Being zealous for something that God approves of is obviously a good thing. When we are motivated to seek out and do His will, it is certainly pleasing to Him.
However, like most things, zeal can sometimes get out of control and actually end up causing problems. There are times when being overzealous can lead Christians to do or say something extreme.
Overzealous in reacting to false teaching
One common way in which Christians can be overzealous is by overreacting to a distortion of the Christian faith. The following often happens:
False teaching of some kind occurs. A Christian is rightly distressed by this and wants to oppose it. However, instead of keeping things in proportion they get carried away and go too far. They end up opposing one extreme by going to another extreme.
As an example of what I mean, take the reactions of some Christians to the movement that is known as the “social gospel.”
According to followers of this movement, the heart of the Christian faith is about bringing change to society by helping the poor, downtrodden and abused. Those who accept this teaching have no time for the idea that people need to be saved from God’s judgment. In their view, although Jesus’ death on the cross served in some way to demonstrate God’s love, it was not a sacrifice for sins. And they reject the idea that people in their natural state are on course for punishment after death.
It is quite right for genuine Christians to vigorously oppose this movement. These views are far removed from the Christian faith of the Bible and are thoroughly heretical. In reality, the social gospel is not Christian at all.
However, in their opposition to this movement, it is common to find Christians overreacting. Many go to the other extreme and end up neglecting the importance of giving to charity. This is a serious error, since the Bible is full of teaching on helping the poor.
Overreacting when opposing the social gospel is just one example of how Christians can be overzealous when responding to false teaching. There are many other ways too in which the same sort of problem occurs.
Overzealous in following the letter of biblical instructions
Christians can also sometimes be overzealous when obeying biblical instructions. There are rare occasions when following the letter of what the Bible teaches can mean denying its spirit.
I can think of a good example of this from my own experience as a young Christian, when I overzealously followed Romans 14:23.
In this verse Paul writes:
“But the person who doubts stands condemned if he eats, because he has not acted in faith. And anything that is not done in faith is sin.”
Paul is saying here that if a Christian has doubts about whether it is morally OK to do something, they should not do that thing.
There was a time many years ago when I was unsure whether it was morally acceptable for Christians to go shopping on every day of the week, or whether there was a day of the week when we shouldn’t do this.
I knew that many Christians say it is wrong to buy things on a Sunday. I was pretty sure that this view was mistaken, but I wasn’t completely sure. I also knew that some Christians say that we shouldn’t buy anything on a Saturday. I was even more sure that this was a mistake, but, again, I wasn’t totally sure.
So I wasn’t completely sure whether it was morally acceptable to go shopping on a Saturday or a Sunday. Then I looked at my situation in the light of Romans 14:23, which says that we shouldn’t do something if we have doubts about the morality of it. So I decided not to buy anything on a Saturday or a Sunday in order to follow the instruction in this verse.
I think I kept this up for about two weeks, if I remember rightly, before I said to myself how absurd I was being. By strictly following the instruction in this verse in Romans, I had in fact become trapped by a big burden that I had put on myself. I had been following the letter of this verse at the expense of its spirit.
I therefore started to allow myself to buy things on any day of the week, even though this meant that I was no longer strictly following Romans 14:23. I realised that if a situation arose where it was not possible to follow both the spirit and the letter of the Bible, spirit must be preferred over letter.
It’s worth mentioning that today I don’t often buy things on a Sunday. This is not because I believe it is wrong to do so in itself. However, I think the more that Sunday becomes just like any other day, the more difficult it will be for Christians to meet together for the main Sunday worship services. So I want to do my bit to stop this problem arising. However, I don’t make a strict rule of not shopping on Sundays, because I believe that would be to go too far.
This example from my own life is just one of various ways in which Christians sometimes overzealously follow the letter of biblical teaching.
I should point out, however, that it is far more common for Christians to go wrong by not being zealous enough in following biblical commands. Many believers take a much too laid back approach to what Scripture tells us to do.
But sometimes we can fall into the trap of being overzealous. And that is something to watch out for.
Overzealous in sharing the faith
Another way in which Christians can sometimes be overzealous is when they are sharing the faith.
I can remember a time when I witnessed a Christian woman sharing the gospel with a young man with far too much zeal. They were both sitting down and she was leaning towards him, earnestly trying to persuade him to accept Christ. His reaction was to lean away from her as far as he could, with a kind of dazed expression on his face. It was actually quite a comical sight.
This woman’s heart was in the right place. She really wanted the man to receive salvation. But her approach was all wrong. She was too zealous and it was hindering what she was trying to do.
Again, it is worth noting that in Western countries today it is much more common for Christians not to have enough zeal when sharing the faith.
But sometimes Western Christians are overzealous when doing this, as they are in other parts of the world too.
Overzealous in correcting the views of other Christians
Christians can also sometimes be overzealous in correcting the views of other believers.
Of course, it is quite right for us to want our fellow Christians to believe what is true in every area. And there is a place for lovingly intervening at times when we see a brother or sister with wrong ideas about things.
However, sometimes this can go too far. Some Christians make it a habit to constantly correct the views of those they disagree with.
The result of this is usually that people are afraid to relax in this person’s presence. They are wary of opening their mouth. And relationships of any kind with this person become difficult.
Overzealous in denying ourselves
Another way in which Christians can sometimes be overzealous is by denying themselves too much of the normal things of life.
Some impose unreasonably harsh routines on themselves in things like fasting and sleep-deprivation.
It is true that there is a place for these sorts of self-denial in the Christian life. The Bible does encourage us to fast (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23) and it seems to encourage voluntarily going without sleep too (Luke 6:12).
However, some Christians can do so much of these things that they become big burdens on them. If that happens, then a line has been crossed.
The examples I have given are only some of the ways in which Christians can fall into the trap of being overzealous. There are other ways too.
It is important to recognise that there is never anything wrong with zeal itself. Being motivated to do the will of God is always a good thing.
The problem comes when zeal is treated like a blunt instrument without the subtlety that is necessary. Instead, zeal needs to be controlled and channelled wisely. Failing to do this will usually have unhelpful consequences.