Saturday, December 28, 2013

What does the Bible mean when it says our God is a consuming fire?

Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.
Isaiah 6:5

How is it that we who claim to love God do not know him as a consuming fire? I am working my way through a biography of Keith Green, and it is not a small wonder to me to find Keith consumed with a hunger for the presence of God that broke through his weak training and doctrine. Keith had a long ways to go to find any orthodoxy, which is not hard for me to understand when I remember the mantra of the sixties and seventies was, “do your own thing.” Keith came to Christ from a background in Christian Science, was himself Jewish, and was part of the Jesus movement. The doctrine took a long time for him to get straightened out, but along the way he attracted many to Christ, just, I think, because he was so consumed by hunger to be filled with the very presence of God.

American Christians are a peculiar bunch; they are told about accepting Christ often in quite sterile terms, and in those terms they believe. I think it is not since the last great revival, in the late seventies and early eighties, that we really see new Christians captured in the holy presence of their God. I am not talking about emotional excess here—there is a great movement away from any emotion today. I am talking about a real meeting with the very God who would change our lives—and that is going to produce plenty of emotion. When I accepted Christ, I knew there was such a sharp change in me that nothing except the presence of a loving God could produce. Tears streamed down my face for hours, yet I was not in a crowd. I was alone, but for the first time his loving presence entered my life, and I knew that the most wonderful experience ever had just happened to me. I had come into the presence of the living God.

Moses saw the burning burn, yet the bush was not consumed. He turned aside at the wonder of it all, and in doing so, he came into the presence of God. It changed him forever! Why do we not see changes like this in every new believer? I am convinced it is our fault—we do not expect anything, and often become quite uncomfortable when someone we would lead to Christ expresses emotion. So we carefully prepare tracts that explain perfectly the doctrine, but we make no preparation for what might happen if the person should, God forbid, actually be overwhelmed by the spirit. We do not act like we even believe much has happened, yet the Bible says the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner finding his way back.

Last summer, I enjoyed reading through much of Jonathan Edwards. Early in his ministry, he came under fire from other churches for his practice of staying with new converts at the altar, and praying with them. It was not until the converts would feel the presence of God and his mercy that they were allowed to go home. Edwards spent much time defending his practice to other church leaders, who thought such expressions of emotion to be simply vulgar. There were many converts under his early ministry, and apparently a great revival happened among the community.

I ask the pointed question, why is it that we do not expect this for every believer? How is it that we can attempt to package the holy God in a tract, and expect the believer to walk away with a changed life? Thanks be to God that he does bring change about through our poor means of presentation. We are careful to be absolutely doctrinally correct, but we want all emotion to be utterly quenched. Why are we then surprised when the “new converts” do not show much change in their life? Tozer says it thus: “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word. We have almost forgotten that God is a Person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can. It is inherent in personality to be able to know other personalities, but full knowledge of one personality by another cannot be achieved in one encounter.”1

I am simply trying to point out the obvious here. It takes a bit of time for us to understand and be willing to interact with new acquaintances. Why in the world would we expect anything different for starting a new relationship with God? Ask the American new convert what he did today, and he might answer, “I went to the grocery, stopped off at the gas station, and accepted Christ at the end of the church service”. No wonder there is not a change in most lifestyles—it is too much of our common life to be thought of as different.
Think I am too far afield? Then let’s look at these verses: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:1,2). This is not to be a second later experience for the Christian. It is to come with urging of the Spirit of God himself, at or near the point of conversion. It is to mark all Christians, but how little of it do we see today?

Our bodies should be presented as reasonable service. When we come to Christ, we should be in utter and complete awe at what he has done for us, and that should start a lifelong process of transforming us. Tozer had it pictured perfectly, “Let us beware of tinkering with our inner life in hope ourselves to rend the veil. God must do everything for us. Our part is to yield and trust. We must confess, forsake, repudiate the self-life, and then reckon it crucified.”2 That can hardly take place properly if our only knowledge of Christ is praying the sinner’s prayer. How much better it would be if every new believer could explore and pray to his newly-found God, and find out that he is, indeed, a consuming fire.

We tend to treat the decision for Christ as the smallest of things. Instead it is the largest of things and how willing we ought to be to talk and pray with the new convert, that they may have time to appreciate the wonder of what has happened. Conversion is a god-thing, but ought we not give God a bit of time to reveal his majesty? Modern life, I suspect, has always “been busier than it ever has before”, and Americans rush from one thing to another all of their lives, seldom stopping to consider the important things of life, because the urgent things of life are allowed to crowd them out. Says Tozer, “We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.”3

We all know those in our church who have met with the “Consuming Fire”. It is written all over their faces, and their behavior reflects the very person of God. Their time (how is it that they seem to have so much more time for God than I?) is filled with the joy of God, even as they seek to fill their hours serving him. How like them we want to be, and yet we never take the time to really reflect on what meeting God is like. I re-read Moody’s biography two summers ago, and was reminded about his vision of God. So captured was he by his loving God, that he began bringing hundreds of children into the Sunday School—before he even fully understood what salvation was all about. I am convinced that Moody was the great man he was, not because of his doctrinal understanding of God, but because he knew his God was a Consuming Fire. Wouldn’t we all be better off setting our lives aside in this new year, and hungering and thirsting for the very presence of the Holy God? I suspect we might find such a change that we would never go back. And perhaps we should even find God giving us more Moodys!

1. Tozer, A.W.; Tozer, Aidan; Tozer, Aidan Wilson (2011-01-31). The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer (Special Kindle Enabled Edition with Interactive Table of Contents and Built in Text to Speech Features) (Illustrated) ... | The Writings of Aiden Wilson Tozer of) (Kindle Locations 127-129). Christian Miracle Foundation Press. Kindle Edition.

2. Tozer, A.W.; Tozer, Aidan; Tozer, Aidan Wilson (2011-01-31). The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer (Special Kindle Enabled Edition with Interactive Table of Contents and Built in Text to Speech Features) (Illustrated) ... | The Writings of Aiden Wilson Tozer of) (Kindle Locations 511-513). Christian Miracle Foundation Press. Kindle Edition.

3. Tozer, A.W.; Tozer, Aidan; Tozer, Aidan Wilson (2011-01-31). The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer (Special Kindle Enabled Edition with Interactive Table of Contents and Built in Text to Speech Features) (Illustrated) ... | The Writings of Aiden Wilson Tozer of) (Kindle Locations 742-744). Christian Miracle Foundation Press. Kindle Edition.

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