By Jim Tune
German Anabaptist teacher Hans Hut endured the heat of persecution when he refused to have his child baptized. He was arrested in 1527 during a meeting with other Anabaptist leaders in Augsburg, Germany. Hut was tortured horribly, and died of asphyxiation during a fire that consumed the Augsburg prison on December 6, 1527. The next day, the authorities sentenced his dead body to death and burned him. A man of deep convictions and reverence for God, Hut described the holiness of God: “God tastes like fire.”
God appears as flame frequently in Scripture, consuming at one moment, comforting in the next. The biblical metaphor of God as fire points to an interesting paradox: fire warms us and gives us light, but fire can also destroy; it can devour forests and consume entire cities. Fire is essential for life and civilization, and fire can be a threat to both.
Among the prophets, fire frequently stands for God’s anger. Some scholars suggest that God’s fire carries a double meaning even there. Turn-of-the-century English evangelist F.B. Meyer writes: “When, therefore, our God is compared to fire, is it only because of the more terrible aspects of his nature, which are to be dreaded by transgressors? Is there not also, and perhaps more largely, a suggestion of those beneficent qualities which are needed for our purity, and comfort?” (from The Way Into the Holiest: Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews.)
It’s beneficial, I think, to understand that God may also dwell as a fire within us, igniting passion, the glow of enthusiasm, and produce in us a strong and ardent affection for him. Even fire’s destructiveness can be regenerative. The searing heat of a forest fire can induce fir trees to open their pinecones and expel their seeds on the scorched earth below. Soil fertilized by burned vegetation provides beds of ash suitable for the seeds to germinate.
Fire can also tell the truth about an object’s composition. A chemist can tell which elements are present in an object by the color flame it produces: sodium produces a yellow flame, lithium a vivid crimson, and barium an apple green.
So the God who is fire and flame can, at any moment, gaze at the blazing glow of my true elements and reveal things I keep hidden, even from myself. I don’t always welcome this—the truth of which I’m composed.
As found in the Apophthegmata Patrum (“Sayings of the Desert Fathers”),
Abba Lot went to visit Abba Joseph and said, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my rule of prayer, I fast a little, I pray and meditate. I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” The old man stood up and stretched his hands toward Heaven. His fingers appeared as ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”