Is passion a virtue or a vice?

by John Holbrook Jr.
A Biblical View, posted October 24, 2016

Today’s message is directed at Christians – particularly Christians with a burning desire to share the Gospel of their Lord with unbelievers.

Many people proclaim that they are passionate about something: their job, baseball, the opera, mountain climbing, etc. They seldom stop to think about what they are saying.

Too few people understand the difference between passion and compassion. One is a vice; the other, a virtue.

Passion in the classic sense of the word has two meanings: one refers to suffering – particularly Jesus’ ordeal on Good Friday – the other refers to zeal, ardor, or a vehement desire that is somewhat out of control. It is this latter sense of the word that concerns me here. This passion is selfish. It is motivated by the needs of the self. It draws attention to the self. Indeed, it often advertises the self. It engenders pride, because it ascribes importance to the self in proportion to its strength. Perhaps worst of all, it makes excuses for the self and imposes its costs on others. Passion can be seen in tyrants, revolutionaries, ruthless corporate executives, overbearing maestros, preening divas, pedants, crusaders of all types – anyone who puts their own agenda above their duties to and the needs of others. Beware when someone says, “I am passionate about…” or “I have a passion for….”

Compassion refers to a loving and merciful concern for another’s suffering, loss, or lack and is usually accompanied by a determination to do something to assuage that condition. Compassion is selfless. It is motivated by the needs of others. It never advertises the self. Indeed, it directs attention away from the self and toward others. It engenders humility, because it ascribes importance to others in proportion to the magnitude of their needs. Perhaps most remarkable, it imposes its costs on the self. Compassion can be seen in servant leaders, homemakers, tireless caregivers, patient teachers – anyone who puts their duties to and the needs of others above their own agenda – but most obviously in Jesus of Nazareth, who humbled Himself by putting aside His divine prerogatives as Lord of Creation, taking on human flesh, and dying on the cross to atone for the sins of others – all those whom God-the-Father called to acknowledge God-the-Son as their Savior. Run quickly to someone who says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (KJV Matthew 11:28).

Clearly, passion is a vice; compassion, a virtue.

Understanding this difference between passion and compassion is particularly important for Christians with a burning desire to share the Gospel of their Lord with unbelievers.  A compassionate evangelist is driven by a genuine concern for the person to whom he is speaking, and he focuses on at least the following: (a) treating the person respectfully and lovingly; (b) listening to what the person has to say; (c) trying to discern where the person is in his journey toward God; (d) speaking in a way that the person will understand; and (e) all the while humbly recognizing that his success in reaching the person depends solely on the Holy Spirit.  Thus, he manifests God’s love to the person, thereby affirming that the person is one of Jesus’ cherished creatures, made in His image.  A passionate evangelist, on the other hand, is driven by his own need to proclaim the Gospel, and thus he focuses solely on what he is saying, not on the person to whom he is speaking.  He fails to manifest God’s love to the person, thereby treating the person solely as a listener and all too often turning the person into a victim.  As you can see, there is a world of difference between a compassionate evangelist, who speaks the truth in love,[1] and a passionate evangelist, who speaks the truth inconsiderately.

Alas, when I first submitted to the Lord, I was a passionate evangelist. Now I can only pray that the Lord will undo the damage that I did.  Don’t follow in my footsteps.

© 2016 John Holbrook Jr.


[1] Ephesians 4:15.

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