Zeal and Love
by Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili
"And the servant of the Lord must not strive,
but be gentile unto all men . . ." (II Timothy 2:24)
OUR PIOUS BROTHERS AND SISTERS, the laity in Christ, must also
take care not to be led astray by the spirit of the world and to
confuse imprudent zeal with the true spirit of evangelical love.
St. Nectarios of Aegina offers us, in just a few lines, an
image of the true zealot of Christ:
"The zealot according to knowledge, motivated by the love
of God and his neighbor, does all things with charity and
self-effacement; he does nothing that might bring sorrow to his
neighbor; such a zealot is enlightened by knowledge and nothing
prompts him to deviate from what is morally right" (see Self-Knowledge,
The zealot blessed by Christ is a model for the true
Christian, the principle characteristics of whom are fervent love
for God and neighbor, gentleness, religious tolerance,
forgiveness, graciousness of manner, and, in general, all of
those fruits of one dwelling in the Holy Spirit.
By contrast, that unfortunate Christian who is inspired by
zeal not according to knowledge is a "ruinous man" who
literally turns the Gospel of Grace and love upside down.
Let us see how the saints of the Orthodox Church view the
zealot whose zeal is not according to wisdom:
- his zeal is a "seductive fire, a consuming fire"
- "destruction comes forth from him and desolation
follows in his wake"
- "he beseeches God to send down fire from Heaven and
to devour all of those who do not embrace his principles and convictions"
- he is "characterized by hatred for those of other
religions and confessions, envy and persistent anger,
violent resistance to the true spirit of Divine law, an
unreasonable obstinacy in defending his own views, a
passionate zeal for prevailing in all things, the love of
glory, quarrels, contention, and a love of turmoil"
(St. Nectarios, ibid.).
Orthodox spirituality has always considered it essential that
zeal go hand-in-hand with love, so as not to become deviant:
"Zeal for piety is a good thing, but when combined with
love" (St. John Damascene, Patrologia Graeca, Vol.
SCIV, col. 1436).
The magnificent epistle of St. Dionysios the Areopagite to the
Monk Demophilos, in which he expounds in a God-inspired way on
the subject of the extremes of importune zeal, shows that this
"temptation" among the pious is ancient.
But now let us juxtapose with the demon of imprudent zeal the
zealots of Patristic deity, calling to mind their Patristic
"We will not approve of your fits of rage, which are
alien to genuine zeal ('unenviable impulses'), even if you should
invoke Phineas and Elias a thousand times" (St. Dionysios
the Areopagite, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. III, col. 1096C,
"Epistle to Demophilos the Monk [or Therapeutes, a
term used by St. Dionysios for a monastic]," 5).
Likewise, our Savior, through the Apostle Paul, "teaches
us that we should educate with gentleness those who reject the
teaching of God"; "for the ignorant need to be
instructed, not punished, just as we do not chastise the blind,
but lead them by the hand" (ibid.).
Let the pious Faithful never forget that the criterion of the
genuineness of our love is not imprudent zeal, but withdrawal
from all of our passions:
"Strive to love every man equally, and in short you will
drive out all of your passions" (St. Thalassios,
Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 213, and Patrologia Graeca,
Vol. XCI, col. 1441B).
Our zeal for piety, like every other spiritual endeavor, is of
doubtful purity and genuineness if it does not incline the heart
towards love and humility:
"For every pursuit and every endeavor involving great
toil that does not end up in love and a contrite spirit is
futile, and yields no profitable result" (St. Symeon the New
Theologian, Catechesis I, Sources Chretiennes,
Vol. 96, pp. 143-145).
Hence: "Zeal for piety is a good thing, but when combined with
From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, No. 2 (1996).