Like Fire Burning in My Heart

Much modern talk about God tends to reduce the creator to a living doll, who wants to give us a divine cuddle. There is no doubt that the essence of God’s being is love, but the experience of that love and of God’s being is not always an experience of comfort and ease. God can disturb the relaxed meditations of the satisfied and push believers to the breaking point. The awful power of God can overwhelm.

The language of the prophet Jeremiah reflects this experience of the might of God in language that can trouble people even today. The words of Jeremiah, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed,” can also be translated, “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.” Commentators note that the Hebrew verb pātā, translated “duped” or “enticed,” carries overtones of sexual seduction as well as deception. The second verb, chāzaq, translated “too strong” or “overpowered” is an even stronger image; it can refer to sexual assault or rape and not just seduction. Jeremiah uses these images to describe his experience as a persecuted prophet called to preach an unpopular message—not just called but, he boldly says, “duped,” “enticed” and “overpowered.” He did not stand a chance.

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The reason Jeremiah is mocked and is “all the day...an object of laughter” is that the message he has been sent to speak initially is “violence and destruction!” The “word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day,” Jeremiah says, like the punch in the face from the priest Pashhur and a day in the public stocks (Jer 20:2). But not only did Jeremiah not stand a chance, he also had no choice: “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” The word of God, the word of truth, overpowers Jeremiah, like fire burning in his heart, and he must speak. It might be this image of fire that correlates so well with the soothing picture of the psalmist, who speaks of seeking God because his “soul thirsts for you,” his “flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” God, whose word creates this burning fire of conviction and truth, is also the only one who can quench the flame and the thirst.

We find both of these elements of the search for God and God’s overwhelming and consuming nature in the New Testament. After Peter has correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, he has on his mind the triumphant establishment of God’s kingdom, with himself, Peter the Rock, as the happy viceroy of the Messiah. Jesus tells them of a different way in which he will “suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Peter objects to God’s way and begins to rebuke Jesus: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” The problem, Jesus says, is that Peter is “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Jesus, submissive to God’s will, not his own desires, finds God’s way irresistible. He has no choice but to follow.

The way of fire seems designed only to consume us, but when we enter this path, what seemed like a way of destruction is quenched by the life-giving waters of God. This is why Paul urges the church in Rome: “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” The will of God is not always the easy path, as Jeremiah and Jesus show, but the soul that thirsts for God will be satisfied only by the water that gives life, that allows us to transform our minds and souls and so to discern the will of God.

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