How Can I Avoid Overzealousness?

zeal – Great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective (Oxford English Dictionary)

When the Nephites welcomed a large number of Lamanite refugees into their land, they not only had to give them a place to live; they also had to provide protection for them. That’s because these Lamanites had taken a vow of non-violence. Mormon tells us that these people, who had been willing to give up their lives rather than break their vow, “were also distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men” (Alma 27:27). He tells us that they were “a zealous and beloved people, a highly favored people of the Lord” (Alma 27:30). (See also Alma 21:23.)

The word zealous shares a common etymology with the word jealous. (See “zealous,” Online Etymology Dictionary.) It refers to an unusual level of devotion to a person or to a cause. Both the Hebrew word qinah (קִנְאָה) and the Greek word zelos (ζῆλος) are rendered as either “zeal” or “jealousy” in the King James Version of the Bible, depending on the context.

When Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip and overturned their tables, His disciples were surprised at the intensity of His actions. Then, John tells us, they remembered a scripture, which at least gave them a reference point for that kind of intense devotion: “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (John 2:17, Psalm 69:9).

The zeal of the Lamanite converts, like the zeal of the Savior, was admirable. But earlier in the Book of Mormon, we read of a tragic mistake caused by too much zeal. A little more than 100 years before the Lamanite refugees were converted to the gospel, a man named Zeniff led a group of Nephites to establish a colony among the Lamanite people. “I being over-zealous to inherit the land of our fathers, collected as many as were desirous to go up to possess the land,” he wrote (Mosiah 9:3). He had been sent to spy on them and had seen “that which was good among them.” This profound experience, coupled with his intense desire to live in the land of his ancestors, motivated him to ignore red flags in his interactions with the Lamanite king and to place the people who followed him in danger:

For this very cause has king Laman, by his cunning, and lying craftiness, and his fair promises, deceived me, that I have brought this my people up into this land, that they may destroy them; yea, and we have suffered these many years in the land (Mosiah 10:18).

Years later, Zeniff’s grandson, King Limhi, used similar language to describe how his people had fallen into captivity:

And ye all are witnesses this day, that Zeniff, who was made king over this people, he being over-zealous to inherit the land of his fathers, therefore being deceived by the cunning and craftiness of king Laman, who having entered into a treaty with king Zeniff, and having yielded up into his hands the possessions of a part of the land, or even the city of Lehi-Nephi, and the city of Shilom; and the land round about—
And all this he did, for the sole purpose of bringing this people into subjection or into bondage (Mosiah 7:21-22).

Goals are good. They can help us focus and achieve things that require sustained effort over time. But goals can also cause tunnel vision, overriding common sense and reason. An unreasonable commitment to specific goals can lead us to ignore risks and make unwise decisions, as Zeniff did.

Today, I will be careful to keep my zeal in check. I will pursue important goals with passion, but I will remember to also be observant and to not let my enthusiasm override my reason. I will strive for a zeal which is governed by wisdom.

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