“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?“
— Jeremiah 17:9
Christians love clichés. Maybe the one you’ll hear most often, especially amongst youth groups, is being “on fire.” But is that just something we say, or does it actually mean something? Before this steps on too many toes, I need to be clear that I don’t consider using this term a sin or anything of the sort. What I am asking is simple: is the phrase, and the accompanying attitude, biblical, or something less than that?
What it typically means to be on fire
You’ll hear this phrase plastered on the A-list Christians. Most often, people will be referring to the ones:
- Donating millions or moving overseas
- Singing loudly at church
- Posting their devotionals on instagram often
- Who “feel God’s presence” alot (or talk about it, at least).
- Just getting back from summer camp, on their spiritual high
However, as much as we may hate to admit it, being on fire really just comes down to feeling. Feeling like you are good with God. Feeling like the singing at church is awesome, feeling like prayer is really going well in your personal life. Feeling like you are close with God.
Are any of those things necessarily bad? No.
Does our relationship with God, and the vitality of it, often produce emotion in us? Yes.
Does our relationship with God, and the vitality of it, necessarily produce the same positive feelings in us all the time? No.
And that’s the rub. Yes, if I am living my life in obedience to Jesus, in worship of him, and striving to grow in His grace, then I will have the positivity that often comes along with it. But by no means does the bible tell us to gauge our spiritual lives solely (or even primarily) based on our feelings. It’s a reality in the bible that we will go through seasons of pain, doubt, failure, feebleness, and loss. Not every second of our lives will be exhilarating, news-worthy, record-breaking happiness, and excitement. Most of the Christian life is radically ordinary.
This is leaves the standard of “being on fire” less a biblical encouragement and more of emotional legalism. Why?
Because the Bible never says it
It’s true. The Bible never refers to Christians (mature ones or new ones) as being on fire. It never commands christians to be on fire. As a matter of fact, most people in the Bible that have fire in or around them are normally under judgement. Most likely, people use this term as an off-shoot of the happening at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends as “tongues of fire” on the apostles, signifying the authenticity of their message, and that the presence of God dwelt in man, no longer in a temple building. Beyond that, the term has closer ties to counterfeit Benny Hinn revivals than it does to an explicit scriptural reference.
So at best, we are making up our own term and shoving it into the context of Acts 2. At worst, we become emotional pharisees commanding others to “feel on-fire” when the bible doesn’t command it. We may not think of that as legalism, but it’s at least a mild form of it, as we’re measuring other people’s maturity in relation to a subjective, non-biblical standard.
So what do we do?
We do what the bible tells us to do: we measure our standing with God by what we know to be true, not by what we feel is true.
That’s where Jeremiah 17:9 comes in. Our hearts are deceitful. They will be wrong. They will have feelings that are incorrect. They are not the authority for life: God and His word is. We can have great feelings and emotions during worship on Sunday while we still are casual with sin in our lives. Conversely, we can feel broken while at the healthiest spiritual place possible. (c.f. 1 Peter 5:6)
This is really the point of Romans 1-8 and the entire book of 1 John. Truth determines how we live, not what we determine in our own feelings. In particular:
“For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart…” — 1 John 3:20
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” — 1 John 5:13
The point of Romans 7 is that believers will struggle. We will falter. Our faith will be weak. Our affection for God will go through ups and downs. But the Bible never says that we ought to question the validity of our faith based solely on feeling on-fire. John writes these things so that we may know.
The bible tells us that we must know. Truth is more important feelings, even good feelings of being on fire. Besides, if we base our assurance of a relationship with God on how we feel the connection to be, we will be left in despair more times than we can count.
Assurance comes from knowing
Assurance of salvation comes from what we know. We must know God. We must know what he has done. We must know that those in Christ stand permanently justified before God. We must know that He loves His children even while we struggle and come back in repentance over and over and over again. Because we are saved by looking to Jesus, we receive assurance by looking to Jesus. Even more so we find all our joy and fire in looking to Jesus. Not our own feelings.
Jesus Christ is the anchor for your soul. He is unchanging, and unwavering. Not you. Lean on Jesus, not your feelings. Lean on His work, not your religious fervor and stamina. Find Joy in His perfection, not your ability to feel good.
The mark of a mature christian is not the perfect, unceasing intensity of their faith; the mark of a mature christian is the knowledge of God and the reliance on the perfect, finished work of Jesus Christ.
DA Carson on the ground of our assurance by DA Carson (video)
Ordinary by Michael Horton (book)
Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart by JD Greear (book)
When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper (free book)
Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan (book)
Article originally appeared on Divine Implications on The Reformed Collective