Unspoken Sermons: Our God is a Consuming Fire

In college I struggled with my faith. One particular struggle was the view of God that sat behind the religion of my childhood. Essentially, I was taught a bifurcated God, a God of love and justice. These traits seems to compete for supremacy within the personality of God. God loved you, but God would also send you to hell for all eternity. Oddly, it seemed that justice was God's defining characteristic because his justice appeared to trump his mercy in the end. Justice had the final say, it was the last word. God might want to forgive you but, for some reason, his justice compelled him to send you to hell.

I couldn't make heads or tails of this.

First, what view is this that keeps God's justice and love in tension? Does God want to save me or not? And if he wants to save me why can't mercy trump justice?

Second, this "love" and "justice" of God is unrecognizable. True, God's ways are above our ways and God's thoughts are above our thoughts, but the God of my childhood was bizarre. What parent looks at her child and says, "I want to forgive you, but I can't." Human parents punish and embrace justice because they love their children. Love and justice are not in tension, they are the same thing.

Third, I was told that God's commitment to his justice was a product of God's holiness. Sin cannot be tolerated by a Holy God. But this is crazy talk. God is selfish and self-absorbed? God is going to protect his holiness over love for his children? How does this view of God remotely jive with the Incarnation, that Christ died for sinners, forgave those who crucified him, ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, and forgave sins on the street. If Jesus is the Image of God then God doesn't seem overly concerned with his "holiness." God, if Jesus is to be believed, is holy because he loves us. That is what makes God so different, so "set apart." God loves in a way humans cannot. Selflessly.

So what I needed in college was a view of God that overcame the bifurcated god of love and justice from my childhood. A God whose love was justice and whose justice was loving. A God whose punishment of sin was the most gracious form of mercy. In short, I wanted a unified God, a God whose defining characteristic was love.

George MacDonald gave me that unified vision. What I love more than anything else about George MacDonald is how he unifies God's love and justice, his punishment of sin and his forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness and punishment are not bifurcated, an either/or choice. God punishes because he forgives. He forgives so that he can punish. Is that nonsensical? No. Ask any parent. This is the way love works. You can't "forgive" a child without consequences/punishment. Such a forgiveness just lets the child remain stuck and mired in selfishness and meanness. No, true forgiveness requires, often harsh, consequences for sin. Further, you can't lovingly punish a child unless you've forgiven him. Otherwise you punish out of anger or spite. We have a name for such punishment: Child abuse. To punish one must first forgive. You need both. They are the same thing.

Unspoken Sermons has three parts or "series." The second sermon in Part 1 is called The Consuming Fire and it has had an enormous impact on me, for the reasons I note above. The text for the sermon is Hebrews 12.29:

Our God is a consuming fire.
Obviously, in my childhood the notion of God as a "consuming fire" would have been tied up in notions of wrath, hell, damnation, and the judgment of sin. The nasty side of the bifurcated god. But in the sermon MacDonald refuses to let the image of the "consuming fire" become decoupled from God's love. That is, if God's fire consumes us it must be the most loving and merciful thing we can imagine. Why? Because God's fire is trying to kill the sin in us. The fire of God purifies us. Here are the opening moves of the sermon:
Nothing is inexorable but love...

For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection...There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the universe, imperishable, divine.

Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not love's kind, must be destroyed.

And our God is a consuming fire.
MacDonald goes on to declare that we have a "divine fear" of this Fire:
[L]et us have grace to serve the Consuming Fire, our God, with divine fear; not with the fear that cringes and craves, but with the bowing down of all thoughts, all delights, all loves before him who is the life of them all, and will have them all pure...

It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus, ye, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God. When evil, which alone is consumable, shall have passed away in his fire from the dwellers in the immovable kingdom, the nature of man shall look the nature of God in the face, and his fear shall then be pure...Yea, the fear of God will cause a man to flee, not from him, but from himself; not from him, but to him, the Father himself...
Notice how, in one of MacDonald's breathtaking moves, our fear of the wrath of God doesn't move us away from God. Fear makes us move toward God. In a recent post I made the claim that I wanted to go to hell. You can see how this notion springs from the MacDonaldian inversion: Hell is the purifying love of God. Why wouldn't I want to go to hell and face the Consuming Fire? To flee hell is to cling to your sins; to avoid the consequences of sin so that that sin can stay lodged deep in your heart. No, the fear of God and hell cause me to flee myself, not God. As MacDonald goes on to say:
[W]hen the fire of eternal life has possessed a man, then the destructible is gone utterly, and he is pure. Many a man's work must be burned, that by that very burning he may be saved--"so as by fire"...If still he clings to that which can be burned, the burning goes on deeper and deeper into his bosom, till it reaches the roots of falsehood that enslaves him...

The man who loves God, and is not yet pure, courts the burning of God. Nor is it always torture. The fire shows itself sometimes only as light--still it will be fire of purifying...

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning. But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it. Escape is hopeless. For love is inexorable. Our God is a consuming fire.
Okay, so what if a person resists the Fire unto death? What happens then? Well, the Fire intensifies:
If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exit without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him--making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man's ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the guilt of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end--for the soul has no weapons wherewith to destroy herself--with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing to make life good;--then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope...

[T]hat outer darkness is but the most dreadful form of the consuming fire--the fire without light--the darkness visible, the black flame. God has withdrawn himself, but not lost his hold. His face is turned away, but his hand is laid upon him still. His heart has ceased to beat into the man's heart, but he keeps him alive by his fire. And that fire will go searching and burning on in him, as in the highest saint who is not yet pure as he is pure.
And, then, at the very end, even Death will be consumed in the Fire:
But at length, O God, wilt thou not cast Death and Hell into the lake of Fire--even into thine own consuming self? Death shall then die everlastingly...Then indeed wilt Thou be all in all. For then our poor brothers and sisters, every one--O God, we trust in thee, the Consuming Fire--shall have been burnt clean and brought home.
That is the vision that saved my faith:

When all have been burnt clean and have come back home...

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9 thoughts on “Unspoken Sermons: Our God is a Consuming Fire”

  1. Marvelous - thanks. It will help me translate Lamentations. Independent of GM I have also come to the conclusion that there is one fire. (And a very good lifeguard at the lake.) The unity of God expressed in the shema is also a testimony to the truth of this sermon.

  2. Yep. I have no exposure to MacDonald, only to Lewis, his student. However, the possibility of that vision is what holds my faith together, and infuses it with life, even today.

  3. Thank you for introducing me to this, I wouldn't have run across him in the circles I run in.

    I look forward to reading his unspoken sermons.

  4. Unspoken Sermons saved me from churchianity, and the fear of a wrathful, hell-bent God. MacDonald delivered me from Justification Theory, though at the time, I'd not heard that term. I've read U.S. twice, referenced it countless times, and read a number of MacDonald's other works. I even learned to decipher the Scotch dialect in the originals (it helps to read it out loud). Unspoken Sermons is the one book I really didn't want to return to the library.

  5. One response would be: Doesn't this view seem decidedly non-obvious from the Scriptures?

    Not really having held the view before, I don't know how duplicitous or cognitively dissonant I would feel reading the Bible in light of it.

  6. Hey. Just discovered this blog, and want to give you some claps and whistles from over here in Vermont. You write perceptively and acutely about MacDonald's theology, which delivers us from legalism into a spiritual logic founded on absolute divine love.

    Various Biblical texts can be cited in support of harsher, more legalistic visions of God's "love" of us, goats here and sheep there, children only adoption, all that stuff, but nothing stands up to the pattern of Christ's _behavior_, I think, like MacDonald's Fire of Love theology.

    This is a faith worth betting on. I will stand on this, doubts and all, and pray for that Fire to burn me too, as gently as possible, and abide the outcome.

  7. This book taught me things of more value than four years of Bible college. And "Justice" was the most important chapter for me.

  8. Only one way to find out!

    What I can attest to is that nothing makes as much sense for me out of Jesus's actual _behavior_ as MacDonald's theology of unalloyed, infinite, relentless Love.  If one is able to privilege this, that, and the other bit of verbal bible text over how Jesus actually acted when meeting real people, then a harsh, legalistic God can indeed be constructed, the Landlord of Hell and the Ticket-Dispenser of Heaven.  But MacDonald's consuming fire of Love theology never fails me when I contemplate the actual Gospel narratives.   

    A strong case might be made that we should construct our notions about the rest of the Bible, every bit of it, around how Jesus actually acted.  We are, after all, "Christians," not Pentateuchites or Revelationoids or Paulines.  Is Jesus the ultimate revelation of God, or is it a bunch of words on paper -- even these words, even this paper?

    Best wishes,


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