Have you heard of people being described as ‘on fire for Jesus’? It’s pretty hard to exist in evangelical culture for any length of time and not hear that phrase. I remember as a teenager, growing up it was what we all wanted to be – or it was what we were told we should want to be. ON FIRE – pulsating with palpable energy for Jesus… chanting his name JEEESUSSS JEEESUSSSSS…
You know the vibe right?
We would hear about these Christian ‘super-people’ – kinda like the Marvel heroes of faith who were on fire for God and we were told this is the goal – to be like this yourself.
And it took various forms:
You would go to conferences and see these people jumping up and down with hands raised, eyes closed in orgasmic ecstacy looking the part of the ‘fired up’. The message was clear – if you wanted to be ‘on fire for God’ then you needed to be massively demonstrative in worship – exuberant and expressive, dance, yell, wave your hands and generally let rip.
We are told ‘never to lose our spiritual zeal serving the Lord’… But honestly – I was always a bit skeptical of this stuff… because I knew some of these people and I knew how they lived when they weren’t in church or at a Youth aAlive rally. They weren’t particularly nice people – they weren’t people I’d want to hang around with.
They knew how to act the part. You can be ‘fired up for God’ if you learn the ‘actions’ and the language…
Then there were other people who were the ‘real deal’. And these people took faith to the ‘next level’… (oh it’s cliché central around here today…) and what they did was go to live in slums in countries like the Philippines on the basis that the gospel was good news to the poor.
I remember reading about Mick Duncan in a Christian magazine when I was 19 . He had taken his family to live as missionaries in Manila’s largest slum and they were living in the same conditions as the people around them. I wrote to Mick to see if I could go and join them. He never wrote back… So when I was 23 I hopped on a plane to Manila to try and find these ‘Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor’ because I wanted to do faith right and be around other people who were ‘on fire’ for God.
The message was that these people were the hard core – they were serious about faith, doing the things Jesus said and living as Jesus would have lived. Of course the other message was clear again. If you were a real Christian then you didn’t live in a middle class suburb and drive a Prado. You gave that stuff up and went to live in a depressed part of the city where the need was greater. When Jesus spoke of how the sheep and goats were going to be separated it was on the basis of how they treated the poor and marginalised.
And sometimes you would feel that angsty superior vibe from the people in these places who had got faith ‘right’ – who were suffering for Jesus and who could teach us a thing or two if we’d listen…
Dave Andrews was one of those guys who lived for many years among the poor in India – living as they would. Wow… This week on his facebook page he is writing some reflections on his 50 years of marriage to Ange and as he remembers that time he says ‘I was a self righteous bastard’.
He had figured out what it took to be an elite Christian and he was doing it with all his might. I should add that there are many people doing great work of this kind with grace and humility so its not a stab at them.
Bu maybe you can see where this is going?
You’ve heard of the people who lived in radical Christian community – people who have sold their belongings and joined a common purse type of set up, where there is no private ownership of stuff, but they have all in common as they appeared to do in Acts 2.
They have stepped out in faith and are trying to live ‘biblical Christianity’. They hadn’t just fitted into mainstream culture and become hyper-individualised and self centred. Truth is many of these types of communities have ended in tears or abuse as people discover life just isn’t as simple as they’d hoped and that there is still some serious darkness within them.
We are selfish… by nature.
There are those crazy prayer warriors who rise at 3 each day because they can’t survive on less than 8 hours prayer a day… hmmph… ok…Can we watch TV while we pray? Does all eyes closed time count as prayer?
Much simpler is to be a social media warrior – “repost this if you love jesus! Only true Christians will!!” How to enter the ranks of the elite with the click of a keyboard.
Or if all else fails you can do what the spiritually insecure have been doing for centuries… You can ‘go into the ministry’… Go to Bible college and become a pastor – because everyone knows that pastors are on fire for God every day of the week. (Or maybe now they’re paid to be – they will be…)
I’m sure you can think of other examples.
But maybe we just need to hear it one more time – It’s ok not to be on fire for God.
It’s ok not to be on fire for God in any of those senses. You don’t have to get all funky in worship, you don’t have to go live in a slum, or a Christian community or even become a pastor.
You don’t have to do anything…
The problem with each of these things is the implication that doing the things somehow changes our identity before God. That we become more acceptable to him because we are sitting up straight and behaving.
And Dave Andrews hit the nail on the head. When we decide in ourselves to get fired up – to take it up a notch we actually depend on our own ability to achieve righteousness.
Each of these actions when they are motivated by a desire to be better Christians are nothing more than attempts to put ourselves in a better standing before God and nothing reeks more to God than the stench of self righteousness. There was nothing Jesus had higher critique for than the self absorbed, power riddled religiosity of the Pharisees.
So as a first post for the new year I want to say something you may not have heard much of in church. ‘You don’t have to try so hard’… In fact God is neither excited nor impressed by you doing your best to live the Christian life and ‘be on fire’ for him. I think he would simply say ‘give it up – you’ve missed the point’
The harder we try to be the kind of people we have imagined we need to be, the further we move from the people God calls us to be.
Ephesians 1 is one of those beautiful grounding passages of scripture – that tells us who we are – more specifically who we are in Christ – and my sense is that if we can just grasp who we actually are – then we can stop playing the one-up-man games that being ‘on fire for Jesus’ seems to evoke.
That chapter tells us we have been loved and chosen before the creation of the world, adopted into his family, redeemed by his blood. We are invited into the mystery of cosmic adoption – not so we can solve it with a few formulaic recipes for how real Christianity looks – but so we can know we are loved and accepted no matter what.
We are of immense value to God whether we try hard or whether we just relax.
So what to do if you aren’t seeking to be on fire for God?
Do we even have a plan for that type of Christianity?…
Maybe just begin by accepting that you suck – that you suck at all the things that you think might make you acceptable but in spite of how badly you suck, the God of the universe loves you.
In fact, ironically it’s when we own our crappiness that we actually get a sense of who God is and we might even get inspired – because he loves us anyway. He accepts us as we are – we aren’t so good at that…
Who is this God who does the unthinkable?
The big problem with the culture of on fire, next level, hard core, marvel super hero Christianity is that it can cause us to pretend – to be who we are not to be seen as acceptable.
I can just see Jesus saying ‘yeh… that’s what I was hoping for…’
Which isn’t to say that when we are inspired by God’s love for us we won’t do crazy things. Those early disciples gave their lives for this gospel – because they were inspired by love and grace – not because they wanted to win at ‘Christian Club’
They simply hung around him, got to know him and realised who he was…
They didn’t hold weekly ‘pentecost fire’ events to pump one another up. They just knew in their hearts that in spite of who they were God loved them enough to bet his son on them.
I believe God’s desire is simply that you be real about who you are and that you relate to God from that place. If that takes you to a place of ecstatic joy and unimaginable wonder then that’s great. If it takes you a place of great wrestling and turmoil and frustration then that’s great too. Maybe you will get both…
God isn’t calling us to pull our socks up and start changing the world – he is saying ‘I love you just as you are.’
I can’t tell you how much ‘getting that’ has changed my life.
But I do know that the key is not trying harder, going to church more often or achieving any of the KPIs that seem to have filled our imagination. They key is knowing you are loved when you are a complete mess just as much as when you seem to be doing well. So if you have just come off the first week of new years resolutions where you have ‘set the bar really high’ for discipleship and you feel weary then just remember Jesus said:
‘Come to me all you who are heavy laden and weary and I will give you a rest.’
It was a rest from religious behaviour and giving the appearance of a righteous life and an invitation into a life that began with being loved and accepted and forgiven and didn’t require anything more of you.
Petersen calls this ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’, which is a more winsome way of describing the life of faith.