In the Lenten season we identify with Jesus in his time in the wilderness by engaging in repentance and reflection. For many who observe Lent, this includes giving up something that is important to them (such as cookies, chocolate, wine, or other such things).
This year I am giving up being “on fire for Jesus”.
Truth be told, I probably gave that up long ago.
To an evangelical, the phrase “on fire for Jesus” or just “on fire” makes sense because it is drawn from Biblical imagery that speaks of God as “a consuming fire”. But to a non-evangelical, this is downright weird. What exactly is happening here? Are we dousing ourselves with kerosene and lighting ourselves with matches? Didn’t that go out with Nero? And why are we doing it to ourselves?
But most of the time, there is nothing sexy or glamorous about it. In fact it can be quite painful. A coworker at a previous job once told me about going to see the Morehouse homecoming parade one year. He was a young boy then, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. He saw a man walk by in the parade, pour liquid all over himself, light a match, and next thing you know he was in full blaze. At first he was walking comfortably, but then he started running faster and faster.
As it turned out, the man who set himself on fire was involved in the civil rights movement. He wanted an audience with Hosea Williams for some reason or other, but did not get it. So he set himself on fire. I don’t know how it ended for this man; neither does my former coworker who told me the story.
As a matter of fact, being on fire can be deadly. Most of the time, it is. Jeff Dunn at internetmonk.com tells the story of two young Tibetans who set themselves on fire last week to protest Chinese rule of Tibet. This is a very popular form of protest; 104 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009. 104 people dead or badly wounded, and China still rules Tibet.
No, being “on fire for Jesus” has nothing to do with anything like that. Within evangelicalism, this phrase has a specific meaning. It means that you are so strongly passionate about making God’s glory and greatness known to all the world, it is as if you are on fire. You read your Bible more. You have longer prayer times during which you experience God much more intensely. You worship much more intensely. You begin to feel a sense of calling on your life. You may go out and start a megachurch and become the next John Piper. Or you may go out and be a missionary to Africa.
But the reality is that at the end of the day, being “on fire for Jesus” can leave you feeling burned out. Kinda like Wile E. Coyote when one of his infinitely many clever schemes for catching the Road Runner goes awry and leaves him charred beyond all possible recognition while the Road Runner gets away.
I have been through seasons of life like this. When I was younger I actually believed that I had it in me to know and follow hard after Jesus. I heard stories of people who were called to ministry or missions after encountering God and having their lives turned upside down. I hoped and prayed that God would do the same for me. But now things are different. I am different. Changes of professional status, loss of relationship opportunities, coming to terms with certain developmental issues in my life, and certain nagging doubts and questions that just won’t go away–all of these have stretched me into a different shape from what I was when I was younger. It has left me looking and feeling–on the inside, at least–very much like Wile E. Coyote in the above photo. And the Road Runner got away. Or, to put it in terms of my context in life, I now find it quite hard to carry on with loving God or living the Christian life. And there are lots of people out there in my world who don’t know Christ or have any concern for spiritual matters. Burned out though I may be, they are just as unconcerned about spiritual matters as ever.
At any rate, I can no longer summon up the enthusiasm I once felt at the prospect of being “on fire for Jesus”. Even if I could, I am not sure I would want to. I once prayed that God would rock my world, light me up and send me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory. I had visions of myself as potentially the next Chris Tomlin or John Piper. But now I don’t think that will happen. And if the only thing I ever do for God is show up at work every day, do my job, do it well, and do it faithfully, God had better be satisfied with that. Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion He will be. I once struggled with the fact that, because of certain developmental issues, sharing the Gospel with others through one-on-one personal conversations (as if that is the only way the Gospel ever gets shared) is hard for me. Now, I’m okay with that. And I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps God is okay with that too.
Sure, there are verses in the Bible that talk about God as a “consuming fire”. But how much play does the idea of being “on fire for Jesus” really get in the Bible? Not a whole lot. Even Jesus himself was not very “on fire for Jesus”. He spent the first thirty years of his life as a carpenter living in the backwoods of Palestine. And when he launched his public ministry and Satan offered him the opportunity to make a huge public splash, he passed. Of course there was Elijah, who called down fire from heaven and was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. But in between he discovered that the voice of God does not come in fire but in a whisper.
So I am done with being “on fire for Jesus”. Anybody else out there feel the same way?