The Biblical imagery of fire used to depict the glory of God is ubiquitous. The books of Genesis (15:17) and Revelation (19:12) and many of those in-between use fire as a means of illustrating God’s almighty power. Of all the things in creation, an unstoppable fire is the most powerful. Winds can be stopped by walls. Water can be floated upon. Darkness can be dispelled with light. Heat can be quenched with water and the cold warmed by blankets, but fire, when untamed, must be left to run its course. When the flames have reached an apex, the more they consume, the more unstoppable they become, eventually reaching a climax in which the only response is submission. All in the fire’s path must be abandoned. No more barriers can be erected before it. Water cannot put out the flames. Hope must be abandoned and escape is the only recourse.
Thus, our God condescends to His people as a fire in order to illustrate an important point – there is no escaping Him. He cannot be tamed. C.S. Lewis carries this imagery in the Chronicles of Narnia when someone asks if Aslan is safe. The response is a surprising “No!” Aslan is good, but heavens, he is not safe. He is a lion after all. Get in his way, or worse, threaten his cubs, and hell will be to pay. Idols are safe. They sit on the mantle, right where you put them, and they listen without judging. Their placid feedback always comports with our own desires. No contradictions. No challenges. No demands. No power. Just idle, listless, indifferent acceptance.
A gold furnace is used to burn away all that is not wanted in jewelry. In order to remove the dross, fire must be applied. The gold must change from impenetrable solid to fluid. Its rock-solid nature must be changed to something much more mailable. The only way to remove something impure that is imbedded like rock is to melt both the gold and its impurities. Thusly the Lord deals with us.
Prov. 17:3 “The crucible is for silver and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
So often we wonder why our lives are difficult. Why is there so much “heat”? David Powlison used to use that term when describing the things in our lives that provoke us. The insult levied against our competency was not the reason we flew off the handle. That was merely the heat. The reason we fly off the handle is dross – that unseemly underbelly of contemptible rot that grows, not like fire, but like rust in the hearts of sinners.
Now, when the heat of life is applied to our lives, we are put at a crossroads – allow the rust to grow, that is, respond naturally, or, allow the heat to burn away the rust, that is, respond Spiritually. When we are offended and respond with unholy indignation, we allow our sin to manifest and grow. Like exercising a muscle, pride in this instance is developed. However, when we respond to offense with the “sweet delicacy of humility,” in the words of Edwards, the pride of our hearts is diminished. It begins to starve because it is no longer given the food of offense. When someone refuses to get offended by the wrongdoings of others against them, their pride has no place to exercise. Like a dog locked in a cage without anyone to walk it, eventually, it dies.
Thus, when our God “tests our hearts” He is applying the fire of His purity to the dross of our sinfulness. Of course, this process is not what the world would call “pleasant.” The fatigue experienced from doing fulfilling work would be called tiresome by those not interested in what has been done. But, for the one doing the work, the one who believes his work will change the world, the fatigue is beautiful because it is a sign to him that he has fulfilled his calling. He has done what God almighty would have him do. The ache in his bones is a certificate of divine approval and a guarantee of future reward. When we experience the consuming fire of God, as His children (for His enemies the experience is altogether different) we similarly are involved in a process that is not adequately described as pleasant but is so much better than all the pleasant things in the world combined. Spirit-wrought purification is transcendentally all-consuming and it brings us to new heights, never before seen. Yes, as you ascend the mountain your legs do burn, but the view transcends the pain. Yes, the fire in your lungs is, technically, “uncomfortable” but you don’t necessarily want it to go away. It is evidence that you are alive and that you are on the precipice of something great. It is only painful in the way that a caricature represents what you look like – there are commonalities but the picture and the person are completely different. The fire of the Lord does “burn,” but not like one might think. Yes, there is “pain” but it only hurts the bits of you that you don’t like anyway, like plucking out that hideous hair growing, somehow unnoticed for months and let to get surprisingly long, out of the mole on your cheek. Oh Lord pull it and don’t delay (for all our sakes)!
It is not my experience, but I am assured that in Christians more mature than I, eventually, the feeling is like that of a deep massage working out painful knots in the back muscle. There is this annoying clamp behind you and the pressure applied to it is “painful” but, at the same time, absolutely delightful. Oh Lord send your fire to burn away our dross.
J.C. Ryle put it this way:
“Be patient under the enmity of the gates of hell. It is all working together for your good. It tends to sanctify. It will keep you awake. It will make you humble. It will drive you nearer to the Lord Jesus Christ. It will wean you from the world. It will help to make you pray more. Above all, it will make you long for heaven. It will teach you to say with heart as well as lips, “Come, Lord Jesus. Thy kingdom come.”
Deut. 4:24 “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”
Deut. 4:36b “On earth He let you see His great fire, and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire.”
Ex. 19:18 “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.”
Ex. 24:17 “Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.”
Heb. 12:28b-29 “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”