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

But we shall find that this very revelation of fire is itself, in a higher sense, true to the mind of the rejoicing saint as to the mind of the trembling sinner. For the former sees farther into the meaning of the fire, and knows better what it will do to him. It is a symbol which needed not to be superseded, only unfolded. While men take part with their sins, while they feel as if, separated from their sins, they would be no longer themselves, how can they understand that the lightning word is a Savior—that word which pierces to the dividing between the man and the evil, which will slay the sin and give life to the sinner? Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so that he will burn them clean? Can the cleansing of the fire appear to them anything beyond what it must always, more or less, be—a process of torture? They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear to be tortured. To them Mount Sinai is crowned with the signs of vengeance. And is not God ready to do unto them even as they fear? He is against sin: in so far as, and while, they and sin are one, he is against them—against their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes; and thus he is altogether and always for them.  That thunder and lighting, that blackness torn with the sound of a trumpet, was all but a faint image to the slaves of what God thinks and feels against vileness and selfishness, so that the people, fearing to do as they would, might leave a little room for that grace to grow in them, which would at length make them see that evil, and not fire, is the fearful thing. 

Commentary

by Diane Adams

This week, I’ve watched my friend struggle and grieve with the loss of his son through a senseless act of violence. At the heart of the struggle is the question why. I do not think anyone can answer that, am not sure there is an answer. Things happen that should not. We struggle with anger towards God; overcome by grief and fear, we’re plagued with questions He seems to largely ignore. 

Whether or not we believe that suffering has a redemptive role, we all fear it and try to avoid it whenever we can. No one comes to God and says, ‘Some more of that, please’. But times will come, for every one of us, when we must walk through fire: a call from the doctor’s office, the loss of someone we love, financial distress--there are times of agony in life that are not just problems. They are consuming fires. 

Holocaust survivor and existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” How we see suffering determines if in fact life is worth living at all. 

I like Frankl’s response to the soul’s cry of ‘why’, because I  figure that if he could survive Auschwitz, pretty much the worst circumstances life can dish out, we can surely face whatever life hands us. He wrote:

It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Within the fire, we discover there is always a choice, a way to see with faith versus a way of despair. The war between the flesh and the spirit is exposed through the open wounds of deep suffering. We can choose to believe that God is good. He uses the events of life to bring the core of ourselves into perfect relationship with himself. He opens wounds in order to open the soul itself to love, redemption, and true life in the deepest levels of its being. To choose faith in suffering we must believe there is meaning in it, but we do not need to believe there is a reason for it. We do not need to answer the question why to know our God speaks through fires. 

When praying for my friend this week during his time of unspeakable loss, I ask for grace for him to choose faith without answers, spirit over flesh, as MacDonald himself did when he wrote: 

I will lie burning; on Thy potter’s wheel
I will whirl patient, though my brain should reel.
Thy grace shall be enough the grief to quell,
And growing strength perfect through weakness dire.