“Light yourself on fire with passion and people will come from miles to watch you burn.”
Reflecting on the Role of Passion
If there is anything liberalism in the church has taught us over the last century, it is this: Passionless churches are empty churches. This phrase, while I don’t remember where I first heard it, is demonstrably true. The pews of those who hold no convictions are vacant. This reality highlights the undeniable draw of passion in matters of faith. What do you believe and how much do you believe it?
Men on Fire Are Not Alone . . . Or Are They?
John Wesley once said: “You set a man on fire, and people will come for miles to watch him burn.” This rings true. Look at the great churchmen over the years who have garnered a crowd. Look at Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon, and Moody. These men shared something in common: their undeniable passion and conviction.
Lunch with a Man on Fire
At a lunch meeting, I engaged with a man whose unyielding convictions about Christianity attracted and intrigued me. His beliefs ran deep. He took them seriously. His standards for a “real” Christianity were stringent. He was a passionate Calvinist, seeing all who disagreed as compromisers. He was a Young-Earth Creationist, having no room for any other interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. He believed in inerrancy, excluding all who disagreed as pawns of demons. On top of these and many other doctrinal demands, another thing became clear: there was no room for hiccups in one’s lifestyle and habits. He began to condemn so-called Christians who drank alcohol, cursed, smoked, or vaped. Midway through our conversation, I noticed he was only drinking water. I found myself slowly putting down my latte as I was not sure if I was soon to be denied access through the heavenly gates due to my possible addiction to caffeine.
Confused by Agreement
While his passion was initially captivating, it soon became apparent that something was terribly wrong. I agreed with this guy to a tee on every doctrine of theology that he broached. We should have been two peas in a pod. So why did I feel so distant from him? This man was definitely on fire, but I was not finding myself comfortable in the light of his fire. Why was I confused by this agreement?
Deepening Perspectives on Teaching and Evaluation
Over the years, my approach to assessing theological teachings has evolved. Beyond passion, clarity, and systematic presentation, I’ve grown sensitive to signs of imbalance. It is easy to gain a following but have no real credibility. It is easy to fill the pews. Passion needs a passionate bedfellow. What is the dynamic at play here? The irony is that if you have no answers, no one shows up; if you have all the answers, everyone is left out.
A Hierarchy of Passion
Overstating one’s case, particularly in theology, can be destructive. It elevates every point to red-alert status. It blurs the lines between what of critical import and what is not. In my conversation, the man’s insistence on secondary issues began to dilute the primary message of Christianity. His overstatements not only alienated all those who disagreed with him doctrinally on every issue but also those who disagreed with his hierarchy of passion.
Strunk and White’s Insight on Overstatement
Strunk and White, in “The Elements of Style,” caution against overstatement. Listen to this carefully:
“When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.”
—Strunk and White
Elements of Style, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 7
Although merely from a writing guide, this wisdom profoundly applies to theological communication, highlighting the need for temperament, balance, and restraint.
Tempering: Conviction and Humility
The challenge for believers is to express convictions with confidence while maintaining humility and respect. It’s not about suppressing passion but about channeling it wisely. Acknowledging the subjective nature of many of our beliefs allows for a richer, more productive dialogue. This balance enhances our credibility and invites a deeper understanding and placement of our perspective.
Of First Importance: Paul’s Emphasis in 1 Corinthians 15
This brings me to Paul’s essential statement in 1 Corinthians 15 about the essentials:
1 Cor. 15 1-5
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
“I delivered to you as of first importance…” Here, Paul distills the essence of the Gospel – the person and work of Christ. He intentionally prioritizes these central truths over other teachings, reminding us of the importance of focusing on what truly matters in our faith.
Is it Better to Burn Out?
I do agree with the importance of what John Wesley said. We want to be on fire for the Lord. People will be most, or at least initially, attracted to you by your passion and conviction. However, there is another quote about this out there by Jack London. He says, “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.” Or, according to Def Leppard, “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away.” Herein lies the problem. People will come to watch you burn. But you can also burn the house completely down. It is not better to be ashes. Why? Because it is not about gaining a crowd or being a novelty on fire.
Conclusion: Christ as the Primary Object of Our Enthusiasm
In our zeal to defend various doctrines and practices, we must be careful not to overshadow the central message of Christianity: Christ Himself. When lesser issues are given equal or more emphasis, Christ, the true object of our enthusiasm, can diminish. Our passion should first and foremost be for the Gospel. The beauty and power of Christ’s work must remain at the forefront, ensuring our enthusiasm for Him isn’t lost in a sea of overstatements. As believers, we must strive to keep the Gospel central in our teachings and lives, allowing Christ’s transformative message to shine through every word we speak and action we take.
In the end, remember this: If everything in our lives is in italics, nothing is in italics.