Our God is a Consuming Fire

Hebrews 12:29

By Chris Yoder

I grew up on a dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania, and some of my favorite memories from my childhood and youth are of hotdog roasts. It seems like almost every week during the summer and fall we would have a hotdog roast. I liked it best when we did this at a particular place on our farm called the Hill. There were lots of hills, but this one was the Hill.

In the evening, after finishing the chores, I’d hurry up to the Hill and make sure the grass was mowed and cleared away from the fire pit and collect wood and build a fire. And yes, there are parts of the world in which building a fire during the summer is a sensible thing to do — just not in north Texas.

Once the fire was going nicely, I’d arrange the picnic tables and then go back down to the house and help gather the food. The food would include my mom’s delicious baked beans and the necessary marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers for s’mores.

Family and friends would gather and the kids would tear around and people would roast hotdogs and we’d all eat. And then when it got dark, everyone would settle around the campfire and talk and probably sing some favorite songs and then stare mesmerized at the fire while the stars spun overhead. I always felt I could go on gazing at the embers of the fire forever.

And then there were the evenings when we had a big pile of brushwood that we’d cleared from somewhere. And my dad, who is something of a pyromaniac, would throw gasoline on it and light it and it would turn into a roaring bonfire. And it would light up the night sky and you’d need to stand several yards back to keep from getting scorched. And you felt the power and the wildness of the flames.

Fire elicits both awe and delight; we fear it and we desire it. Fire is mysterious, at once terrifying and fascinating.[1] It’s dangerous, and it eludes our control — witness the wildfires burning now in California.

All this makes fire an apt figure for the divine. Indeed, the God of the Bible — and there is no other — manifests himself in fire.

The Lord appeared to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush,” and “the bush burned with fire, and was not consumed.” And Moses was drawn inexorably by this great sight and turned aside to see why the bush was not burnt.

In the wilderness, the Lord went before Israel in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

When the Lord gave the gift of the Law, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” And when Moses went up on the mountain, “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” (Ex. 19:18; 24:17).

Fire is one of the many and various ways God has revealed himself to his people of Israel. And while God has revealed himself most fully in his Son, Jesus, this does not make the blazing fire of Sinai a less true revelation. Christ Jesus is the perfect revelation of God’s glory and the mediator of a new covenant, yet the God revealed in Jesus is none other than the God revealed in the flaming fire.

I like how George MacDonald expresses this idea. He was a 19th-century Congregationalist minister and writer whom C.S. Lewis called his master. MacDonald writes, “God will not put on a mask. He puts on a face. He will not speak out of a flaming fire if that flaming fire is alien to him, if there is nothing in him for that flaming fire to reveal.”[2] The One who blazes on Sinai is the same One who speaks through his Son. Our God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is a consuming fire.

“Our God is a consuming fire.” It should go without saying that God is not literally fire; the true God is not like the Lord of Light, the fire god from Game of Thrones. Our God is not a thing among things, not one deity among others. God is the creator of all things, and God has no competitors.

To say that God is a consuming fire, then, is to point to God’s mystery and majesty, to gesture towards the terrible beauty of the thrice-holy Lord.

The imagery of fire suggests that when we encounter God, we encounter a mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating. There’s a line from St. Augustine’s Confessions that gestures toward this. Augustine prays, “When I first came to know you … you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe.”[3]

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions,” Annie Dillard writes. “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church [or, we might add, to wear blue jeans and sip Starbucks in church].

Instead, she says, “We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”[4]

Dillard’s words are challenging. They are not unlike those of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Both challenge me to question whether I am sufficiently sensible of conditions, whether I know what sort of power I invoke.

“Almighty and ever-living God,” we pray. But do we know what we say? Almighty. Ever-living. God!

Would I rush over these words if I remembered whom I am invoking, if I knew what Hebrews means when it says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31)?

How can I receive the most precious body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ without trembling with love and awe?

“See to it that you do not refuse him who is speaking,” says the Letter to the Hebrews. And, earlier, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

In God’s great love and mercy, he speaks to you through his Son Jesus, calling you to himself. What he is after is not a particular emotional response from you, but your whole heart, you yourself. God calls you to enter through the narrow door, through which a hard heart will not fit, the door you can pass through only with a soft and pliable heart, with the will to lose everything to be found by God, who alone is your life and your light and your rest.

Let me try to put this a bit differently. We could say that the Letter to the Hebrews aims to make us like Hwin.

Who’s Hwin? Well, Hwin is a character in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Hwin is a talking horse; that’s not unusual in Narnia, where there are a lot of talking animals. Hwin has been traveling with another talking horse and two human children, a boy and a girl, across a desert.

Near the end of their journey, a fierce lion pursues them and terrifies them so much that they find reserves of energy they didn’t know they had. The lion is snapping at Hwin’s hind legs and tearing at the shoulders of the girl when they reach a walled hermitage where they take refuge. It is a terrible trial.

Several days later, the two talking horses and the girl are talking in the walled hermitage when, as Lewis writes, “they saw an enormous lion leap up from outside and balance itself on the top of the green wall; only it was a brighter yellow and it was bigger and more beautiful and more alarming than any lion they had ever seen. And at once it jumped down inside the wall and began approaching.”

The other horse bolts to the far side of the enclosure in terror; Hwin and the child stand frozen “with open mouths and staring eyes.” And, Lewis writes, “There was about a second of intense silence.”

“Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh, and trotted across to the Lion.

“‘Please,’ she said, you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.’”

This beautiful and alarming Lion, it turns out, is none other than Aslan, the Christ figure in Lewis’s books. Aslan is not a tame lion; he’s not safe, but he is good. Soon it becomes clear that Aslan is the same lion who had pursued and attacked them along the way — and that he did this for their own good. And here’s how he now responds to Hwin.

“‘Dearest daughter,’ said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, ‘I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.’”

This is the sort of response our God seeks from us. “Please. You’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”

Our God is a consuming fire. Let us approach God with reverence and awe. Let us give ourselves totally to the consuming fire so that he may consume us if he likes. For our God flames with beauty, with love, and with joy.

The Rev. Christopher Yoder is rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.

[1] An obvious allusion to Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy and his concept of the numinous as the mysterium tremens et fascinans.

[2] George MacDonald, “The Consuming Fire,” from Unspoken Sermons.

[3] Conf., 7.10.16.

[4] From Teaching a Stone to Talk.


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