The metaphor of fire is common among the spiritual masters. Indeed, ever-greater union with God has often been understood to be accompanied by purification and illumination. But that process is by no means linear. There is no straightforward progression from one to the next. They are, in fact, different ways of talking about one and the same journey—the journey of surrendering to the Spirit’s total work. We are purified and illuminated as we are drawn into union with God . . . we are brought into union as we are illuminated and purified . . . we are illuminated as we are purified and made one with the Lover of our souls.
Part of what this means is that the Love that has loved us from before the foundation of the earth will feel like scorching heat until all that stands against God in us has been burned away. Teresa of Avila likened the triumph of the love of God in the human heart to wax that has been melted by the fire—surely a painful process for the wax! But the soul in that state, she says, is “prepared for the impress” of God’s nature.[i] We begin to look more like God as we surrender to this “melting,” “impressing” work.
Purification and Union
One of the profoundest thinkers of the church, Gregory of Nyssa, made this a central piece of his spiritual theology. In a little treatise called On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory taught that purification and union with God are two sides of the same coin. The soul is initially drawn by the beauty of God, but as it begins the movement toward him in the “ecstasy” of spiritual desire, it experiences pain wrapped up in pleasure. And why is that? Because in the process of spiritual awakening, God is simultaneously rescuing the soul from the evils in which it is mired—like dragging someone out of a collapsed and burning building. To the soul being so rescued, the process feels like “wrath.” The soul may wonder if God is angry with it. But Gregory assures us:
It is not out of hatred or vengeance for an evil life (in my opinion) that God brings painful conditions upon sinners, when He seeks after and draws to Himself whatever has come to birth for His sake; but for a better purpose He draws the soul to Himself, who is the fountain of all blessedness.[ii]
It is God’s love that burns the dross of evil out of the soul as it draws it into the eternal blessedness of divine friendship. And how long must that fire burn? Gregory answers, “as long as it has fuel.”[iii] Ouch.
Burning Fire of the Spirit
God, by the power of his Holy Spirit, will strip us of our idols, burn away sin, and break our attachments to lesser things, in order to reshape our wayward love so that it finally rises into the Love that he is. The experience of the Spirit that initially came as ecstasy gives way to what is oftentimes an agony. But we must recognize this: that burning fire of the Spirit is nothing but the advent of the love of God into our lives, and we will experience that burning heat as pain just as long as there is any bit of us that is not fully surrendered to God.
Taken from All Flame by Andrew Arndt. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
About the Author
Andrew Arndt is the lead pastor of New Life East, one of seven congregations of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Prior to joining New Life’s team, he served as lead pastor of Bloom Church: a neo-monastic, charismatic, liturgical, justice-driven network of house churches in Denver. He is the host of the Essential Church podcast, a weekly conversation designed to strengthen the thinking of church and ministry leaders. Andrew received his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has written for Missio Alliance, Patheos, The Other Journal, and Mere Orthodoxy. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Mandi, and their four kids. Andrew’s upcoming book, All Flame, releases from NavPress in September 2020.
[i] St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle (New York: Dover, 2007), 74.
[ii] St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 2002), 83.
[iii] St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul, 84–85.