sinai fire

The Consuming Fire

by George MacDonald, adapted by Ross Byrd

Our God is a consuming fire.–HEBREWS 12:29

Nothing is immovable but love. Love cannot be bargained with. It is not flexible. Its mind cannot be changed. 

Love is unconditional, yet in a different way than we often think. We will say, There is nothing I could do that would make God love me any less or more. This is true and also false. True, because even your sin cannot change love’s mind about you. True, because the love that made you could not love you any less. But also false, because it presumes that love is indifferent toward what you do, and nothing could be further from the truth. False, because, while He could not love you any less, He would love you more and more and more! 

You see, love does not–could not–merely love you “as you are.” It does love you as you are, but that is only the beginning of what love does. Love has always in view the absolute loveliness of the beloved. Where that loveliness is incomplete, love cannot love its fill, so it spends itself to make you more lovely, that it may love you more. Love is a successful perfectionist. It strives for perfection, even that itself might be perfected–not in itself, but in you. The same love that made you and loves you is also making you and loving you into the person you were meant to be: his perfect bride. Love will not settle for less than everything it desires. It is always working, always climbing toward its final, perfect consummation. 

In short, love loves unto purity. Therefore all that is not beautiful in you, all that comes between lover and beloved, must be destroyed.

And our God is a consuming fire.

What? God is love! How could he possibly be a destroying, consuming fire? Yes, it is a hard truth. The most absolute of truths is often the hardest to grasp. Not because it is complicated, but because it is simple. It’s been right there the whole time, but you might go a lifetime without seeing it. And once you see it, you wonder how you could have ever missed it. It was not that you could not understand it, but that you did not see it. To see a truth, to understand it, and to love it…are one and the same. Imagine living in the dark, having no concept of light. You feel something is missing. You struggle for lack of–you know not what. But then the light comes on. At first you hardly know what you’re looking at. Your eyes strain. Slowly, you begin to see all that you had been missing. And your perspective is transformed.

For this simple ‘enlightenment’, God has been working since the beginning. All of nature, history, and poetry, every vision and law in Scripture, every beautiful thing God has done–and every destructive thing–have been conspiring for this one purpose: that your eyes might be opened to the simplest truth…and that, seeing it, his life might become your life and his love–his consuming fire–might dwell in you.

Let’s look at the passage where this terrifying statement, “Our God is a consuming fire,” occurs. 

Hebrews 13:28-29: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” We have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The kingdom of God is immovable. So let us serve the Consuming Fire with true fear–not the fear that cowers and craves–but the fear that surrenders all thoughts, all delights, all loves to the One who purifies with fire. His kingdom cannot be moved, because it is reality itself. Reality just is. It cannot be otherwise. So we must worship him with a fear that takes the shape of reality. All that is less real must go. 

Verse 27: “He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakeable may remain.” When the fire of God comes, only that which cannot be consumed will stand. Only that which is pure as fire. He will have purity. It’s not that the fire will burn us if we aren’t pure. Rather, the fire will burn us until we are pure. And then it will go on burning within us–after all impurities have been consumed in the flames and there is no longer any pain–as the highest form of consciousness, the presence of God in us. Don’t get me wrong. When I say “impurities” I don’t mean your mistakes and imperfections, as though God were petty enough to make you suffer for such things. Evil alone is consumable. That is what burns away in us. And when the fire has finished its work, we will be able to look at God and fear him rightly–not fearing his power over us–but fearing his love. Such fear of God will cause a man to flee, not from God, but from himself; not from God, but to him, saying to the Father, “Give me something, anything, to do, that I might worship you and never flee from your fire.” And the first words he will say to us are found in the very next verse (13:1): “Let brotherly love continue.” To love our neighbor is to worship the Consuming Fire.

The writer of Hebrews is talking about the fire that burned on the mountain at the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. There, the fire was part of the revelation of God to the Israelites. And not just there. Think of the burning bush, before which Moses removed his shoes, which he could not even go near, which did not consume the bush. Both revelations of fire were terrifying. But the same symbol employed in the New Testament takes on a whole new meaning. 

For the people of God in Exodus, what else than terror could such revelations of fire make them feel? A nation of slaves, into whose very souls the rust of their chains had eaten, yet who considered going back to the land of their bondage just to eat food they liked better…what else could such a people see in that fire but terror and destruction? How could they even conceive of the fire as purifying? They could not. Even if they had, the notion of suffering would have overwhelmed the notion of purification. They could hardly listen to any teaching that was not supported by terror. Fear was how God got through to them. They worshipped because they were afraid.

Are you saying that Mount Sinai was just a show, like parents frightening their children with false stories to teach a lesson? Was it not a true revelation of God?

If God showed them these things, God showed them what was true. It was a revelation of himself. He will not put on a mask. He puts on a face. He will not speak out of flames if the flames were not revealing something true about Him. However hard-headed his children may be, he will not terrify them with a lie.

No, the fire was a true revelation, but a partial one. It was a true symbol, but not a final vision.

Think about it: No revelation can be anything other than partial. If, our definition of a true revelation is that we be told all the truth, then farewell to revelation. In fact, farewell to being a child of God. For what revelation could we possibly receive from the Maker of heaven and earth other than a partial one? And a revelation is not untrue simply because it is partial. 

In fact, for the receiver who is unready to hear, a very partial revelation might be more true than a fuller revelation. At least the former might reveal something to the person, whereas the latter would reveal nothing at all. Of course, if the partial revelation remained only what it was–allowing for no development or growth, chaining the one who receives it to its own incompleteness–it would be the worst kind of lie. No truth that is true is like that. True revelation always awakens the desire to know more.

At the moment of Sinai, the people of God were at their lowest: least ready to receive. Could they receive anything but the very partial revelation of fear? Here was a nation that had thought it a good idea to worship a golden calf! Now they were coming up against the reality of Yahweh Himself. How could they be anything other than terrified? Fear was the proper response, even if all it meant were that, for a moment, they trembled at a terrible fire above them, rather than worship the idol below. 

Fear is nobler than comfort. Fear is better than no God, better than a god made with human hands. In fear, there is–deeply hidden–a sense of the infinite. Worship offered in fear is true, though still very low. It may not be acceptable to God in itself–his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth–yet still it is precious to Him. For God does not see us merely as we are, but as we will be. Nor does he see us merely as we will be, but as we are growing into what we will be. He sees us as He made us and meant us to be: in His likeness and yet also growing more and more into His likeness. 

We do not become who we are meant to be overnight. You may go through a thousand stages, each one of which might be embarrassing on its own. But put all those stages together and what you see is: progress, movement–however slow–toward the finish line. And that is invaluable. A condition which of declension would indicate a devil, may of growth indicate a saint. 

So the revelation of fire at Sinai, though partial, was true, since it (1) appealed to the best of which the Israeliets were capable at the time, and (2) made future, higher revelation possible. 

But the revelation of fire is even better than that. The same fire that makes the sinner tremble makes the saint rejoice. For the saint sees further into the meaning of the fire, and has a better idea of what it will do to him. So it turns out the symbol of fire didn’t need to be superseded, only unfolded. 

Imagine a man who still loves his sin, who is, in a sense, married to his sin, who feels as though some part of himself would be lost if he were to be separated from his sins. Now imagine a kind of lightning, which when it struck, could pierce a complete division between the man and the evil. How could such a man see that lightning as a Savior? That lightning which will destroy the sin and give life to the sinner? Would it be any comfort to him to be told that “God loves you so much that he is going to burn you clean?” Would the cleansing of fire seem to him anything more than what it must, more or less, be: which is to say, torture? He doesn’t want to be clean, and he cannot bear to be tortured. Does he really have any other option than to fear God, even with the fear of an unbeliever, until he learns to love him? 

To the Israelites, the fire on Sinai is a symbol of vengeance. And isn’t that exactly what God has set out to do, though not in the way they might suppose? He is, of course, much better than they suppose. And his vengeance is a much better vengeance, though it could not seem so to them at the time. He is against sin. As long as, and to the degree to which, they and sin are one, he is against them–against their desires, against their aims, against their hopes and fears. He is against all that will destroy them in the end. That is how he is for them. The thunder and lightning, the darkness being torn in two with the trumpet blast, the horrible sights and sounds of that moment on the mountain are only the faintest image of the repulsion and disgust which God feels toward evil and selfishness. But if one hard-headed fool were to stop and fear those sights and sounds even for a moment, that would be a moment of pure grace. Because, in that instant, his heart would have taken one small step out of the delusion of sin and evil and into the reality of God and good. And if he could dealve only a little deeper beneath the surface of that fear, he might even start to see the simple fact that evil, not fire, is the fearful thing! Then he would gladly rush up into the trumpet blast of Sinai to escape the flutes around the golden calf. 

If the Israelites could have understood this, they wouldn’t have needed Mount Sinai. But they could not. So they received a revelation of fire: a true, partial revelation–partial in order to be true.

Even Moses, the holiest of them all, was not ready for the revelation. What does he do? He seems so afraid that God will not spare his people that he offers himself as a sacrifice in their stead, asking that his name be blotted out of the book of life. Noble, no doubt. But what was his reasoning? Did he believe himself more merciful than God? That the true God, like the impostor gods of the nations, would be so capricious as to accept such an imperfect sacrifice? Could he not see that the only sacrifice the Redeemer was interested in was the sacrifice of the heart?

Or perhaps Moses was not so much striking a deal as voicing his despair. Either way, in his defense, how much could he have possibly understood? 

Let’s imagine for a moment that Moses had actually seen the face of God when he was hidden in the cleft of the rock (and not just his back). What if God had somehow turned and allowed Moses to see his face…the face through which, one day, God’s very own emotions would be shown to men and women. What if the face had bowed to Moses in anticipation of the crown of thorns which, one day, Moses’ own people would place on his head, those same people whom Moses sought to defend from His seeming capriciousness. What if he looked into that face…the face of him who was bearing and would continue to bear their griefs and burdens, the face of the Son of God, who instead of accepting the sacrifice of his creatures for the sake of his own justice or dignity, gave himself up for them, the face of the One who suffered death not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, leading them to Him. 

If that face had turned and looked upon Moses, would he have lived? I say he would have died, not of awe or sorrow, not even of fear. But of the actual sight of the incomprehensible. Or else, if somehow infinite mystery had not killed him, he would have been left dazed and purposeless, with nothing left to do, now seeing that God was altogether unknown to him and unknowable. For all these reasons, Moses could have thanked God for not showing his face.  Full revelation would have been worse than no revelation at all.

Ok then, you are saying that God is love, all love, and nothing but love. But by your own logic, might this revelation—this fullness of love—be too much for us to receive? 

There are mysteries of God that no man understands, and there are mysteries that are known. If a mystery is known, even by a single man, then it is already a revelation. Even if the one man who has it presents it poorly, such a light should not be hidden under a bushel. I believe that God does not want to conceal anything but to reveal everything. I believe that he is always giving us more, bit by bit, as much as each of us can receive. The Father does not stop sowing his seeds because there are thorns and rocks and roads. He may even use the birds to carry it. Who knows, perhaps what withers on the rocks will decay into new soil in which the next seed will find deeper roots. Regardless, the person who has ears to hear will hear. And the person who does not will not. Even if he could, he would misinterpret it. Yet the one who is ready will hear, understand, and rejoice.

So, when we say that God is Love, are we saying that all fear of him is groundless? No. Whatever we fear in God, we will face, possibly far more. But there is something beyond the fear. A deeper self beyond our own sense of self. Whatever we call ourselves must be surrendered to the flames of his wrath, which is his love. In so doing, that self-made “identity” will be destroyed, and the self that God made will appear: awake, alive, and still carrying all the goodness of our past, which God had allowed, though we did not know him. Then we will know that we are fully ourselves. The greedy, weary, selfish, suspicious old man or woman will have died. The young, forever young self will remain. The person we thought we were will have vanished. The person we somehow knew we were deep down—though we had ignored it—will live on. 

To be clear, I am not speaking–or not only speaking–of some future vision. Heaven and earth are being shaken. Whatever is destructible will be destroyed. This is a kind of law of nature. Only that which is unshakeable remains. So what happens when we, who are immortals, bury ourselves in what is destructible, only receive messages from the destructible realm around us, and have lost the ability to hear from the eternal voice that speaks within? We walk in darkness, burdened by decay. We need the Light to burn away the darkness, the Fire to burn away the decay. Now is the time to repent, to surrender to the light and the flames. It is not as though we have the option of escaping it. Inasmuch as we continue to cling to the darkness and decay, the burning will go on deeper and deeper. The fire, avoided, will burn like hell. The fire, embraced, becomes our life.

The man who loves God but is not yet pure invites the burning of God, which is not always torture. Sometimes the fire is mainly the light, yet still it purifies. To be made pure is the same as to be made alive, just as to be impure is to be dying.

The man whose deeds are evil fears the burning, and so lives in denial. But the more he comes out of his denial, the less he has to fear, and the less the fire will burn. Escape is hopeless anyway. Love is immovable. It will not get out of his way. 

What about the man who resists the burning of God, who keeps far away from the consuming fire of Love? For him, there is nothing but the outer darkness. Imagine a man wandering farther and farther away from the warm light of the fire into the cold black wilderness beyond, until finally the last gleam of firelight has vanished from view. What does he find in that moment except the sick feeling of utter despair? Even if he cares nothing for God, God was the fire that was keeping him alive and warm and happy and safe. God was the one who gave him himself. But when God and the man are separated as far as can be without the man ceasing to be, when the man feels himself lost, abandoned, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end–for he cannot kill his own soul–then, he will listen for the faintest sound of life. Then he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life again. Anything to escape the terror of nihilism, to exchange the land of living death for the land of painful hope. 

What is it like to be without God? Let your imagination go to the worst conceivable horrors. Or imagine the depths to which minds much more depraved than yours have gone. Still you won’t have gone far enough. As Shakespeare puts it, 

           to be worse than worst

           Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts

           Imagine howling?

Except there’s a catch. Because even the outer darkness is not without the consuming fire. Even at the end of being, there is fire. Fire without light, the black flame. God has withdrawn from the man, but not lost his hold on him. His face is turned away, but his hand is still on him. His heart has ceased to beat into the man’s heart, but his fire keeps him alive. And that fire will go searching and burning in him. Because nothing exists without some semblance of the presence of God, which is his love, which is his fire.

O God, haven’t you shown us in Scripture that even Death and Hell will be cast into the lake of fire? And is not that fire the Consuming Fire of Yourself? In You, even death shall die forever. As Milton says:

           Hell itself will pass away,

           And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

And on that day, when everything has been subjected to You, as Saint Paul writes, then truly You will be all in all. Then, I venture to say, every one of our poor brothers and sisters–O God, we trust in You, the Consuming Fire–will have been burnt clean and brought home. If the faint moans of hell could somehow reach the ears of the saints, would it not turn heaven itself into hell for us? And are we more merciful than God? Am I a more loving father than our Father in heaven? Am I a more loving brother than our Brother Christ? Would he not die yet again to save one brother more?

As for us, we come to You, our Consuming Fire. And You will not burn us more than we can bear. But You will burn us. And although it may seem to kill us, still we will trust You, even in the things about which You have not clearly spoken and we do not clearly understand. For blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. 

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