Fire can be a blessing or a curse. It can cook our food or destroy our neighborhood. It can save our lives by warming us in the cold or kill us if we get too close. Fire has captivated the human imagination ever since Prometheus stole it from Mount Olympus. (A similar theft appears in many other world mythologies.)
Ancient Greek philosophers classified the material world into four elements: earth, air, wind and fire. While modern atomic theory has replaced this simpler system, these four visible elements still speak to us.
The image of fire in the Bible is prevalent, and sometimes just as rich in opposites. The burning bush that so intrigues Moses is a direct line to God, but then there are the fires of Gehenna, the place of eternal torment. Throughout the Bible, the metaphor of the refiner’s fire purifies the hearts of believers and readies them for faithfulness. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit comes upon the Apostles as tongues of flame. It changes them forever.
On the road to Emmaus, the disciples knew there was something amazing about the man who walked with them, who ignited the spirit within them. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” they ask each other, when the stranger turns out to be Jesus. (Luke 24:32) The fire of faith consumes their doubts and prompts them to proclaim the truth of the Risen Lord.
Jeremiah, the reluctant prophet, feels differently about the fire within. He tells God that he will no longer be his fall guy. “You duped me, Lord,” Jeremiah says, in an odd sort of prayer, “and I let myself be duped.” (Jeremiah 20:7) He vows that he will no longer preach the words that God puts in his heart, because all it gets him is trouble and derision. “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak his name no more,” continues Jeremiah. “But then it becomes like a fire burning in my heart … I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” (Jeremiah 20:9)
And there it is, that burning, that sense of what must be done. Jeremiah is a prophet, and he must prophesy, even though it puts him in harm’s way. He can’t prophesy. It’s the only way to cool the flames in his heart.
I think writers are well acquainted with the fire that burns in the heart. Most writers I know write because they can’t not write. This need to write manifests itself physically as well as mentally if it goes unmet. Not writing leads to a kind of spiritual constipation. As the intense Franz Kafka writes, at his most Kafkaesque: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” The burning in the heart of a writer is only alleviated by the act of writing. “A word after a word after a word is power,” says the brilliant writer Margaret Atwood, and it is also the only way for a writer to soothe the burning within.
So we ask ourselves, as people of faith, what is it that burns in our hearts? What is it that threatens to consume us if we don’t do it? What is God’s urgent will for us? We often refer to the fire of the Holy Spirit burning within us as a calling or a vocation. Discerning God’s calling is not always easy, but a burning heart can be the sacred nudge that propels us forward on the road of God’s will.
Maybe our strongest talents are the things that burn hottest within our hearts, because God wants us to use the gifts he has given us, to be of service, to minister to others, to shine God’s fiery light in the world. We too may not recognize the stranger who walks with us, until our burning hearts discern the work ahead. Then act we must.