The Consuming Fire

Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire.

— Hebrews 12:28-29

If this be hard to understand, it as the simple, absolute truth is hard to understand. It may be centuries of ages before a man comes to see a truth—ages of strife, of effort, of aspiration. But when once he does see it, it is so plain that he wonders he could have lived without seeing it. That he did not understand it sooner was simply and only that he did not see it. To see a truth, to know what it is, to understand it, and to love it, are all one. There is many a motion towards it, many a misery for want of it, many a cry of the conscience against the neglect of it, many a dim longing for it as an unknown need before at length the eyes come awake, and darkness of the dreamful night yields to the light of the sun of truth. But once beheld it is forever.

For this vision of truth God has been working for ages of ages. For this simple condition, this apex of life, upon which a man wonders like a child that he cannot make other men see as he sees, the whole labor of God’s science, history, poetry, was evolving truth upon truth in lovely vision, in torturing law; and for this will the patience of God labors while there is yet a human soul whose eyes have not been opened, whose child-heart has not yet been born in him. For this one condition of humanity, this simple beholding, has all the outthinking of God flowed in forms innumerable from the foundation of the world; and for this, too, has the divine destruction been going forth; that his life might be our life, that in us, too, might dwell that same consuming fire which is essential love.

2018 Commentary

THE WOOING WILL OF GOD
by Dave Roney

"It may be centuries of ages before a man comes to see a truth...For this vision of truth God has been working for ages of ages."

How spectacular it is, The Will; and how little of it, mysterious, profound, we truly understand.  To know is to understand, and we can know what is the good and perfect Will of God yet remain as far from comprehending it as the east is from the west; for to understand is to know in part, to comprehend is to know exhaustively, the former is within man's realm, the latter reserved for God alone.  St. Paul speaks to both the knowing and the inexhaustible, saying “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33)— he knows in part the things of God, yet in knowing he, still in all, describes what he knows as unsearchable, inscrutable, thus incomprehensible.

Our minds are those that can only know in part, can never know anything at all exhaustively; we are those ever learning but never arriving at comprehensive, exhaustive, knowledge of the thing we are learning.  The Infinitude of God, consider it; it permeates all there is in God.  His Love, His wisdom, His goodness, mercy, judgment, patience, provision—everything of God is, then, to be known by us (for He is utterly transparent, is the God Who continuously reveals and hides nothing) but we can never, due to our finite composition, comprehensively understand.  A man may own a dog, and if the dog were ideal, it would know its master, know what the man's will for it is, and be utterly obedient to the man; the faithful hound would, in such case, know but could never comprehend all that is in his master, though he live a hundred years and learn more every day.

And do we not work to know better our child, our spouse, our friend?  And knowing them well, could any say they know these exhaustively?  Do not the sciences present to us new depths and dimensions of things common, known by us, ever describing deeper intricacies, expanding our knowledge; and when will science ever come to the foundations of any thing and be able to say “This we know exhaustively, there is nothing else to be learned concerning it?”  Or, what aged theologian, having studied the Scriptures for half a century, could ever say he had plumbed the depths and exhausted all there is to be learned from it?  We are the small children of our Father, and as earthly small children find their world one of discovery and exploration, so also are we; it is as though the more we learn the less we truly know, for when we had only a single simple thing before us we thought we had a grasp on it, but as knowledge increased, and questions came, and new areas of learning opened we, in retrospect, look back and admit we knew hardly anything about it.

The Will which is God's not only meshes with all His Attributes, both Communicable (those He shares with His creatures—such as love, patience, emotion, and in fact will) and Incommunicable (those reserved only to Himself—immutability, eternality, infinitude, etc.)— His Will is the expression of all these; it is what we perceive as the outshowing of His innermost Self.  This great Will, unlike ours, is Perfect throughout, consummate and comprehensive Goodness, even as are all His Attributes; His Will is the working of God, for it is ever active and never passive, is always by its motions, mysterious to us as they may be, revealing and moving toward a final, glorious, end; that what is Truth in Him may reign throughout His creation; for, “From Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things.”

“For this vision of truth God has been working for ages of ages.”

There is a striking difference between The Will and man's will which is obvious; Paul continues the above quoted verse by “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable His ways!"  Man's will is to seek his own; God's will is to seek the good of others.  Man's will is selfish, God's will is self-forgetting.  Man's will is a corruption of the Divine Will, God's will is pure and holy, better and beyond what we are able to think or imagine.  By will men destroy and plunder to lay up for themselves treasures on earth; but God's will is ever to redeem, restore, renovate, renew and reconcile, to recreate men and matter—a new Heaven and Earth peopled with true sons and daughters, those destined by Him from eternity to reign and rule, to share in all His possessions, the chief thing being He Himself, the Treasure, to be His heirs and joint heirs with His Son.  If God has, in fact, by His Will been working for ages of ages "for this vision of the truth," what is that vision, and what is that truth?  And behind these questions lies a third: How is He working?

Here, for the sake of brevity, I must gloss.  His vision is the only eternal one; it is to see, to know and do comprehensively the Truth, to be sure and to insure that all His Will is done; He has secured it through Christ Jesus our Atoner.  What is the Truth?  It is for us, now, due to our finite ability to understand, all that is detectable in the Lord Christ; there is more, much more, which shall be revealed to us in a coming age—it will not be different than what we know in Christ, Who is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by his powerful word, but there will be even more for us.  No man has seen God at any time—but in a coming age we shall see Him, will physically sit in His lap and kiss His Father cheek as the revelaion of Himself continues to unfurl, as we come more to know Him as He is.

But the key thing I would speak to in the space remaining is this: How does God work to accomplish all His Will?  In this working is the truth that “His ways are not our ways.”  The bent of man in the pursuit and acquisition of what is his will is to accomplish it by force.  To get what he wants, what he wills for himself, a man may seek it apart from using force, but that is only because in such case he knows he cannot use force; it is a parallel to the Lord's teaching that there is adultery, but when a man lusts for a woman in his heart he is guilty of adultery even though he not touch the woman.  So also is force behind man's will, either overt or latent, it is in the man's heart; he will do what he can, however he may, to get the thing he desires, the thing he wills for himself.  If he has power over another, he will be the tyrant, he will bring force to bear to see his will done.  There is a quote from C.S. Lewis which made a profound impression on me when I first read it; it is the old demon speaking to his nephew, as follows:

"Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.” ("Screwtape Letters," pgs. 24-25)

When God created man it was “in His image;” a portion of that image, important, is that even as God is an agent of free will, so also is man.  And do you see what a contradiction God would become to Himself if, having given man free will, He then violated that free will by superimposing His Will over that of the creature?  Whereas man would achieve his will by force, “He cannot ravish.”  God, to honor Himself and also the creature He made in His image, “can only woo.”  A man cannot force a woman to love him; much less so is God capable of such imposition, for to do so would violate the nature of God and man alike, and Love would be lost forever, replaced by the unwilling motions of an automaton, as those without say in the matter, robbed by God of the ability to reciprocate freely, to love even as they are Loved.  With all that is within the Divine Heart God's desire, His will, is that men understand, know, accept and love Him even as He loves, but against the puny hand of man Omnipotence is stopped; He cannot force that which must be freely given:

“For this simple condition, this apex of life, upon which a man wonders like a child that he cannot make other men see as he sees, the whole labor of God's science, history, poetry, was evolving truth upon truth in lovely vision, in torturing law; and for this Will the patience of God labors while there is yet a human soul whose eyes have not been opened, whose child-heart has not yet been born in him.”

To accomplish His Will, God, the self-forgetting God, is working in time to woo the hearts of men to Himself.  It may be of an instant that a man will give himself to His master, but it may take all the years of his life, and beyond the grave, extending to “ages of ages,” before the Prodigal “comes to his senses” and is willing, desiring, to receive the one true Love of the universe and claim it as his own.  

Both he and God shall suffer because of his selfish creature-will.  The man by strife and unrest, by pain and by death, by hearing the One Who loves him and washes him in His own blood and refusing Him over, and over, and over again—and thereby living a ghost-life, a living-death, as a vagabond strayed far from the hearth of his true home; his is the voice of one crying in the wilderness but not knowing the One Who hears his cry and Who would comfort him immediately, if only he would will to have it so.

God has suffered infinitely more than the man; He has died, miserably, as the man's only Atonement; He is willing to go to any length, pay any price, suffer any indignity, endure any insult, to await with indescribable, in fact infinite, patience the willing coming home of His child no matter how long it takes, regardless of the spurn heaped upon Him, the unrequited love, the utter giving of all Himself to His precious beloved—He will do it, do it all, do it without hesitation, will do it till Heaven itself crumbles and Hell freezes over if necessary; His Love, intrepid, radical, without compromise, wholly apart from any desert to be found or self-supposed in the recipient.  Man suffers for this Redemption, and because man suffers, so also God must suffer to accomplish it.

Now we must end, with much more unsaid than said; we will do it with a word concerning this:

“For this one condition of humanity, this simple beholding, has all the outthinking of God flowed in forms innumerable from the foundation of the world; and for this, too, has the Divine destruction been going forth; that His life might be our life, that in us, too, might dwell that same Consuming Fire which is essential Love.”

In this world we know how a parent must sometimes discipline a child, and a good earthly parent does it not in retribution but only to correct, for the good of the child.  And we also know that the discipline itself can fall short, only affecting the physical part of the child as long as his heart remains incorrigible, as long as his will remains recalcitrant.  And it may take many years before such a child comes to see, to know, to accept, that what went before was for his good; and when he comes to that point he will no longer hate it but will love it, and love the more his parents who administered it.  The parent does not discipline to destroy the child, but to drive out the destruction that is in the child.  So also is the work of God, our Consuming Fire, burning out of us our dross so that this destruction of Self works to guide us so that “His life might be our life.”  So that His Will and our will become one, that in our innermost hearts we pray sincerely, and live truly “Not my will but Your Will be done.”

And the Consuming Fire works in yet another way as well, that of consequence.  An earthly parent may beseech their child, lead by example, warn against what will accrue if the child does or does not do a certain thing; yet, is it not often that one must “learn by experience?”  And thus the Consuming Fire, the Living Loving Father, Who cannot ravish but can only woo, must stand aside, refusing to override the free will of the creature, and allow calamity to occur, both in the creature and in the creature's world.  And in the background, often ignored, always at great and sometimes tragic expense to us as we exercise wrongly the gift of free will, is the Voice of that Fire whispering through His Spirit, “Come to Me all ye ends of the earth and be saved.”  Saved not from Hell or to Heaven, but saved from our own old miserable selves.  And The Will is to will that none should perish but that all should come to repentance, to be saved not from the Fire but be drawn into it and become part and parcel with it.  This is the vision and the truth for us:

“It may be centuries of ages before a man comes to see a truth—ages of strife, of effort, of aspiration.  But when once he does see it, it is so plain that he wonders he could have lived without seeing it.  That he did not understand it sooner was simply and only that he did not see it.”

O Lord, mix Your divine spittle with our clayish dust to make a poultice for our eyes which do not see; let Your Spirit apply the balm, let us, help us, to be willing to receive it that we might finally see as You see, know even as we are known, be at peace as our will becomes one with Your Will.  And though you burn us with Your Fire, as You must, we pray you burn us not a whit more than You must; consume in us all which is dross, leave to us our gold, make us pure, give us Life abundant, and that forevermore. Amen.

 

 

2017 Commentary: The Hound of Heaven

by Dave Roney

“For this vision of truth God has been working for ages of ages.”

Bonhoeffer once said that no one can understand “In the beginning” because no one was there in the beginning to see or understand it.  In somewhat like manner, I cannot understand truly the words of MacDonald, taken from the reading for January 11th, which say that “God has been working for ages of ages” for His vision of Truth.  The best I can do is to think of the “ages of ages” in a personal sense, taking my life as the grid for comprehension; and in my life God has worked, is still working, over many long years to accomplish all His will.  Through turbulent early youth, through debauch, through atheism and alcoholism, through ecclesiastic legalism, through lack as well as excess, through grievous wounds, illness, youth and present decline, through many other things and in sundry ways God has always been working on me, in me, and now perhaps also through me, using sin as well as virtue, working in my intellect, my emotions, my body, my heart, through every conceivable aspect of me over my entire life and being, steadily, inexorably, by both drawing and prodding, in every way at all times in every circumstance and situation, bringing to birth in me the likeness of Christ Jesus, His “vision of the Truth.” 

 

There are “ages of ages” of which my existence is only a small part; it is in the practical sense of understanding “ages of ages” as the “years upon years” of my own life, that I can glimpse the greater and broader element of time which is here set before us.  I understand that even as God has been working in my life for years upon years to bring to fruition in me His vision of Truth, so also He has been doing it for all those generations preceding mine and those which will follow after me, and doing it as well, now, in you, and in all our contemporaries, doing it in space and time and matter throughout all which He has created, working from “In the beginning” without pause, for His “vision of the Truth.” 

 

Let us now consider what means this “working” which God is for “ages of ages” doing; it is His relentless, dauntless, visceral pursuit, the Divine doggedness of the Loving God Who will not be stopped, discouraged, frustrated, Whose Will wills that the will of every creature shall in the end become one with His Will, accomplishing His end through the beautiful and harmless force of Love alone.  For satisfaction of this pursuit He has humbled Himself, has paid the supreme and inestimable Price, has gone to every length, endured any and all humiliation, has sacrificed Himself entirely to redeem and restore His creation and all contained within it.  The magnitude of what God has done, is and will continue to do, by this “working” transcends what the mind and heart of man is able to even imagine.  And the poet, realizing the intrepid nature of God's pursuit writes:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways”
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

From:The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

https://youtu.be/gToj6SLWz8Q