That said, we cannot nor should not deny that life is full of experiences, some of which may be the cause for some degree of ecstasy and others which are soul-draining. Jesus and Wesley experienced both and the rest of humanity shares in this dynamic. Sometimes our hearts burn, not because of ecstasy but because we’re tired and fed-up. We feel that our limit has been reached or that we are about to reach it.
Speak to someone with a serious chronic illness for which treatment is physically and mentally demanding and iffy in its effectiveness (or speak to their primary at-home caregiver). Speak to a single parent with a special needs child who has to make daily choices between going to work and providing their own childcare because Covid-19 has reduced their access to support systems previously available. Speak to someone who can’t go a day or a week at work without someone saying something sexually suggestive, even if it is disguised as a joke. Speak to anyone for whom the sorrows and unfairness of life have plowed an unwanted row in their soul.
You ever hear of red-hot anger? Well, that can be a fire within, as well. Anger and resentment can build-up, much like it did with the Jewish Zealots who used guerilla tactics against the occupying Romans in first century Palestine, as a violent expression of their frustration (I wonder what the conversations were like between Jesus and Simon the Zealot, one of His named disciples).
In the gospel account named after him, Luke (Luke 24) tells the story of two disciples of Jesus who were walking on the road to Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. This was after the Lord’s resurrection of which they were not aware. Their conversation reflected the melancholy of their mood; they were deeply sad. Only one of them is named (Cleopas) which causes me to wonder if Luke was the other man on the scene and his writing choice was to use a third-person voice to disguise his presence.
Jesus appeared to them, walking along with them, although these two men did not recognize Him. Jesus asked them why they were so down, and they told Him the story of the events that had occurred in Jerusalem three days earlier. Even after He explained how the Christ had to suffer and die and after sharing a meal with them, He went unrecognized by them. It was only when He broke bread and gave it to them that Luke tells us “their eyes were opened” and Jesus vanished from their sight. The shared testimony of these two men was this: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (v.32, NIV). I particularly like the way the The Message Bible records this, “Didn’t we feel on fire as He conversed with us…?”
The presence and words of Jesus can have this effect on those who hunger for Him, and it’s clear that these men had that hunger even before seeing Him for who He was. Anglican priest, John Wesley, generally considered the founder of Methodism, once said that his heart felt “strangely warmed” after listening to someone read a famous preface to the Paul’s Letter to the Romans which spoke of the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.1. I tend to think this experience is not all that uncommon among those who seek Him, but I need to acknowledge that feeling this way is an experience. Both Jesus and Wesley were careful to place religious experiences in context2. Neither made experience the primary means of evaluating or responding to life.
The uses of fire are varied. Fire heats and it purifies. It provides light, but it can also consume and destroy. It can transfix (ever stare into one?) and it transforms, making room for new growth. An important question for all of us is when our hearts are aflame, when there is a fire within, what is that fire’s source and what is its purpose?
For many, experiences are being encountered at a furious and seemingly overwhelming pace. Whether they are experiences of ecstasy or experiences of sorrow, we can choose to not allow experiences alone to define us or guide us. Let there be a fire within and let it grow into something which glorifies the One who enflames it and blesses those who feel its heat and sees its light.
- Journal of John Wesley, Chapter 2, May 24, 1737. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org
2. To Thomas: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:29). Wesley stated, in what is commonly called his “Quadrilateral,” that the basis for spiritual reflection is, first and foremost, Scripture and then, in order, tradition, reason, and experience.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2020. All rights reserved to text content unless otherwise noted.