!" as they would say. The end result of this is that the building-block that was supposed to be the word of their testimony becomes a stumbling-block of religious pride, and what happens is that more spiritually-sensitive people who are trying to get closer to the Lord are driven away. These people have gotten so tied up in this garbage that they often become obnoxious, rude, rebellious, and disrespectful of others who may wish to follow a more traditional Christian expression. This attitude, now codified by the likes of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and others in their books which sell millions but transform few lives because their content it so weak, has split churches, and often the very people who truly follow God are often the victims of these "new gospel" fanatics, who soon corrupt the sanctuary of God's house so bad that it is barely recognizeable as a church anymore. This is all too rampant today in many circles, but even in the best of intentions some of us may have been guilty of that to a degree as well as we experienced the growing pains of our Christian walk. The difference is, many of us who were older had strong teachers, anointed of the Spirit and grounded in God's Word, who discipled us better. Many of this generation lack discipleship, because entertaining themselves and having fun - again, all in the name of Jesus of course! - is all that matters to them, and they have not been taught the full Gospel as they should have been. Many years back, when I worked in the Tampa office of a large corporation, I encountered a temp worker who had this very mentality. He is actually one of the reasons for this teaching, because he is not a root, but a fruit that grows like a malignant tumor off a nastier root. The insight from this experience I want to share with those of you who, at one point or another, may have been cowed or bullied by a carnal professing Christian such as this when you began to be troubled in your spirit about something they were saying or doing. I am sure that at one point or another some of you may have encountered the classic stereotypical "Pentecostal nut" also, and although those are a problem too, personally I would rather deal with a "Pentecostal nut" than with the type of person I am about to deal with in this teaching. So, please feel free to use what I share, and be encouraged by it, because the fact of the matter is this is a growing problem, and I see in it a sign of the future if true revival does not clean house in the churches today.

Steve (I have changed his name for identity protection) was a member of a local non-denominational charismatic church somewhere here in the Tampa Bay area, and in mid-2003 he was contracted by our office as a temporary employee for our department. He had recently been involved with the so-called "Brownsville Revival" that started in an Assembly of God church up around Pensacola somewhere sometime in the mid-1990's. I won't get into a lot with the Brownsville movement, but this fellow was actively and zealously promoting the brand of Christianity it espoused in the workplace. As a result, many of his co-workers began to feel pestered and intimidated by him, and being some of these people were not exactly Christians (about 3 of them were active homosexuals, and another one was involved in occultism, among other things), they quickly tired of his constant sermonizing them and became quite aggravated with the guy. As he became more obnoxious with his attitude and the manner in which he came across to people, he soon risked a near physical confrontation from a couple of his co-workers he was "evangelizing," and not long after he lost his job over that when the manager of our department got word of what he was doing. Despite the fact this young man (he was only in his very early 20's at the time) had a new wife and a baby to support (tragically, he is now divorced from her, upon last contact with him) he nonetheless clung stubbornly to these misguided beliefs and although it's now been 7 years since I last saw him I sincerely doubt he's reformed much either. My personal interaction with Steve was also not pleasant; at the time, the company I worked for had very few Christians working in it, and I was actually longing for some good Christian fellowship with a fellow believer in the workplace, because I wanted to eventually start a small prayer group for Christian employees. However, with Steve, what should have been Christian fellowship soon rapidly deteriorated into theological wars in which he felt he was right and every other "traditional Christian" was wrong. His argumentative and disagreeable attitude proved to be draining and a challenge for me, especially since I was older and a little more mature in the faith than he was. He also displayed a disturbing anti-Catholic sentiment, largely based on the usual fiction and mythology that seems to propagate among the less-informed in some circles, and being an Eastern-Rite Catholic myself, I found that personally to be offensive. The question arises here concerning what should be done with someone professing to be Christian who behaves in this manner, and as an older brother or sister in the faith, how do you help someone like this? After some prayer and soul-searching of my own, I realized that in order to fix a problem, one has to identify it and dissect its fundamental components to understand it better and deal with it. In this article, I want to deal with identification, and then I will deal with constructive solutions to these types of situations.

When dealing with professing Christians who have these types of attitudes, there are seven identifiable characteristics I have observed from dealing with Steve as well as others on on-line discussions over the years. These are what I have found:

1. Over-exciteability and emotion-based religion
2. Confusing voice of God with own feelings and emotions
3. Anathemitizing other Christians with differing views
4. A radically dualistic worldview
5. Inappropriate display of faith at wrong place/time, and no discernment
6. Possession of a "martyr complex
7. Unteachability and rejection of sound counsel

A person who displays the above traits while professing to be a Christian treads on some very dangerous and volatile ground. There are several things that can happen to these types of people, and among them are the following:

  1. Many of them end up falling on their faces due to high expectations they place on themselves and others. This leads to two possible outcomes:
  • a. First, if fortunate, it can humble the person to the point where they begin to seriously re-evaluate their own Christianity, and through it, they learn to be more submissive and teachable, thus maturing better as a result of allowing better discipleship to mold them.
  • b. Second, a scenario could be played out where the collapse of their idealized limited perspective and convictions can prove so devastating that it causes them to abandon their faith in frustration. This is a tragic commentary that is too often repeated and affects way too many, as nowadays fads and fashions rule over discipleship in many churches because pastors simply do not care. This also creates a huge waste of tremendous potential in the Kingdom.

The Scriptures themselves, being the written Logos Word of God, are so complete that they address these very situations. Holy Scripture not only encourages, but demands, an emphasis on proper teaching and discipleship in the Church. in II Timothy 2:15, a classic mandate to all of us as believers is given that says "study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth." Also note Psalm 119:11, which says, "Thy Word hath I hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee." In other words, as Ephesians 6 states, the Word is our loinbelt of truth that upholds us, and as believers, a true knowledge of it brings balance and wisdom to our faith. The problem with a Christianity that appeals to much to the emotional aspects of our faith, seeking to entertain rather than edify and convict, is that feelings often get confused with substance, and if anything that is a true recipe for disaster somewhere down the line. A major consequence of this is that our discernment is impaired and we are open to all sorts of weird things (even demonic influence) that can throw us off track. We are taken by this now back to Matthew 13, the well-known and oft-read Parable of the Sower. Recalling the story, you remember that Christ was comparing the dissemination of the Word of God to a sower sowing seeds of his potential crop in a field. As the seed is broadcast, it falls in a lot of places. Some of it is easy prey for birds (an allegorical reference to demons, BTW - future teaching on that one later!) who snatch it up - that of course refers to false doctrines, heresies and cults. Others of the cast seed fall on rocks, where it sprouts OK but is easily scorched by the sun or eroded away by rain (those symbolize trials of life, in case you haven't guessed!) - this one has to do with those over-zealous people, like my friend Steve, who don't have grounding and proper discipleship and end up withering while still young when a real challenge presents itself. Still other seed falls in the briar patch, where weeds and briars choke the life out of it as it is challenged to grow (this has to do with adverse circumstances - oppressive family members, a hostile work environment, etc.) - and of course that alludes to those people who, having originally started out strong and grounded, were choked by "other interests," such as choosing a successful career over their faith, a shapely spouse over their faith, etc. Steve and others like him are those in the rockpile, and I want you all to catch this - they seek the rock, but land in a rock pile; hmmmm!! Their faith starts out strongly and sincerely enough, but because it isn't rooted in good soil (discipleship) when a real crisis hits they cave like a miser's hut in the recent earthquake in Haiti. The good seed though is that which is fortunate to land on the fertile soil of good discipleship, and it takes strong root; the storms of life nourish it rather than destroying it, and birds and briars can't uproot and take it away. With Steve and others like him - they are becoming an alarming number these days too! - it is a sad commentary on contemporary Christianity that so many lack proper discipleship and thus end up in spiritual disaster. We all, as Christians, share a responsibility for this, and until we can help these people have a secure footing in truth from the outset, we risk turning the Christian message, the true Gospel of redemption, into a joke to the skeptical world. And, I warn that this is not something peripheral either, for the very salvation of those like Steve may hang in a fragile balance as a result of poor teaching and the chasing after the newest charismatic fads. God help us regardnig the poor state of Christianity today, and may we truly get back to the genuine renewal of the Spirit, which involves a high regard for both the Holy Word of God (the written Logos) and the Holy Tradition of the Church (the chronicled rhema).

When encountering those of a more emotion-based faith, handle them firmly but in love - remember, we may want to smack some of these people upside the head understandably, but Jesus does love them and He died for their sins as well. Though some are in it for the "buzz," there are also many caught up in this mindset that are sincere in their beliefs, do love the Lord, but just haven't been properly taught. The point and objective of our dealings with such people is to debate the truth with them in the love of Christ, but not arguing to win your case in the process - if you do the latter, it will only re-enforce that stubborn rebelliousness and give them a "martyr complex" that will make them more difficult to win to the truth. Also, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to work in them, and to maybe open them up to instruction so that they may mature as Christians better. There are many, if we handle them in a Christlike spirit, who will respond with fervent prayers and intercessions on their behalf from us. Some of the most stubborn, offensive people have been transformed into powerful witnesses for Christ as a result of patient, mature Christians dealing with them in love. We must also remember that the issue a lot of times is not a matter of belief, but rather of attitude - many of them are on the right track (for the time being anyway, because danger lurks) but just need an attitude adjustment that only the Holy Spirit can ultimately give them. If the attitude is tweeked, in short, then victory in the battle is soon to follow.

I hope this will be an encouragement to you in dealing with these people who, armed with Rick Warren books and "Christian rock" CD's, prove to be an offense and a challenge to our spirits. And, we must remember to, as Scripture admonishes us, to always "speak the truth in love." God bless all of you who read this, and may His love abide in us all.