January 21, 2021

Filled with Passionate Intensity

Does anyone else cringe when they hear the over-used  word “passion”What’s your passion? —  “I have a passion for — something.”  “I’m so passionate about that.”

I don’t think these people know what they’re really saying.

Bear with me here. I’m launching into a history of the word from its origins to its modern usage. I have a purpose in doing so, one that relates to a proper understanding of the Christian life.

The word passion comes from the Latin word meaning “to suffer.” There are two meanings combined in both the Latin and the English. One is simply to endure, or to be the recipient of action, to be passive. The other is to experience pain.

The first meaning of passion in the Oxford English Dictionary, the multi-volume resource of word usage throughout the history of English, is generally capitalized.

  • It means Jesus’ suffering before and during the crucifixion.
  • It may by extension mean the Gospel narratives referring to his suffering.
  • Or it may even be a piece of music on the same topic, such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
  • Next, it can mean the suffering of any martyr, or the suffering brought on by any affliction or disease.

These are not what modern evangelicals mean when they refer to their passion for orphans, or teaching Bible studies, or scrapbooking for the Lord.

The second category of meaning in the OED is “the fact of being acted upon by external agency, being passive, being subject to external force.” Do the people who boast of their strong feelings for a particular calling mean to imply that they are passive and are possessed or propelled by some outside force? What outside force would that be?

The dictionary moves to the more familiar usages: “an affection of the mind; a feeling by which the mind is powerfully moved or acted upon.” It goes on to “an abandonment to emotions,” “angry or amorous feelings” and “sexual desire.”

Finally it arrives at the meaning we commonly hear in evangelical circles: “an eager outreaching of the mind toward something; an overmastering zeal or enthusiasm;” or as a noun, “an aim or object pursued with zeal.”

Several things are common to all these definitions.

  • First is the strength of feeling involved, whether it is presumed to be a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling.
  • Second is the “passivity” of the person experiencing the feeling. We speak of being moved as a synonym for feeling passionate, and it is a good synonym. The OED uses the words “acted upon,” “abandonment” and “overmastering” in its definitions of passion, also implying a loss of control or a loss of self.

What do people think they’re really saying when they claim to be passionate about something? Are they implying that the strength of their feelings determines the value of the object or pursuit? Or do they mean that the strength of their feelings witnesses to the fineness and devotion of their own characters?

I think they’re often saying both.

Certainly people who have a passion think well of themselves for having it. Linguistically they are comparing their interest in their current spiritual hobby with the suffering of Jesus and the deaths of the martyrs. But was passion the foundation for the obedience of the martyrs or the total self-emptying of Christ? We know that in human relationships passion is usually the opposite of committed longevity. No, the passion of the martyrs or Jesus means not the fervor with which they faced suffering but the suffering that came about because of their faithfulness.

To me the proclaiming of a passion sounds like boasting. I don’t know that I’m right to think so in every case. Many people who declare they are passionate about something are just using the accepted phrase without considering what they’re saying. But some people who “have a passion” are definitely trying to trump others who are humbly obeying God’s word and finding God’s work.

Boasting of passion, however, is a dangerous boast. As I mentioned above, one aspect of “passion” is being acted upon by an external agent. These boasters may not think so, but the’re saying that they are under compulsion from some source, that they are being moved, or driven, to feel as they do. Let’s remember that strong feelings and external compulsions are not solely the attribute of the good. The poet Yeats reminds us that “the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

You may be thinking that I am blowing this out of proportion. The huge majority of people who talk about their passion don’t mean any of the things I’m saying, nor do they know or care about the etymology of the word. They just mean that they care a lot about something.

But even that is tricky. I find very often that the things I care most about, that I’m most passionate about, are not the things that God cares most about. Some of my most passionate prayers have been answered with a resounding “No!” Saint Paul found the same thing. He prayed three times, he said, to have his affliction removed from him — that would qualify as passionate. God told him no, that God’s purposes will be accomplished in his own way, that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.” Not Paul’s passion but God’s will determined what was right and important.

To the Church Fathers, passion, or zeal, was always bad. Passions were uncontrollable forces that you suffered. If they weren’t sins themselves they were at least temptations to sins. The passionate man never dwelt in God’s peace. He was like the infant described by Saint Paul in Ephesians 4:14, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.”

Saint Isaac of Syria, one of my favorites among the Fathers, says this:

A zealous [or passionate] person never achieves peace of mind.  And he who is deprived of peace is deprived of joy.
If, as is said, peace of mind is perfect health, and zeal [passion] is opposed to peace, then a person stirred by zeal is ill with a grievous sickness.
Zeal is not reckoned among mankind as a form of wisdom; rather it is one of the sicknesses of the soul, arising from narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance.
The beginning of divine wisdom is the serenity acquired from generosity of soul and forbearance with human infirmaties.

• Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria, A.M. Allchin, ed., Templegate Publishers, Springfield, IL 1990.

Passion and soul-sickness on the one hand? Divine wisdom and serenity on the other?

I’ll choose Door Number Two.


  1. Just in the past few years I hear people in the social worker type business referring to “passion” as in: “What is your passion?” Or: “I have a passion for community organizing.” It rings false to me or maybe I am just jealous because I don’t feel a particular passion for anything I am involved with. Anyway, I don’t like hearing it used that way.

  2. Did you know that Jesus updated Facebook during the Passion ? 🙂

    • Whoever did that Facebook page is not someone I want to stand next to in a lightning storm. Is there an emoticon reproducing Edvard Munch’s “The Scream?”

    • Wow. It was snarky, but no worse than I’ve seen the Gospel presented elsewhere. Thanks for sharing that link. It brought back memories of last Holy Week when I twittered real-time updates as if I were there. People really liked them. But I wouldn’t dare do something like this.

    • I thought that was pretty funny.

      Why was that bad?

  3. In church history, and especially with regard to the Lutheran churches, there have been regular conflicts between those who stress a more “objective” and formal sacramental practice of the faith and those who are called “pietists”—who stress subjective, inward experience.

    It seems to me that, especially since the 1970’s, evangelical religion has swung almost completely to the pietistic end of the spectrum. The dangers of this include a dismissal of serious theological thinking, a flat rejection of forms and sacraments, an undue focus on emotions, experience, and mystical knowledge, a “holiness” emphasis that easily becomes moralistic and legalistic, an unthinking submission to charismatic leaders, and spiritual elitism.

    This may go well beyond the single word you talk about today, but I think it gives context for why so many use words like this and think there must be some level of compulsion and emotional intensity to my practice of the Christian faith or it’s not valid.

    • You raise an interesting point here. There seems to be a big gap between formal, objective believers and those who are more prone to emotional forms of worship and the other things you’ve said. I try to find the middle ground here – I don’t think God wants us to be stodgy killjoys like many people think of the Christians, but at the same time I think learning solid theology and apologetics is a lot more important than many of my peers think.

  4. I am also troubled by the burden that pastors inflict on congregations with an exhortation to be “passionate” about their faith. Sometimes it’s all we can do to drag our faithless bodies through those church doors.

    • Jane, as a pastor I am troubled by the expectations of some that we pastors have to be passionate about our vision, mission, etc. I certainly agree with you–just saying that there is a concern about passion as described here by pastors too.

  5. hewhocutsdown says

    You know that I’ve got to point you over to David Mitchell’s take on passion, now:

  6. It is interesting how words evolve – [ in a way that is right or wrong].

    I think instantly of the word ‘guilty’.

    To say I feel guilty , as it is commonly used, is incorrect.

  7. I think you made some valid points but the choice offered in the last sentence is just another one of those false dichotomies where the answer shouldn’t be “either … or” but “both … and”.

    Anything that’s good and proper can be and will be distorted by our self-absorbed minds. But why throw out the baby with the bathwater?

    The Gospels indicate that Jesus often was moved by powerful emotions – if I remember it correctly, it’s the word “splangizomai” which points to strong pity and compassion felt in the gut. Another quote that comes to mind in this whole context is Jesus’ expressed will to bring fire on the earth and his desire to see it kindled already (Lk.12:49) or the rebuke to the Laodicean church for only being lukewarm (Rev.3:16). I don’t see why “passionate” can’t simply mean: “Here is something that is really important and precious to me – so much that it moves me not only internally but also to action!”

    • Jesus’ passion was entirely under control and in tune with the Father’s will. I don’t believe that’s the case with most people who use the word “passion” nowadays. I wouldn’t want to have a world of apathetic lotos eaters; at the same time, people convinced that the strength of their feelings justifies their agenda can be dangerous.

  8. I suspect we’re just witnessing a temporary pendulum swing in the direction of emotionalism and spiritual experience — which is probably a reaction to the somewhat Stoic and primarily cerebral atmosphere of mainstream denominationalism that dominated the Western Christian landscape for most of the twentieth century — which emerged after the emotional fire of frontier revivalism started to fade — which was, in many ways, a rebellion against the truly uptight and intellectual Christianity of the Enlightenment era. And, of course, we could trace these pendulum swings back and forth all the way back to the first century — and even trace them back into preChristian history of ancient Judaism if we wanted.
    God created us as both emotional and intellectual beings — and in both are made in His image. Some people are more ruled by emotions, some people live strictly between their ears, and some are pulled back and forth between these two poles. As followers of Christ, we are called to be ruled by Him and His Spirit — which means both focusing our intellects on Him and His truths and giving ourselves emotionally to Him, as a bride to her husband. The problem in church history has been that we (collectively as the church) rarely manage to do both at the same time. It’s usually either one or the other that becomes our main focus. And while the pendulum remains on one side or the other, the tendency is to solidify and fortify church institutions in a state of unbalance — in the misguided hope that the pendulum can be held to one side or the other forever by force of will. And when the pendulum inevitably swings the other way, you get reformations, revolutions, and many people abandoning all things “old” in pursuit of new wine, while those who prefered the old wine grow disgruntled and bitter about the whole state of affairs.

  9. The emphasis on passion comes primarily from the industrial revolution and information revolution of the past couple of centuries. This has produced a large middle class whose day-to-day jobs involve mundane tasks, but yet produce finances and free time. This leads to a desire to have something outside a trade that provides the human need for purpose and identity. Pastors have given people what they want to hear, that God has a plan for you and wants you to be passionate about it.

    The problem is that for many this seems hollow. For those with complicated family situations, those with severe health problems or carrying for someone with health problems, or those who struggle to provide food for their families, life is not about passion but surviving.

  10. I also cringe when I hear the misuse and overuse of the word passion. And after reading this wonderful post I will never again refer to passion in the same way. Thank you for helping me/us become aware of the two roads that we can take and why the one promoted by so many in our day is clearly not the right one for a mature follower of Jesus.

  11. The best work is done by people who are dogged, not by those who are passionate. This is true everywhere, but perhaps most evident on the missions field where emotions run so much higher than in the secular workplace (for reason Allen describes in the preceding post). People arrive on the foreign missions field with bright faces and enthusiasm for what they imagine are “these lovely people whom Jesus has sent me to uplift!”

    That infatuation will crash after a week or a month when the new arrival gets stolen from or defrauded or insulted or made sick with bad food or witnesses shocking cruelty or corruption. It always happens, because the “lovely people” are, in fact, sinners.

    And then the missionary will either retrench into the ex-pat community or else resume his or her mission among the unreached people. If he does the latter, it will be because it’s his job — not because it’s his passion. But he’ll be able to do some good.

  12. SearchingAnglican says

    Weird. REM’s “Talk about the Passion” was playing on Pandora as I was reading this post:

    Empty prayer, empty mouths, combien reaction
    Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion
    Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
    Not everyone can carry the weight of the world

    Talk about the passion
    Talk about the passion

  13. Is this post intended to deal exclusively with the use of the word in a spiritual/religious setting or also in a general, every day setting? It is my experience that the word is used, primarily, in an every day setting where the speaker is clearly using the word to mean “enthusiasm” or “an aim or object pursued with zeal.”

    Just as an example, I might say that I am “passionate” about such and such sports team. Now, I would think my intended listener would understand my intended usage of the word. I would also hope that it would be pretty obvious that I wasn’t invoking anything spiritual and, most importantly, that I wasn’t comparing my “passion” for that team to the suffering of, or feelings experienced by, Christ or the martyrs.

    Are you suggesting that such a usage is “dangerous?”

    • I think words should be used carefully in every context. Even when speaking of secular things, few people really mean “passionate” — if they do, then they should of course say so, but not if they’re just enthusiastic or concerned. Words used too often and too carelessly become a debased currency. I once heard a warning addressed to news reporters, but we can take it to heart, too: Make sure that when the end of the world comes, you still have words to describe it. If we’re always passionate, if everything is always a disaster or a supreme triumph, if we’re never pleased or disappointed but always ecstatic or devastated, if we’re “literally” dead or torn in two or over the moon, then what can we say when something really big happens?

      The issue of using inflated language to boast or trump someone else has to be dealt with case by case. Some people do that, some don’t.

      • ” If we’re always passionate, if everything is always a disaster or a supreme triumph, if we’re never pleased or disappointed but always ecstatic or devastated, if we’re “literally” dead or torn in two or over the moon, then what can we say when something really big happens?”

        This is very true. I suppose even the most watered down definition of “passion” goes above and beyond the reality of the feelings intended to be expressed in most cases. It’s funny, because I used the word last night (although, generally, and for whatever reason, I rarely use it). In light of your post, I can see that, by definition, I really am not “passionate” about what I claimed to be “passionate” about. Ha.

        Good post. Thanks.

  14. Just another way evangelicalism sometimes merely copies the culture, in this case by overuse of the latest trendy word until its meaning and relevance is diminished to the point of uselessness. At worst, it becomes just another marketing tool. Fleeting, temporary and restless. True passion is more often revealed by a deep and unwavering commitment, often carried out quietly and away from the limelight. But that doesn’t play as well or as easily to the masses.

  15. When passion becomes a qualifier to determine if someone is truly saved, then it becomes part of a works religion. It’s part of the merry-go-round that Gerhard Forde talked about: am I really saved? Am I really, really, REALLY saved? No amount of emotions or passion is ever enough; there’s no getting off the merry-go-round.

    The real frustration I have with “passion” is how it is directed toward youth. I have seen kids at youth retreats worked up into such an emotional state that they sob inconsolably – partly because they could not deal with the emotional overload. I have seen kids come back from youth retreats reporting how they “felt” God there. I am suppose to believe, according to Ken Ham, that these kids will fall away from their faith if they don’t become young earth creationists? Instead, has it occurred to anyone that these kids will fall away once these emotions wear off, or they are no longer in the youth group sub-culture that continually intoxicates them with this emotionalism? Once they “sober up”, won’t they feel like they have been taken for a ride? Are they not at that point going to struggle with doubt, that the whole thing was an hallucination? As I heard someone say on a radio program years ago (White Horse Inn or Issues, etc. – can’t remember which), church youth groups are gateways secularism; the kids simply move on to the “harder” drugs.

    There truly is a place for passion. King David’s psalms are full of passion. But his hope was in God and His Salvation – not his own passion, strength, or understanding.

  16. My experience of overload with the same phenomenon: What’s your passion?.

  17. Thank you for this – I got sick of the word “passion” and “passionate” people long ago but have had a hard time finding words to describe exactly what is wrong there. I think you hit the nail on the head. This seems to me to be an evidence of the triumph of romanticism where people are evaluated on their strength of feeling or emotion. Also, as Chaplain Mike points out, this is also evidence of the triumph of pietism. It is also strange how many in various denominations that are rooted in the reformation either forget or never knew the suspicion in which many of the reformers held those they called “enthusiasts.” In my own experience in the church the people who are most “passionate” seem to me to be very in love with their own emotions and have a low tolerance for people who are simply faithful and quiet in slogging away at their tasks, getting jobs done, and fulfilling their calling. And they are usually the least faithful to a particular body of believers. Again, thanks for this – this is one case where I hope this post can become a meme.

  18. This post has been on my mind since last week. The more I look at it, the more I see passion as a recurring theme in scripture. You see it in the Desire of all nations. You see it in the deer that yearns for running streams. You see it in God loving his people as a bride. You see it in the metaphor of a runner straining for the finish. Passion as the desire for ultimate consummation is biblical. But biblical passion and constancy live side-by-side, like a lion and lamb. We crave that ultimate fulfillment only found when we see Jesus face-to-face, but like Psalm 131, our souls are at rest as already possessing that fulfillment. What seems missing from evangelical passion is that peace, tranquility and constancy. It’s why evangelicals always think worship should surpass a football game in passion and find a world of silence and quiet meditation so alien. Passion then becomes mere constant agitation. Passion without peace becomes suicidal.

  19. tmi

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