On Fire, But Not Consumed

The air is sticky right now in my home state, but I am already dreaming of fall, still months away. I am more than happy to skip over the heat, humidity and general mugginess of summer, and head straight for the crisp air, sweaters, and bonfires of autumn. If I could find a place on Earth where it was perpetually fall and all that goes with it, including Saturdays spent watching college football and the smell of hot apple cider, I would move there in an instant. It is perhaps, though, the changing of the leaves, like a changing of the guard, which summons the return of fall and reminds me why I love the season. Trees formerly a monochromatic green suddenly seem to burst into flames. Deep reds. Vivid yellows. Vibrant oranges.

As those hues shift, I have spent many an autumn whispering to myself, shaking my head somewhat in disbelief, "I swear, it is like they are on fire."

I fall into a trance, just staring, captured by this involuntary thought, followed by a moment of wonder, trying to memorize the colors on the leaves, marveling at the rich hues, wanting to linger in the moment.

While these leaves are the tell-tale sign of yet another season passing, I have often found myself in seasons of life wanting to pull a Heisman-like move and keep God at arm's length. It seems easier, safer that way.

Jennie Allen wrote in her book Anything about how she began praying the prayer, "Anything you have for me, God. I'll say yes to anything."

The book sat on the floor by my recliner for the longest time and I quietly kept avoiding it. I did not want to be confronted by such challenging words and such prayers. Because, quite frankly, I know I am not always willing to pray anything. Far too risky.

What if I am not ready for anything? What if God hands me anything and I fail miserably? What if everything spins out of control? And what if I no longer get to call the shots?

So at arm’s length he stays, as if I have control over God somehow. Isn’t it crazy the things we delude ourselves into believing, these warped and out-of-whack concepts of who God is?

Every time I see the leaves of fall, and see the colors bursting forth, I am reminded of Moses at the burning bush, found in Exodus 3:1-3:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” (emphasis mine)

Far too often in our pursuit of God, we want to be just like that burning bush—on fire, but not consumed.  We want the flames and we want to feel his heat, but not so strong that we find ourselves disappearing altogether in the blaze. We like to keep self intact, don’t we?  We want to hold self close, making sure everything is manageable, tidy, orderly, just the way we like it.

That is what I find myself foolishly and selfishly wanting—to be on fire, but not consumed.

I want just enough of Jesus, to get just close enough to Him that I might look a little bit different — a little less impatient, a little more loving. I want to be a little less arrogant and a little more humble. I want to be a little less lazy, and a little more disciplined. I want to get just close enough to sound good and godly and holy.

But maybe—just maybe—when I am honest with myself and others, deep down I realize I do not truly want all of him. Because all of Him might require anything of me. And that feels terrifying.

As I stood staring at the trees one fall, I began thinking to myself, "You may want to be like the burning bush, on fire, but not consumed. But the reality is that God is an all-consuming fire. You don't get to be near him and not be consumed by him."

It simply does not work that way. You want to know him? You want more of him? You want his Word and his Spirit to change you? You want to look more like him? That requires you to be close to him. And being close to him means he consumes you. You—the foolish and selfish version of you—has to be consumed in the fire if you are ever to truly meet the God of the Burning Bush.

"For our God is a consuming fire," Hebrews 12:29 says.

Consuming. Not the kind of fire you warm your hands over; not the kind of fire you melt s'mores with; and not the kind of fire we all crave to keep us cozy in the depths of winter.

Those kinds of fires are safe within the confines of fireplaces and fire pits. Thoses kind of fires have boundaries and are easily manageable. But I am not talking about those kinds of fires.

I am talking the kind of fire that purges the dross, melts the mountains like wax, annihilates sin, and is meant to make you more like his Son. God is that kind of fire.

You do not want to be consumed? Then stay far, far away from him.

But maybe being consumed by the flames is exactly what we—what I—need more than anything. Maybe setting self ablaze is what we need most. Maybe letting God strike a match to our hearts and throwing gas on the flames is what we should long for. And maybe we will find on the other side of those flames a God who whispers through the blaze, "I was with you all along.”

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you — Isaiah 43:1-5 (emphasis mine)

Courtney Yantes spends her days coordinating initiatives aimed at creating access to medical care and interventions for young children with autism spectrum disorder.  She graduated from William Woods University with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master in business administration.  She enjoys blogging, traveling, serving as a Bible Study Fellowship leader, and generally organizing anything she can get her hands on.  She is a lover of all things Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and relishes a life free of social media accounts.

Finding Release From Our Spiritual Mistresses

God’s intention is to restore believers in Christ and turn them into new people. “If anyone is in Christ,” the Scripture says, “he is a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.” As Christians, it is our job to cooperate with this new creation vision for our lives. Our motivation for embracing newness of life in Jesus is quite different than moralistic motivation. Religious moralists obey God’s rules to feel morally straight and morally superior, and also to earn applause from God, from others, and even from themselves. Christians, on the other hand, are able to obey God precisely because they don’t have to.

Let me explain that one.

If you are a Christian—that is, if you have anchored your trust in the perfect life and substitutionary death of Jesus on your behalf, then you need to know that God smiles over you before you lift a finger to do anything good. Christianity is different than moralism. In that unlike moralism, God’s embrace comes to us at the beginning of our journey versus at the end of our journey. He approves of us not because we are good people, but because Jesus was a truly good person in our stead. His moral straightness, his righteousness, and beauty have been laid upon us as a gift. That, and that alone, is the reason we obey . . . because it makes us want to obey. God does not decide to love us because we first loved him. No, we love God because he first loved us. That is biblical Christianity.

How idolatry works

Imagine you are a married woman and your husband tells you he wants to start dating around. “It’s not that I don’t love you,” he says. “I’m not saying that I want a divorce. You are extremely important to me. We have been through so much together. But I just think that my life would be more complete if I could also date some other women—play the field a little bit, you know?”

Absurd as this may sound, this is precisely what we do to God whenever we disobey him. Every act of disobedience flows from a desire for something or someone besides God to be our first love, our true north, our reason for being. Each of us has his/her own unique potential mistresses—whether money, power, cleanliness, control, relationships, material things, entertainment, or even a spouse or children. Whenever anything becomes more essential to us than God himself (by the way, anything is usually a good thing), it becomes an idol. According to God, our true and everlasting Husband, we become spiritual adulterers. An idol is any person or idea, any created thing that captures our deepest affections and loyalties and will—and in so doing steals our attention away from God. An idol is anything that becomes more precious to us than him. It’s not that we love the thing (whatever it is) too much. Rather, it’s that we love God too little in comparison to it.

Idolatry is the sin beneath every other sin

Idolatry is the root beneath all sin and beneath every choice we ever make to go our own way instead of following Jesus in faith and obedience. Sin, ultimately, is not a matter of behavior, but a matter of desire.

We always obey that which we desire the most.

When we desire something more than we desire God, we will obey that something if ever and whenever we are faced with a choice to obey God or to obey it. So this is what keeps us from being good in the purest sense. Our distorted over-desires escort us into the arms of adulterous lovers, pseudo-saviors, counterfeit Jesuses that put a spell on us and make them appear more life-giving than Jesus, our one true love.

How do we do this? Thanks to David Powlison and his insightful essay, Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, there are several diagnostic questions that can help us effectively identify and name our specific spiritual mistresses:

  • What do I feel I cannot survive or function without? What do I feel I must have in order to enjoy life, be acceptable as a person, etc.? What are the things I am terrified of losing or obsessed about having?
  • Where do I spend my time and money with the least amount of effort? The things we give time and money to most effortlessly are absolutely the things that we worship and serve. They are the things that we believe in our hearts will give our lives the most meaning.
  • What do I think and talk about the most? Where do my thoughts go most quickly and most instinctively when I am alone in the car, when I awake, when I am alone in a quiet, undistracted place? As Archbishop William Temple once said, “Your religion is your solitude.”
  • Which biblical commands am I most reluctant to obey? What do I treasure so much that, if it is threatened, I will disobey God to keep it? What is so essential to me that I will disobey God to get it?
  • What things anger me the most? What kinds of people, things, or circumstances irritate me the most, and what about these people, things, or circumstances give them this kind of power over me? What, if it happened, would strongly tempt me to curse God or push Him out of my life? (Remember Job’s wife. See Job 2:9)
  • How would I fill in the blank? I cannot and will not be happy unless.

Dismantling idols after they are identified

Idols are dismantled when they are first exposed and then replaced. Dismantling our idols requires that we labor in our study and meditation of Scripture to understand the many ways that Jesus fills our emptiness in a much more adequate, life-giving way than any Jesus-substitute we may be tempted to worship and serve. Replacing our spiritual mistresses means giving them a back seat to Jesus in our hearts and lives. Basically, every idol (and every sin) traces back to a self-salvation strategy. We use this strategy every time we attempt to replace something that only Jesus can provide, with a counterfeit. What does this mean for us?

It means that we must face head-on our own idols, and humbly admit exactly how the things we love more than Jesus will reduce us, empty us of ultimate meaning, and even destroy us. We must admit that our “over-desires” cannot bring us the lasting wholeness, happiness, or fulfillment (salvation!) we desire. Only Jesus can. Ironically, only when we love Jesus more than these things, we actually end up enjoying these things to a much fuller extent! As CS Lewis once said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

When our love for Jesus exceeds our love for other things, we end up loving, cherishing, and enjoying these other things even more than we would if we had loved these other things more than we love Jesus. However, if we put the gifts in the place of the Giver, our enjoyment of the gifts ends up being spoiled. Why is this so? It is so because we are made in the image of God. The human soul is so magnificent that only God is big enough to fill it. As Pascal is famous for saying, “Only God is able to fill the God-shaped vacuum in the human heart.”

Be possessive of anything but God—a romantic interest, a career, a net worth, a life goal—and you will never possess that thing. Instead, it will eventually possess you. It will have you and it will hold you . . . around the neck! This is why we are much better off when we learn to pray like the Puritan who had nothing to his name but one piece of bread and a glass of water: “What? All of this and Jesus Christ too!”

Redirecting our deepest loves

Christian growth is about learning to see clearly that Jesus will fill our hearts in much more adequate and enduring ways than any Jesus-counterfeit ever will. Using Scripture, we must immerse our minds and stir our affections with the many ways in which Jesus delivers fully and truly on the specific promises—especially the promises that our specific idols falsely make to us. For example, if we thirst for approval, only the unwavering smile of God over us through Jesus can free us from enslavement to human approval. Or, if we hunger for secure provision, only the God’s sure promise to take care of us like he does the birds and the lilies can free us from our enslavement to money and things.

So what about you? What are your spiritual mistresses? How are they working out for you?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for his righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls.

Originally posted at www.scottsauls.com. Used with permission.

3 Reasons to Give Thanks

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble.  —Psalm 107:1-2

Psalm 107 doesn’t begin by marshaling reasons to thank God. Rather, the worshipper leads off with gratitude: “Oh give thanks to the LORD!” Bubbling over before the Lord, he enjoins us to worship with him. Sometimes we find it difficult to be spontaneously grateful to God. Complaining comes more naturally. Fortunately, the Psalmist gives us specific reasons we should give thanks to God. Two big reasons we should be grateful to God are: 1) Because he is good and 2) Because his goodness overflows.

1. Give Thanks Because He is Good

The first reason for giving thanks to God is because he is good. You might be thinking, “You don’t know how much bad I’ve experienced this year.” Hold on. Notice the writer doesn’t say give thanks because of what God has done. Rather, we are to give thanks because God, in his essence, is good. We have to get our attention off of ourselves to see it. What does it mean for God to be good? His goodness can refer to his moral excellence, an inherent goodness. We thank him because he is the origin and fountain of goodness. In fact, apart from God being the source of good, we wouldn’t know and experience the good. We would have no basis for delighting in the good done by our children or praising the character of a public servant saying, “That was good.” God gives us a reason for goodness—himself—and as a result we have a moral compass. We can discern between good and bad and delight in what is good.

Goodness can also refer to God’s beauty. This meaning of goodness refers to the superior quality of his goodness. When a mountain top view of moving film is particularly striking, we will say: “That was very good” or perhaps “Awesome.” Beauty calls out awe. God’s innate goodness isn’t just morally laudable; it’s aesthetically provoking. His glory furnishes us with a sense of beauty, an aesthetic witness that says, yes, there are things that are truly beautiful because there is a God of beauty. Elsewhere the psalmist tells us: “Out of Zion the perfection of beauty, God, has shone forth” (50:1). We should thank God because He is morally good and aesthetically good, both virtuous and beautiful. He has left us a moral compass and an aesthetic witness.

2. Give Thanks Because His Goodness Overflows

With God’s goodness in view, why can we give thanks for his goodness? Because God’s goodness overflows. God is so good he can’t contain himself. He has to overflow his goodness in an expression of everlasting love. Not only do we get morality and beauty from his goodness, but we also receive love. Through his love he imparts his goodness to us. We know he is good because he is good to us. So, we thank him, not just because he is good in abstract glory, but also because he is good to us in concrete ways. How is he good to us? Through his never-ending love. His goodness isn’t a side hug or a splash of affection. It is a continual, never-stopping, never-giving up, always and forever love (thanks, Sally-Lloyd Jones). A never-ending fountain. He loves you. He loves us, with love inexhaustible. Now you may think you are unlovable, but the goodness of God transcends the mess of your life. You may say, “Oh, you don’t know my life. God can’t really love me.” Or, “You don’t know how many mistakes I made this year.” It simply isn’t true, his steadfast love endures forever; it extends beyond anything you’ve ever done. Instead of asking: “Can he love me?” We should ask: “How can I get under his love?”

Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble. Psalm 107:2

It’s the redeemed that can sing of God’s goodness and love. How can we get under his fountain of love? We become one of the redeemed. How are we redeemed? Not by being moral, not by being good. We get redeemed and loved by actually giving our badness to God. Like the Israelites, we return from exile. We open up honestly and say to him: “I’m bad, I’m actually worse than I really know, and I’m an offense to you in your never-ending goodness. Forgive me and take my badness. Take it in exchange for your goodness, the goodness that overflows to me in Jesus.” We get under the fountain of God’s love by walking under it with Jesus.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. Romans 8:38 says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” How do we get under God’s goodness? By faith in Jesus, God becomes good for us. He is good, and he overflows in never-ending love for all who hope in Jesus. So, we give thanks to God because he is good. And he is good, not just as a basis for morality or an object of spiritual adoration, but in the gift of his goodness through the gospel, through the good news that God takes our badness in exchange for his goodness, our deformity for his beauty, our imperfection for his perfection in Jesus.

3. Give Thanks Because God Redeems Us From Trouble

Why should we be filled with gratitude to God? Because he redeems us from trouble. The redemption here isn’t individualistic with God redeeming little individuals from little troubles all over the world. No, his redemption is corporate. God is redeeming a people, a community. He says: “And gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Psalm 107:3). Historically, this is a reference to God rescuing Israel from exile. And yet, he’s continuing this gathering through Jesus, people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language (Rev 5:9) and this people is the church. When God redeems; he gathers. He redeems us into a community. He converts us not just to the Head but to the Body. God redeems, not individuals but a people, a community that joyfully shares in their redemption, giving thanks for their Redeemer. He redeems us from trouble into a new community.

As you consider God’s goodness, don’t forget to see it overflowing in the community around you. The church is his gift to us, and though awkward at times (because we are awkward at times), God’s people remind us of God’s redeeming grace. Pause to look back and look around you to consider the ways he has redeemed you and others from trouble. Often we see him redeem us from our trouble by sending us a community who reveals God’s goodness to us by buying us groceries when we cannot afford them, being supported through grief, pointed to Jesus in our sin, encouraged about our growth, prayed for and loved.

Gratitude is not complete until it is expressed. I can be grateful for my wife in my heart, but if she never hears it, she never benefits. Express your gratitude with words. Like a fountain, like God, gratitude for goodness should overflow. Take some time to call, email, or text someone today to point out the goodness of God in their lives. Thank or encourage a friend, someone from your church family, or a relative. Most of all, pause and give thanks to God. Give thanks to God because he is good–morally, aesthetically, and redemptively. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!

Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Unbelievable Gospel, and Raised? He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. Twitter: @Jonathan_Dodson