“On Fire” For Jesus?

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I suppose I have been trying to tackle some of the evangelical jargon that has actually enslaved us to an anemic spirituality (most recently “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”). Being raised in and inculcated with these phrases I only know them as an insider. I didn’t always think these phrases were odd except for one in particular, that of “being on fire” for Jesus. Much of my spiritual development through college happened through the ministry of campus crusade (now oddly called Cru?). One of the songs we would sing had the line “I’m on fire for your/I’m on fire for you.” Clearly we didn’t mean this, or maybe not so clearly – I am not sure what the curious onlooker would have thought about our strange pyrophilia. 

All the strangeness of the phrase aside, there was an even more pernicious problem with it that for many years was lost on me. This linguistic play/ploy was frequently used by youth pastors (myself included) to manipulate youth into more passionate service, more disciplined devotion, more evangelistic zeal. We held up to the admiration of the youth group/congregation those who were the most zealous, the most passionate, the most obviously “on fire” for Jesus.These became the model that we were to imitate, and we were inculcated with a steady diet of what “on fire” would actually look like (clearly we were flagging if we weren’t inviting enough people to Wednesday night church). This language truly defined and shaped the culture of not only our youth groups, but much of our congregational life. We had youth rally’s, stadium events, see-you -at-the-pole prayer meetings; all of these led by those “on fire” for Jesus.

Yet, for all that youthful fervor, I would watch over the course of the past decade and a half many of the most zealous wind up spiritually bankrupt, agnostic, hard-hearted, burnt-out, under-developed, imprisoned, alcoholic, drug-addicted, Pharisaical, blown apart by the weight of their own supposed “fire.” Of course all of us wanted to love God more. Of course all of us wanted to love our neighbor more. Yes, our problem was that many of us weren’t “on fire” enough. Yet we were being taught, ever so subtly, that the solution to our lack of zeal was to work harder to gain more zeal. DO MORE. WITNESS MORE. READ YOUR BIBLE MORE. PRAY MORE. And yet most-if-not-all of us found that the drone of more, more, more, the weight of sustaining zeal was an impossible burden to bear. None of us loved as we ought. Not God. Not others. The fact is that we were even less dispassionate and burnt-out than we ever supposed. We were dumping gasoline on wet logs hoping for spontaneous combustion. In theological speak we were treating law-breaking with more law. “Do this and live” was being met by “do more and live.”

In this manner the cross and resurrection of Jesus began to diminish in our view. It became increasingly irrelevant to the lives we were leading out – either the burgeoning Pharisee or for the tax-collectors among us. We were finding more persuasive ways to live – being on fire for either sin or religion. Some cast it off like the younger brother, others cast it off like the older brother. But both of us were estranged from our Father.

What we needed was the elders who had gone before us to tell us not to be “on fire” more, but to tell us that falling short is a way of life we must get used to, and that repentance was a bloody but necessary business, and that God’s ability to forgive was far greater than our ability to sin. We needed not to have our zeal fanned into a white-hot but short lived flame that they could vicariously live through to feel good about their ministry successes, but to have the barely flickering flame that was alive inside us to be nurtured with the grace of a Father who gave His Son who sent His Spirit, and to not be inundated and crushed with massive logs of zealous obligation to stoke the flame.

The law of love does not provide what it demands. We owe perfect, sincere, pure love to God and our neighbor. But all the law of zealous love does is tell us what we owe to God and others. There its power ends. The law of “being on fire for Jesus” cannot give what is commanded. And tragically many spiritual lives were laid waste by its misuse.

Really, what we needed to be reminded of, in a rich and compelling manner was “not that we have loved God, but that he first loved us and gave His Son as a propitiation for our sins.