“I’ve seen it many times. The Cage Stage. A believer’s eyes are opened to the majesty of God as the sovereign King of the universe, and their entire life is turned upside down. And for a while, they have more zeal than they have knowledge.” – Dr. James White
Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. It is a desire which no man feels by nature– which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted– but which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called “zealous” men. 1 Unfortunately, zeal unbridled will make a fool of even the most theologically versed man. Lest you think me merely throwing stones, I assure you, as Paul famously did, I am the least of these. Indubitably, those who have so graciously followed this ministry from its inception can attest to the reality that I went through a season of unbridled zeal; one that left me with many broken relationships and a church family lost.
As I finalize my notes for an upcoming sermon from James 3:1-6, the obvious connection between zeal and the untamable tongue is increasingly convicting. Today, I want to focus on the zeal portion of that equation and its most prominent manifestation known as the Cage Stage. Zeal for the truth in and of itself is inherently a good thing. Many in scripture petitioned God for and professed their zeal for the Lord; examples of this include but are not limited to Jehu in 2 Kings 10:16, King David in Psalm 69:9, Elijah in 1 Kings 19:10, Paul in Romans 12:11, and Paul again in Galatians 4:18. That final reference, Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, he says, “But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you.”
Though many of us, through our pride-filled actions, have denigrated the term “zeal” to the point many look upon it with disdain, the reality is that zeal is a good thing! The key distinction is that we must be zealous for a “good thing” and we must not violate the areas in Scripture which command and direct our behavior and attitude toward others. John Wesley was denied the privilege of preaching from the pulpit in the church; but with true evangelistic fervor took his father’s tomb for a pulpit and preached to the people the great truths of full salvation. Whitefield loved field preaching. Returning from a tour he lighted a candle and went upstairs to retire, weary after the journey; but the people gathered in front of the house and filled the street; and there on the stairway with a lighted candle in his hand, he preached his last message, retired and was no more; for God took him.
John Knox, who cried out in his earnestness, “Give me Scotland or I die,” carried with him this zeal to the close of his ministry. Often he would be supported by attendants in order to reach the pulpit; but when he arose to speak the divine passion so filled his soul that one of his friends said: “So mighty was he in his yearning that I thought he would break the pulpit into bits.”2 Again, zeal is a good and Biblical attribute when bridled by the behavioral truths of Scripture.
Unfortunately, not all zeal is bridled by Scripture and, to that end, the briefly aforementioned Cage Stage is real.
Though not an “official” term of any sort, Dr. James White has popularized the term in recent history and defined it in his short book, Drawn By the Father, as when “…a believer’s eyes are opened to the majesty of God as the sovereign King of the universe, and their entire life is turned upside down. And for a while, they have more zeal than they have knowledge… That period in the experience of the new Calvinist where they would be better off kept in a cage until they can gain enough maturity to handle these vitally important topics aright. That time when they are more likely to hurt themselves, and others!… When they are all running around smacking someone upside the head with Pink’s The Sovereignty of God.“
Earlier, I not so proudly claimed to be “the least of these” as it pertained to the topic of unbridled zeal. The truth is that I am ‘exhibit A’ in what can happen to a young believer drunk with passion yet lacking the necessity of accountability and oversight from a solid New Testament church. What’s even more terrifying, as I think back to those days, I had no idea I was one of those guys! See, I already knew about this phenomena, I had a working knowledge of its reality and propensity to ensnare young men. Yet, without proper leadership and personal accountability to Scripture, my passion and zeal ran wild. You don’t even know you’re in the thick of it until you turn around and see the wasteland of broken friendships, wounded family members, and other “cage stagers” pushing you along, encouraging you to never turn around again.
Again, it’s a terrifying realization. Please understand, to this day I do not regret the truths I espoused during that time. My writings were truthful and Scripturally accurate. Sadly, however, I was utterly devoid of grace and humility in my delivery. Make no mistake, while I was regenerated, I was also in sin.
The point of this article is not to self-flagellate yet again, I have repented of my sin and Christ’s shed blood has forgiven me. Rather, I recount my own story as a call to those reading to check your hearts, take account of your motivations, and examine your behavior in those times you stand for Biblical truth. There is no condemnation in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but our words should be seasoned. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.” (Col 4:6) If you’re a gospel bully, intimidator, or manipulator, you are in sin and I beg of you to repent.
R.C. Sproul wisely remarked, “Recognizing the Spirit’s work, however, does not mean we are silent or stop believing the truth of Scripture. We don’t give up the doctrines of grace to keep peace in the family or with friends. John Piper puts it well when he says that we not only have to believe the truth, that it’s not enough even to defend the truth, but we must also contend for the truth. That does not mean, however, that we are to be contentious people by nature. So yes, we are to share what we have learned about God’s sovereign grace with those around us.”3
Consistency of life must be followed by consistency of speech. As Paul wrote, the speech of the new man must also be seasoned… with salt. It is not only to be gracious, but also to have an effect. Salt can sting when rubbed into a wound (Prov. 27:6). It also prevents corruption. Believers’ speech should act as a purifying influence, rescuing conversation from the filth that so often engulfs it. Salt also adds flavor, and the speech of the new man should add charm and wit to conversation.4 Beating people up verbally is the very antitheses to this Biblical prescription.
Make no mistake, the Cage Stage is real… and it’s terrifying. And let us not think we are to be perfect, as James 3:2 says, “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” We are going to stumble, but God is rich in mercy, sovereign, and He reigns supreme over all. Further, as Pastor Nate and I discussed in Fire Away! Episode 057, the Lord has prescribed checks and balances within a faithful local church body to help keep you accountable and on a path of further sanctification.
Submit to your leaders (Heb 13:17) and turn to Christ.
- Galaxie Software. (2002). 10,000 Sermon Illustrations. Biblical Studies Press. ↩
- Tan, P. L. (1996). Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (pp. 1669–1670). Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc. ↩
- Sproul, R. (2013, December 1). Escaping the “Cage Stage”. Retrieved February 19, 2016, from ligonier.org ↩
- What Does It Mean for Our Speech to be “Seasoned with Salt”? (2014, March 21). Retrieved February 19, 2016, from gty.org ↩