Earnestness in our day is becoming all the more admirable for being rare. The age of scrolling, skimming, and lol’ing, by and large, has made us a lighter, more superficial, more fragile people. Many of us have slowly developed an allergy to seriousness. Our hearts faint too easily.
The bright lives of a few, though, pierce through this spiritual fog, and sparkle with a reality that has grown dim for many. Their words, their priorities, their responses repeatedly reveal that Christ has captured their fuller devotion. They delight to sacrifice and serve when others would groan and make excuses. They seem stronger in the face of adversity, kinder in the midst of conflict, more joyful than others, even in suffering. They have a focus that eludes the stressed and distracted. We’re drawn to them (and perhaps sometimes intimidated by them), because their lives remind us of what really matters, of the world that exists below the surface of our senses, of the spiritual war for our souls. Time with them stimulates us to pray more, love more, and grow more.
These saints have many qualities in common, but one is that, in the words of 2 Corinthians 8:7, they excel in earnestness.
Slothful in Zeal
Christian earnestness is a settled and joy-filled intensity toward God. As Hebrews 6:11–12 says,
We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Earnestness is the opposite of spiritual dullness, laziness, apathy, complacency. Like all believers, the earnest experience seasons of doubt and struggle and discouragement, but even then (maybe especially then), the flame of their faith burns warmer and brighter than expected.
Where else is this spiritual fire mentioned? The apostle Paul exhorts us, “Do not be slothful in zeal” — same word — “be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). That verse alone calls for some serious reflection and prayer. How often have we felt slothful in zeal? How often have we felt spiritually aflame? And how comfortable have many of us grown with our persistent sluggishness? Do we still pray for God to rekindle the fire we once had?
The daily fight for faith is often fought in the trenches of our own dullness. Like the mercy that comes every morning, we each need a fresh awakening for the day at hand.
Sinners Set Aflame
This word for earnestness (Greek spoudei) appears most often (four times) in 2 Corinthians 7–8. In these two chapters, the apostle outlines the deadly difference between godly grief over sin and ungodly grief. “Godly grief,” he says, “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The Corinthians had been neglecting to discipline those who had sought to discredit and ruin Paul, so when he wrote his previous (and painful) letter (see 2 Corinthians 2:2), he meant for his words to grieve them. But he wanted them to experience a godly grief, a repentant grief, a hopeful grief, a grief that leads to salvation — not the shallow, self-centered sorrow so many, even atheists, often feel over the consequences of sin. What did the apostle want to happen in them as they were confronted with their sin?
Although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 7:12)
As you prepare to stand before God, Paul says, I want you to see your own earnestness in his eyes. I want you to savor the spiritual fire my letter has sparked in you.
And the Corinthians did grieve well. Paul affirms them, “See what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal” (2 Corinthians 7:11). As they were confronted with their sin, they not only acknowledged it, and repented of it, but they were also filled with a fresh, sobered, active sense of reality. Serious conviction before God birthed a more serious devotion to God and a more serious love for others.
Notice that this awakening, this earnestness, was seeded by a hard word from Paul. Rebuke, as unpleasant as it may feel in the moment, is often an invitation from God into greater spiritual sanity and vitality. And yet, too often, we instead wallow in self-pity, miss the invitation, and forfeit the fire we might have experienced.
Growing in Earnestness
That the Corinthians lacked earnestness and then grew to excel in it means that, however spiritually sluggish we feel, we too can grow in earnestness. What might it look like to pursue earnestness? The word appears again in 2 Peter 1:3–8 — “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,” and so on. One might say, “With all earnestness, supplement your faith with virtue . . .” In these verses, Peter gives us windows into what sets the earnest apart.
The earnest consistently live and build on a firmer foundation, with higher and more Godward priorities, while drawing on a wealth of resources so few learn to access.
Foundations of Earnestness
First, the earnest are unusually secure and settled, because they live and build on a firmer foundation. Peter writes, “[God has] called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort . . .” (2 Peter 1:3–4). Notice the convictions that fuel this earnestness:
God himself has called us to his glory and excellence.
God has granted us all of his precious and very great promises.
God has made us partakers of the divine nature — by his Spirit, he now lives in us and conforms us to himself.
God has delivered us from the corruption of this world.
Active awakeness to these realities produces gravity and freedom in a soul. They form a foundation underneath a person that keeps him or her from being tossed to and fro by circumstances. They steady and anchor our faith so that we can see more clearly and act more decisively in love.
Part of pursuing earnestness is assessing the ground beneath our feet. Are we really building our lives and ministries on the rocks God has laid before us in Christ? Are we finding our footing, morning by morning, upon the most important realities in the world, or have we become preoccupied with everything else?
Directions of Earnestness
In addition to security and stability, though, souls need direction. If the earnest make every effort, where does all that effort go? Many work hard, with unfettered passion, until they’re burnt out, but in all the wrong directions. The joy-filled intensity of godly earnestness, however, aligns its effort with the priorities of heaven.
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5–8)
Part of what sets the earnest apart is found in how they spend themselves. They devote themselves to spiritual concerns and opportunities over worldly ones — and they delight to do so.
The earnest have not fallen in love with this present world (2 Timothy 4:10), and so they refuse to pour their best energies into the passing parts of this life that feel so pressing. They seek truth like silver. They want, with God’s help, to master their cravings and impulses. They treasure godliness above anything they might achieve. They’re not content to love only a little, but want their love to “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9).
Wells of Earnestness
As the earnest make every effort toward faith, toward steadfastness, toward holiness, toward love, they do not rely on their own strength. They carry more than most longer than most precisely because they endure in the strength and grace of another. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:3).
When it comes to life and godliness, we are helpless on our own. Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If we really believed those seven words, they would solve an enormous amount of dysfunction in our hearts and relationships. But God did not leave us to ourselves. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” Through faith, God takes our nothing — our utter inability to think, feel, and act in ways that glorify him — and he gives us all things in Christ.
The earnest make their homes beside these wells. They know that heaven’s storehouses of strength, wisdom, courage, and love are only a prayer away. They draw constantly from the precious, great, and specific promises of God. His strength makes them look strong, but only because they know themselves weak without him.
Make Every Effort
Among those you know, who seems to live closest to Jesus? Whose life consistently pierces through the worldliness around you and shines with a supernatural quality? Whose words and actions are marked by both urgency and patience, ambition and humility, hunger and contentment? Whose conversations stimulate you to pray and love and grow more?
Make every effort to study, befriend, and imitate such saints. Their lives are a priceless testimony and reminder, and their camaraderie invaluable, in our shallow and distracted age. Disrupt any comfort you feel with your own sluggishness. Ask God for the grace to excel in earnestness.