Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Humility Is More Important Than Zeal

In a journal entry from December 1961, Thomas Merton wrote simply: “Humility is more important than zeal.” The Trappist monk had been speaking into social issues that were important to him, and had been investing a lot of time and energy in writing articles that might have some sway on the cultural landscape.

In short, there was a whole lot of Merton invested in these issues and causes. One magazine editor wrote him a letter, explaining that they would publish one of his opinion pieces in their magazine, but to be assured that the piece would cause a firestorm. And in some ways, Merton was ready to engage the fight from his hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the Kentucky hills.

But then, this line: “Humility is more important than zeal.” More on Merton in a moment.

My religious background taught me that zeal was very important, that what really mattered was a person’s “fervor for the Lord.” There was even an expression for those who seemed most zealous: they were “on fire for the Lord!”

But in that tradition we talked little – none, that I actually can remember – about humility. We never talked about out-of-check ego. We never talked about the dangers of power run amuck.

What ended up happening, at least from my observation, is that those who were most zealous, those who pressed and pressed and pressed “for God” ended up burning out – myself included, for a season – and dropping out . . . sometimes bitter than they had “done so much for God” but without seeing the results they wanted . . . or resentful that while they had “given their all for God,” God didn’t seem to reward them as they expected. Some gave up the Church. Some gave up God. Others plugged on through the burn-out, convinced that the lack of reward for their zeal was connected to some sin within them that God would not tolerate nor honor. It’s a difficult, recurring cycle that lives within many of us.

I’m not in Merton’s head, but from what he writes, I think he had the sense that zeal really came down to his own efforts, dependent upon his own energy to bring about the ends for which he labored. Humility, on the other hand, kept him grounded in both his strengths and his weaknesses . . . in both his light and his shadow . . . in both his gifts and his brokenness. Humility took him out of the driver’s seat, so he didn’t have to manage the issues and manipulate the outcomes. He could do whatever was his to do, and leave the end to God.

The issues for me are different from Merton’s issues, but I want to affirm along with him that humility is more important than zeal. Zeal is about our human energy, our own desire to move things. Humility is rooted in truth . . . the truth about ourselves and the truth about our world.

I carry with me his words this week: “Humility is more important than zeal.”

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