We are told our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12). This is hardly a comforting picture, especially if one’s conception of “God” runs to the unicorns and rainbows end of the spectrum. However, fire can burn, but it can also purify. Fire can destroy but also heal or cauterize. It is a metaphorical, poetic description, as God is not literal physical fire, but it should still give us pause.
Many have suggested that heaven and hell are simply the names we give for how a person, when that day comes, will react or respond to the love, mercy, and grace of God—or God’s presence. Will the experience be one of a fire that consumes destructively or of a fire that consumes redemptively? Will it be a fire that burns or a fire that heals? Heaven and hell reside, somewhere, in those flames.
A big step for me coming out of the funda-gelical world was thinking about how we (fundamentalist/evangelicals) thought we knew or experienced God. In my mind, the FG world understood “knowing” God in mostly analytical, linear, and rational ways. It was primarily in our heads. It seemed a straightforward correspondence, one-to-one link, to Bible knowledge and our thoughts regarding the information therein. We “knew” God to the extent we knew the content of our Bibles. We thought more and more Bible knowledge, Scripture familiarization, memorization, and knowledge gained from commentaries, pastors, theologians, etc., translated to, or equaled, knowing God.
(Quick note to the above: I know I am speaking in generalities. I know there are fundamentalists/evangelicals who do not think the above is true about themselves—and maybe they are right. I also know that Pentecostals/Charismatics see this differently too. Duly noted)
I began to see however that the road taken above, more often than not, simply created really good Pharisees. What it didn’t do, often enough, was create followers of Jesus. Further, this is what fundamentalism does in whatever form it takes. It substitutes knowledge about, information of, for knowledge of the other– meaning a personal, emotional, spiritual, and mysterious knowledge or encounter. In the first sense, it is the knowledge a medical examiner might gain from an autopsy. In the second sense, it is the knowledge the medical examiner has of his or her lover. Both types of knowledge are important, but one is critical to the claim we “know” a person, a “god,” etc.
The deceptive thing about the FG approach is that it allows one to stand just close enough to the fire to get warm, but never burned or…consumed. It is really the opposite of faith. It watches from a distance. It lurks. It stalks. It remains in the shadows without ever really asserting its intentions. The FG world is the boy standing on one side of the high school gym, longing for and gazing across the room at the girl he would like to ask to dance, but never does. He knows something about her, they’ve passed each other in the hall, but he’s never approached her or talked to her. It is a faith of regret; or, better, a faith in the knowledge he has about the girl, which can only end in regret.
I’m beginning to see that faith in God, becoming a Christ follower, living by the Holy Spirit, is really about jumping into the fire, consequences be damned. This is something we do beyond mere knowledge “of” or cold calculation. Country singer Garth Brooks sings a song entitled, “Standing Outside the Fire.” Here are some of the lyrics:
“We call them cool, those hearts that have no scars to show, the ones that never do let go, and risk the tables being turned…We call them fools, who have to dance within the flame, who chance the sorrow and the shame, that always comes with getting burned… We call them weak, who are unable to resist the slightest chance love might exist, and for that forsake it all…They’re so hell-bent on giving, walking a wire convinced it’s not living if you stand outside the fire…Standing outside the fire, life is not tried, it is merely survived If you’re standing outside the fire…There’s this love that is burning deep in my soul constantly yearning to get out of control, wanting to fly higher and higher, I can’t abide standing outside the fire…”
If it is anything, the Christian life, salvation, is life inside the fire, which, paradoxically, means the fire is inside us. What God calls us to, I believe, is an abandonment to the flames, to being consumed, used up, and burned up, in the Trinitarian fire. What lies on the other side of such abandonment, if there even is another side? I don’t know. And neither do you. That is why it is called faith, but at least it is living and not just surviving.
The Fire Inside Us
Tonight a mist hangs on the wilted flowers in the iron ground
and cold birds twitch on wires running over the frozen fields.
There is no way to tell you that winter will last a few months,
and then thaw, or that these hopping birds, like clots of coal
against the snow, will nest tonight in the barn, warm with straw
and the sweet breath of cows.
Windows close with my breath as I go from room to room,
watching the lane, listening to the silver wires thrumming along
the curving banks of snow where foxes snuffle and burrow
in their winter sleep. These are the things we loved together,
naming the animals, watching the pond freeze over, the last geese
rising into their winter flyways—are the things I thought
would hold you, that and our love and the fire inside us.
I will take my bath and stand naked against the cold window until
you call me to bed where we will move against each other, feeling
the length of our bodies as we talk of the day and the farm
before we grow quiet, listening to the leaves brushing the window
and the sudden bark of the fox in Turley’s Woods, —until we sleep,
that long winter sleep, breathing the fire inside us.