The life of continual transformation, as Paul described in Romans 12, is a life where we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (12.1), where we are transformed by the renewal of our mind (12.2), where we use our spiritual gifts (12.3-8), where we love without hypocrisy (12.9), and where we are fervent in spirit (12.11). This last exhortation seems a bit tricky. Here, we are not told to do something, or to not do something, we are told to “feel” passionate about our faith. Paul wrote,
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Romans 12.11 ESV)
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. (Romans 12.11 NIV)
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Romans 12.11 NRSV)
Exegesis of Romans 12.11
In this very short verse, we are told not to be slothful, a word which means slow or lazy, in our zeal. “Zeal” is a word that means “haste, earnestness, diligence, striving after anything.” So, we should not be lacking in zeal (NIV) nor should we lack diligence (HCSB). In addition, we are to be fervent in spirit (ESV). The word translated “fervent” literally means “to boil.” Our spirit is to “boil over” as we serve the Lord. The Message captures the essence of this verse quite nicely: “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master.”
This idea of keeping our spiritual fervor is not unique to Romans 12.11. The Bible also tells us to “fan into flame the gift of God” (see 2 Timothy 1.6), to show earnestness and not be sluggish in our faith and perseverance (see Hebrews 6.10-12), to excel in our zeal (see 2 Corinthians 8.7), and to not grow weary of doing good (see Galatians 6.9). It does seem that the Scriptures not only want us to be obedient followers of Christ but also to experience a passion and desire to follow Christ. In the vernacular, we would say that we are to “be on fire for Jesus.”
Living Into Romans 12.11
The struggle with Romans 12.11 is not in understanding the text, but it is in living into the truth of the text. Anyone who has been following Christ for more than a week knows that weariness and lack of zeal are constant struggles on the pathway to maturity. The real question is, “What can we do to keep our spirit boiling over for Christ?” Or the even more difficult question, “How do we restore spiritual fervor to a spirit that is not only not boiling but has grown cold?”
In trying to answer that question, I want to focus on the image that Paul used: boiling over in our spirit. If we go with that image, it makes us think about water that is boiling over the side of a pot on the stove. But water does not boil itself. Water boils because it is placed near the fire, so perhaps the better question is what can we do to place ourselves near the fire of God’s Holy Spirit so that He can heat to boiling our spirit?
Before I attempt to offer some wisdom in this regards, it might be helpful to just confess that the struggle to keep our spiritual fervor is very common to God’s people. You may feel like you are the only one in the church who feels like your water is not boiling, but read the psalms and you will find the spiritual confessions of those whose spirit was less than boiling. And consider this, why would the Bible teach us to keep our spiritual fervor unless there was going to a struggle? Paul knew that even among the reborn and transformed, the natural temptation is to become slothful in our zeal and for our water to become lukewarm.
So, how does our spirit boil? What can we do to place ourselves near the fire of God’s Spirit so that we can keep our spiritual fervor?
For any goal that we set, whether that goal is to run a marathon, to graduate from college, to save for retirement, to lose weight, to have a vegetable garden, or to make a quilt, anytime we set a goal, we have to break that goal down into the things that are going to have to happen in order to reach that goal. For me, I am training for my next half-marathon in July, and in order for that goal to be reached, I know that there are some steps that have to be accomplished: I have to run 3 to 4 times a week, and I have to have one long run each week that gradually increases so that the week before the race I will run 13 miles. If I do not accomplish those steps, than it does not matter how much I want to run the race or how important it is to me, I will not be able to finish the half-marathon.
And the same is true with any goal. If you want to make a quilt for your grandchild who is having a baby, then you will break down the steps of what has to happen to get it done: how much fabric has to be cut out, how much time do I need to quilt it, how much will I have to do each week to have it done before the baby is born.
So, if our goal is for our spirits to be boiling over, then what are the steps that have to be done in order to make that a reality? The single best phrase that captures these steps that lead to a boiling spirit is: the Spiritual Disciplines. The spiritual disciplines are the basic steps that we take in order to reach the goal of a boiling spirit. Richard Foster’ book, Celebration of Discipline, is one of the classic works in this area and has been very helpful for me in this regard. I like how he describes the spiritual disciplines. He wrote,
The disciplines place ourselves before God so that He can transform us…By themselves, the spiritual disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. (7)
He talks of “the path of disciplined grace” where we put ourselves in the pathway of God’s grace so that we can be transformed by His grace. Or to use the analogy of Romans 12, the spiritual disciplines are the way that we put our water near the fire of God so that He can boil our spirit. The disciplines don’t produce the boiling, and anyone who has tried to make your own spirit boil can testify to this. The disciplines put our soul near the fire of God who can bring our spirit to a boil. What are the spiritual disciplines? Foster lists twelve in his book.
- Meditation – being still enough to listen to God’s voice
- Prayer – soul to soul communication with God
- Fasting – abstaining from food for a spiritual purpose
- Study – in-depth understanding, analyzing, and interpreting of God’s Word
- Simplicity – a freedom from materialism
- Solitude – the freedom to withdraw
- Submission – finding freedom from the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way
- Service – experiencing the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves
- Confession – confess our sins one to another (James 5.16)
- Worship – when our spirit touches the Spirit of God
- Guidance – discerning the will of God in community
- Celebration – to rejoice in the Lord in the spirit of the OT festivals
The way that Foster teaches about spiritual disciplines is important, too. He talks about the inward disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting, study), the outward disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission, service), and the corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, celebration). And while I don’t want this to be a study of Foster’s book, I think he does a great job of clarifying the building blocks of reaching the goal of having a boiling spirit for Christ. So, if your spirit is not boiling, or if your spirit is boiling over and you and you want to keep it boiling over, then let me make a few observations.
First, water does not boil itself. The only way our spirits will boil over is if we put ourselves in the pathway of God’s grace. It is so important to remember that our spiritual activity will not be able to produce a fervent spirit. It is only a means to an end. It is a means by which we can make a connection with God. So, we must always be thinking about how we can put ourselves in the pathway of God’s grace and fire so that He can boil our spirit.
Second, there are basic disciplines of grace that must be in place or our spirit will never be close enough to God’s fire to reach a boil. It does not matter how much I want to run this half-marathon in July, if I am not running 3 to 4 times a week and if I am not doing a long run that is increasing in distance, then it will not happen. And those most basic disciplines are: reading the Word of God so that you can hear His voice speaking to you, conversational prayer, and meditating on God’s Word so that it saturates your thinking.
And here is where the whole “keep your spiritual fervor” thing gets very tricky. If your spirit is not boiling, you will not feel like praying, or reading Scripture, or meditating. But this is exactly why you do it. And I know this sound strange, but we must pray because we do not feel like praying. We must read the Word to listen to His voice because our spirits are lukewarm. We must memorize scripture (which is a form of meditation) because we don’t desire to think about God’s truth. The absence of desire is all the more reason to put ourselves near the fire so that God can boil our spirit.
Third, what Foster’s book help us to understand is that our spiritual community plays an essential role in our spiritual fervor. Consider these words from the book of Hebrews,
23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10.23-25 ESV)
To “hold fast without wavering” is just another way of saying “keep your spiritual fervor.” And what the writer of Hebrews is saying is that our spiritual community plays an essential role in that. So here is the third point: we must be investing in a spiritual community where we can both spur one another and be spurred by one another towards a fervent spirit. And I say “investing” because when you need community, it is too late to find community. Just like when you need a savings account for retirement, it is too late to start saving for it. You have to start saving for it when you don’t need it, when you have something extra to contribute so that when you need to make withdraws there is something to withdraw from. Spiritual community is the same way, we invest in spiritual community by building relationships and encouraging one another so that when we need it to help us light our fire, it is there.
Spiritual community does not happen in large group settings, so we are talking about more than attending church on a Sunday morning. Foster wrote about the corporate disciplines of confession (confess your sins to one another), guidance (discerning God’s will together), and celebration (rejoicing in the goodness of God’s love), which are things that cannot be done in mass. We all need a small group of people where we are investing in one another in such a way that we can “stir one another up.” If you have not found a spiritual community, not just a group of friends that you hang out with, but a spiritual community that stirs you up to faith, then it is essential that you put yourself in a position where community and connections can happen: join a small group Bible study, work on a service team in the church, work to make friendships with the people you sit around on Sunday mornings, etc. And be praying earnestly for the Spirit of God to guide you into those special relationships where you can build spiritual community.
And a special word to our high school students who are graduating (since this is Graduate Recognition Sunday), when you go off to college you must set as a priority finding spiritual community, a small group of Christians where you can stir one another up towards love and good deeds. And you must see that this is an essential element towards keeping your spiritual fervor. This will not happen simply because you step on a college campus. Finding and developing spiritual community is an intentional act of investing your lives with other people.
Fourth, serving the Lord is a key part of keeping our spiritual fervor. We see this connection in the text, “be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Romans 12.11). And this is why Foster lists service as one of the spiritual disciplines. Serving the Lord, or being used by God to do something of Kingdom value, is one of the ways that we experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. One of the ways that our spirits begin to be lukewarm is when we stop seeing our lives in the larger context of what God is doing in the world. The pattern of this world is to think that if we focus on ourselves and turn inward, then we can find contentment, but that is simply not true. When life becomes all about me that is when our life gets small and insignificant. For our spirits to boil, we need to see that God has a divine eternal plan and He has created us for good works that He has already prepared in advance for us to do. And that is what service is, experiencing the fiery Spirit of God flowing through us and bringing our spirit to a boil.
Fifth, there is a connection between “being conformed to the pattern of this world” and the lack of spiritual fervor. Foster wrote in his book about the disciplines of simplicity and solitude. For simplicity, he wrote about rejecting the materialism of this world and refusing to become addicted to the love of the things of this world.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2.15-17 ESV)
When we are conformed to the things of this world, when we begin to be consumed and chase the desires of the flesh or the pride in possessions, then our spirit will lose its boil.
Sixth, keeping our spiritual fervor is a spiritual fight unto the death. We do not wrestle with flesh and blood but with the spiritual forces of darkness (see Ephesians 6.12). The battle to keep your spiritual fervor is not a single player game. We have an opponent, and games where there is an opponent is totally different than games without an opponent. If I am throwing the ball against the wall and catching it, then I can control how it comes back to me. But if there is another person throwing me the ball, that changes things. Does that person want me to catch it? Will he throw it hard or soft? We have an opponent in keeping our spiritual fervor.
And here’s my point: every temptation, every lie, every condemnation, and every fear is part of coordinate scheme of the enemy (see Ephesians 6.11) to rob us of our spiritual zeal. There is a connection between the temptation to worry and your spiritual zeal. There is a connection between the temptation to sin in your anger and your spiritual fervor. There is a connection between the lie that gossip is enjoyable and being lukewarm. This is why Paul told us in Ephesians 6 to put on the full armor of God because there is a battle going on for the condition of our soul.
Sometimes what happens is that we have been ignorant of the Enemy’s schemes and we have bought into lies or fears or condemnations or temptations and little by little our soul has grown lukewarm. And to gain back our spiritual zeal means that we have to do the spiritual warfare of getting our souls back to the fire of God. Which means that we have to work back through each lie, each fear, each condemnation, each temptation, confessing and repenting and embracing the truth.
Finally, there are just some times in our spiritual walk that we must persevere the valley of darkness. Listen to what Paul wrote,
9And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6.9 ESV)
Now why would Paul write that unless he knew that there were going to be times when believers would grow weary of doing good. We have to realize that in our battle to get our spirit close to the fire of God that there may be seasons where we don’t feel God’s heat. And in those seasons, we must hope in the harvest season that is to come. Perseverance implies both time and pain, and the absence of fervor is just another form of pain. It is by persevering through the dry periods, by choosing to step towards God’s grace, that we bring our spirit to a boil in due time.
So today we are encouraged to keep our spiritual zeal, to be boiling over in our spirit. And we have learned that water does not boil itself and we cannot bring our spirit to a boil. All we can do is to place our spirit near God’s fire and let Him bring us to a boil. We have learned that the basic spiritual disciplines of reading God’s Word to hear His voice, conversational prayer, and meditation are essential to spiritual fervor. We have also learned that we need a spiritual community to stir one another towards love and good deeds. We have learned that serving God is essential, seeing our lives in the big picture of what God is doing in the world. We have learned that loving the things of this world is a sure fire way to make our soul lukewarm. We have learned that we have an enemy in this battle, an enemy who lies and tempts and condemns so that our soul will become lukewarm. And finally, we have learned that there are simply some seasons in our lives where we have to persevere through the valley of darkness hoping that in due time a harvest will come.