Cover image via Gospel Media Library.

Religious people are often admonished to be zealous. In this past General Conference Elder Christofferson encouraged us to be “zealous in keeping the commandments of God.”  Revelation 3:19 says, “be zealous, therefore and repent.”  Clearly, being zealous can be a good thing. However, we learn from Zeniff that being overzealous can be tragic.  What is the difference between being zealous and being overzealous?

Zeniff interests me as much as any character in the Book of Mormon, perhaps because I “get” him.  As a young person I tended to be overzealous.  Once I set my mind on something, I would “spare no expense,” “move heaven and earth,” “stop at nothing,” (you chose the idiom) to reach my goal.  My dad used to call me a “bull in a china shop.”  I had no idea what he meant at the time, but reading about Zeniff taught me that there is a price to be paid for being overzealous.

Imagine, going off to fight a war and causing the death of your fellow soldiers.  Imagine returning home and telling their wives and children that because of your zeal their beloved husband and father was killed.  Imagine telling them that he wasn’t even killed by the enemy, but he was killed by his own brethren.

“Therefore, I contended with my brethren in the wilderness, for I would that our ruler should make a treaty with them; but he being an austere and a blood-thirsty man commanded that I should be slain; but I was rescued by the shedding of much blood; for father fought against father, and brother against brother, until the greater number of our army was destroyed in the wilderness; and we returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla, to relate that tale to their wives and their children.”

The story of Zeniff teaches us that there are consequences of being overzealous.

All About Consequences

Zeal can be a good thing.  Zeal means having “great energy or enthusiasm for a cause.”  Such zeal can bring about positive results.  A zealous person might initiate a campaign to end drunk driving, clean up a dirty river, provide handicapped ramps in public places, build wells in Africa, immunize against disease.  It takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm to overcome the obstacles that confront the person who takes up a great cause.  Overzealousness, however, comes with a price.

As a child my zeal led me to earn some money, so I decided to bake and sell sugar cookies around the neighborhood.  I did not even consider the disaster I left in the kitchen as I went door to door with my fresh cookies.  I fear my mother never got the grease stains out of the rugs on the kitchen floor.  As a young adult I learned to make shortbread while living in Europe.  Trying to make the recipe in my parents’ kitchen burned up their oven.  A bull might whiz through a china shop, but the consequence is a lot of broken china left in its path.

A zealous person is so focused on his goal, he refuses to consider the consequences.  He does not want to be slowed down, because considering the consequences might force him re-consider his goal.  Clearly, the information we have about Zeniff’s ill-fated venture is limited.  However, it appears that Zeniff didn’t consider the consequences of kicking a people out of their homes and allowing an enemy to take over their land.  Like a racehorse on the way to the finish line, Zeniff must have had on true blinders to ignore these consequences.

Zealous Blinders

Blinders spring up when people become overzealous and, therefore, fail to consider consequences.  People who are overzealous about their religion may offend others with their words, with their judgements, or with their rules.  During General Conference in April 2010 Elder Uchtdorf said, “Nevertheless, in our zeal, we sometimes confuse sin with sinner, and we condemn too quickly and with too little compassion.”  Zeal can be a good thing, but the overzealous ignore the consequences of their bullheadedness.

Cecil O. Samuelson, former president of Brigham Young University said, “In both athletics and politics we see far too many examples of overzealous behavior, and I caution and admonish you to help solve the problems and not be the creators or promoters of offensive and boorish behavior.”  (Devotional speech, “Appropriate Zeal,” Cecil O. Samuelson, President of Brigham Young University, September 7, 2010)

I wasn’t on campus in 2010 but I imagine President Samuelson was referring to the behavior of overzealous fans who were “welcoming” an opposing team.  Sports fans, celebrity fans, music fans, gaming fans can all tend toward fanaticism.  The word “fan” is the shortened version of the word “fanatic.”

The Danger of Fanaticism  

A fanatic has been defined as “a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal, especially for an extreme religious or political cause.”

Overzealous people can bend toward fanaticism.  Although a zealous person is passionate about his cause, an overzealous person does not consider the consequences of his zeal.  Offending a non-member, or members of opposing team are possible consequences of fanaticism.

Considering the consequences of our zeal will help us discern whether our zeal is good, or whether we are overzealous.  “Is there potential for harm?” is a rule of thumb that may help define overzealousness.  Some might say my family are religious fanatics because we don’t take the boat out on Sundays, and we don’t watch movies that are rated R.  However, these behaviors do not cause harm to anyone.

When someone insists upon pursuing a goal despite the potential for danger, we might consider them overzealous to the point of fanaticism.  For example, going on a hunger fast, or refusing a blood transfusion, or tying oneself to a tree can have dire consequences.  Refusing to see a rated-R movie has no potential for harmful consequences.  Refusing a blood transfusion does.

Those of us who love the Lord with all our heart want to shout our joy from the rooftops.  We want to boldly testify of Christ; we want to call people to repentance.  We have “great energy and enthusiasm” for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.  So that our zeal does not become overzealousness, we will want to remove all blinders and make sure that the consequences of our zeal result in harm to no one.