Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God. For God is not an indifferent bystander. He’s actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and he won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God himself is Fire! (Hebrews 12:28-29, The Message)
Christian writer, George MacDonald, made this fascinating comment about the nature of God:
“The fire of God, which is his essential being, his love, his creative power, is a fire
unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns—that the
farther from him, it burns the worse, and that when we turn and begin to
approach him, the burning begins to change to comfort, which comfort will grow
to such bliss that the heart at length cries out with gladness no other gladness can
McDonald’s language is a little stilted for our time, but hopefully you get the point. The more distant our souls are from God, becoming aware of His presence produces an uncomfortable heat. The closer we are to God, the more comforting and enveloping is His warmth.
It’s been seldom that I’ve heard much teaching or preaching about God’s fiery nature. The love of God, yes, the light of God, yes, the holiness of God, yes, and other attributes, yes, but the fire of God, not so much. We may have to go back to the preaching of people like Jonathan Edwards and others of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century to get a good taste of that thematic approach to Christian proclamation, what some called “fire and brimstone.” It may be a part of the Bible we prefer to avoid, but it is biblical, nonetheless. To underline the point about the importance of honoring God through obedience, the writer of Hebrews borrowed a line from Deuteronomy 4:24 which many Jews of his day would recognize: “Our God is a consuming fire.”
I find brother MacDonald’s take on this to be fascinating, in part because this has been my personal experience and because I’ve observed much of the same in others. People who are distant from God can become extremely uncomfortable when in the presence of the Holy Spirit. I recall a man who was living a life so far outside of the will of God, I’ll just say that it was hard not to notice. One Sunday, he decided to attend the church where I was a member. This was many years ago. I was in the choir and, at that time, the choir remained seated on the risers just behind the pulpit throughout the morning service. The result was we all could observe what was going on in the congregation just as the pastor could.
All seemed fine all throughout the time of our gathering until the pastor got into the meat of his sermon. I don’t recall what was being preached, and it doesn’t really matter much because the Spirit of the Lord was there. This man became visibly shaken. Sweat must have been forming on his head because he kept wiping his brow with his handkerchief…and it wasn’t a hot day. His discomfort was palpable; I was surprised he didn’t bolt from the service. He managed to get through it all, although he didn’t respond to the pastor’s invitation to experience the salvation of the Lord that day and he never returned to the church afterwards.
When sin (willful disobedience to the known will of God) has a dominant place in our lives, God’s convicting presence shakes us and, rather than yield to God’s authority and invitation, we may respond to it like we do in other conflict situations: fight or flight. I have found (and observed) that yielding results in a comforting peace. There is no longer anything to prove (about being sovereign over myself), so there is nothing to lose. And the deeper my intimacy with God, the more comforting His warmth becomes. You might describe the difference in the experiences by comparing being dangerously close to an uncontrollable, raging fire as opposed to taking a nap while sitting in front of a cozy fire on a cold day.
Usually hell, which we don’t like talking about, is portrayed as a literal, physical place. I wonder if it is, rather, the complete and irrevocable loss of opportunity for any fellowship with God such that the soul who chose to reject His absolute authority in life can, in death, now only experience the intensity of His consuming, fiery nature. This seems to be a natural conclusion to what George MacDonald was pointing.
If we place stock in the prophetic future where “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ,” the world which we know and are tethered to will no longer exist (Revelation 11:15). The remaining, exclusive reality will be the kingdom of God, occupied by Jesus Christ and all whose lives are in Him along with the angelic host and where the virtues of faith, hope and love will abide forever (1 Corinthians 13:13). These kingdom citizens are the ones who will experience the warm embrace of the Father for eternity.
The testimony of Scripture in general and that of Jesus in particular (Matt. 10:28; 23:33; Luke 10:15; 12:5) is that not everyone will experience this embrace. It doesn’t have to be this way. The good news is that it is all avoidable. Jesus Christ has made a way for each of us to experience God’s eternal, comforting warmth. It is up to us to choose to yield in repentance and faith so that we may walk in this way that has been provided by love.
We don’t have to feel the burn; we can feel the warmth. Why would we choose otherwise? Only if we don’t believe.
* From “Christian in Christ” found in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, p.37.
© Byron L. Hannon, 2023. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted.