Thursday, July 14, 2016

GM2016: God is a fire

Lärmfeuer 2010.JPG
By 4028mdk09 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9850897
Fire is a really common image in the New Testament.
John the Baptist talks about unfruitful trees being tossed in the fire (Luke 3:9), and so does Jesus (Matt 7:19). There's the famous "lake of fire" in Revelation (20:10, for example), reserved for the devil, Death, Hades, and the faithless. More hopefully, there are the flames of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and the purifying fire Paul describes in 1 Corinthians: fire that tests our works, reveals what was gold and what was straw; we're saved "through fire," he says (3:10-15).

Then there's Hebrews 12:29. It says there that "our God is a consuming fire."

For me, that verse doesn't bring up warm feelings. I think of the members of the Consuming Fire Fellowship who used to bring their bullhorns, their sandwich boards, and their small children to LSU's campus once a week to hand out pamphlets and to tell us that we'd all spend eternity in Hell, in the fire. (The verse also reminds me of the old Third Day song, "Consuming Fire.")

I was reading recently in Consuming Fire (does the title make sense now?), the book of daily selections from the 19th century Scottish pastor and inspiration to C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, when I came across this discussion of fire:
The fire of God, which is his essential being, his love, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns--that the farther from him, it burns the worse, and that when we turn and begin to approach him, the burning begins to change to comfort, which will grow to such bliss that the heart at length cries out with supreme gladness, "Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is no one on earth that I desire besides thee!" (Consuming Fire, June 19th, quoting Ps 73:25)
The fire is God's essential being, he says. It's God's love.

"Our God is a consuming fire" is such a frightening phrase, when you think about the menacing "fire that will never be quenched" (Mark 9:43) or Revelation's lake of fire. What does God do to people? But then there's also that idea that Hell is essentially the absence of God, separation from God ("depart from me," Matt 7:23). That's what MacDonald is hinting at here. The blazing fire of God's love only burns when we're far from it. The closer we get - it doesn't burn - it warms us, it comforts us, and it sets our hearts on fire too.

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