I suppose if there were ever an oxymoron to be considered, the title of this article would be within the top ten. It would be there along with apathetic concern, charitable covetousness, and slothful industriousness. We generally use oxymorons when, in our language, we fail to find the appropriate description for something in terms of non-conflicting vocabulary. Oxymorons also generally serve to provide a measure of both entertainment, and rebuke. In short, an oxymoron takes one extreme to describe its opposite. Hence, the title of the article.
The word zealous is really just the positive aspects of the word jealous. When a person is jealous, they are generally consumed with desire for something that someone else has, whether it be a material possession, wealth, a relationship, or personal attention. Generally we think of jealousy as a bad thing. However, one can be jealous for something that is good too, but we use the word zealous to describe the good aspects of jealousy. Being zealous is just the opposite side of the coin of being jealous. The same attributes apply, but the object of the jealousy is noble instead of contemptible.
When we think of someone that is zealous for a cause, we think of someone who is a real go getter. We think of someone who applies every ounce of energy they have to their work. We think of someone who is burning up with motivation to go out and get the job done. We look a sports teams at all levels, high school, college, and professional, particularly football, and we see examples of zeal. Before the game they are out on the field getting pumped up. They meet in a huddle and cheer themselves on to victory. They growl and grunt and grate their teeth giving their every ounce of energy to the effort. It is a true picture of zeal.
On the other hand, we have mediocrity. You can almost hear the balloon of zeal deflate merely at the sound of the word. The word mediocrity has within it the word medium. It is neither hot or cold, neither black or white, neither at one extreme or the other, but squarely ensconced in the middle. In a sense, there are no opposites to mediocrity because the true opposites of mediocrity are both miles away from where mediocrity sits.
Mediocrity is not something that is generally desired. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Boy I really enjoyed dinner tonight, it was so . . . mediocre.” I expect that you would have one angry host or hostess on your hands should you say something like that. Or when was the last time you went out with your significant other and said, “I really had a mediocre time tonight. Let’s do it again.” Doesn’t quite make sense, does it?
So what do we get when we have “zealous mediocrity” or “mediocre zeal”? We get a whitewashed version of something that nobody really wants. That is, everyone “believes” in zeal and disdains mediocrity. But, of course, more often than not, our actions in this area speak louder than our words. So if you look at what we say, there is zeal, however, if you look at what we do, there is mediocrity, hence, we have zealous mediocrity. We go out onto the field and we give a good pep rally, but when it comes to playing the game, we haply turn the ball over every chance we get-zealous mediocrity.
The church at Laodicea had a similar problem. Jesus said to them, “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. . . . As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Revelation 3:16-19). The church at Laodicea was zealous for mediocrity. They had works, but they were mediocre. They thought they were rich, but they were really poor. They thought they were clothed rather well, but they were naked. They thought they could see, but they were blind. Mediocrity takes the things around us and transforms them into apparently beautiful things. And we become zealous for that deceptive beauty. A lot of times, we see what we want to see and hence become self deceived to the true situation. This is exactly what had happened to the church in Laodicea. They were zealous for mediocrity, desirous of a situation where they were satisfied with their “work.” Instead of being zealous with mediocrity, they needed to be zealous with repentance.
The great rivers of our country provide us a picture of zealous mediocrity. The waters of the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi constantly churn and twirl as they make their way toward the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. When we look at the waters of those rivers, in places they appear very zealous, but ultimately they follow the course of least resistance. They are zealous for mediocrity. The true source of zeal lies not in the waters that occasionally churn on the surface of the river, but in the rocks that hold steadfast to its bottom. It is not that which follows the course of least resistance that creates zeal, but that which resists the course of least resistance. What path are we on, Christian friend? The path of zealous mediocrity? Or the path of zeal that leads to salvation?