learning the words: on fire

burning bush

Today’s guest post is from April, who blogs about “taking back the church” at Revolutionary Faith. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

“Are you on fire for God?”

This question became the bane of my spiritual existence in my young adult years–specifically from 2000 to 2008. Every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night youth service, I heard how important it was to be “on fire” for God. Because according to Revelation 3:16, being lukewarm was the worst possible thing for any Christian to be. People cold in their devotion got a pass. Lukewarm believers received the distinct pleasure of being vomited out of God’s mouth.

In my view, Revelation 3:16 is one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted “clobber verses” in charismatic, Penecostal churches–perhaps even more than Ephesians 5:22-24 (wives submit to husbands). I know that’s a pretty bold claim. But I had this verse shoved down my throat almost weekly, and it proved to be just as damaging, if not more so, to my walk with Christ.

See, according to my church, being “on fire” meant to be enthusiastic in worship. Very enthusiastic. Don’t want to raise your hands? You’re not on fire. Don’t feel like shouting? You’re not on fire. Don’t feel like dancing as King David danced? You’re not on fire. Don’t scream like a “Jesus groupie” whenever the pastor speaks the Savior’s name? You’re not on fire. And, someday, God is going to barf you straight into the Lake of Fire–because you once cheered louder for Michael Jordan than you did for the everlasting Son of God– who died for you!

One can imagine the intense guilt this bred in me over time. I couldn’t worship quietly without feeling judged by my pastor, youth pastor, worship leader, and peers. Nothing I did during worship was ever good enough for them or, I thought, for God. Simply meditating in His presence was not good enough. Folding my hands and bowing my head was not good enough. I had to prove to everyone that I loved God more than anything else, and that meant jumping higher and singing louder than the average tween at a Justin Bieber concert. If ever I showed the slightest reservation in this regard, someone was always there to remind me of my fate as God’s future spew.

Needless to say, worship soon became a miserable experience for me. I often left youth service feeling sick inside. I was stuck on an emotional roller coaster without a way off. I’d come to church desperately wanting to feel the Holy Spirit, spend the whole time participating in a big pep rally, and leave feeling even more empty, guilty and confused than when I showed up. Something seemed terribly wrong with this scenario. I began to suspect I was being manipulated. But how? The verse was right there in black and white, wasn’t it?

No, it wasn’t. Not like my leaders claimed, anyway.

I eventually stumbled upon Revelation 3:16 in my private studies and read it in its proper context. And do you know what I discovered?

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

Revelation 3:16 has nothing to do with the outward intensity of one’s worship. Not. a. single. thing. It’s referring to people who know Jesus in name only–who refuse to draw close to him because they find fulfillment in the power of their wealth. They are self-righteous people who have allowed their materialism to blind them to their spiritual shortcomings.

It’s entirely possible for a person to be blind to their spiritual shortcomings while dancing around the front of a church. Dancing, jumping and shouting do not indicate spiritual awareness (as a visit to any night club will clearly demonstrate).

So why did my leaders twist this verse so far out of context? Probably because my jumping around made their ministry look more spiritual than it really was.

Over the past few months, God has been showing me exactly what it means to be “on fire” for Him. And it has nothing to do with how much I jump up and down in the pews. Instead, it’s about how much I’m willing to abide in Him, trust Him, lean upon Him for strength, guidance, and transformation. It doesn’t matter so much how I’m worshiping Him as long as I am worshiping Him, as the Bible says, in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24). And the truth is, God isn’t easily impressed by people’s outward displays. As always, He’s looking into our hearts to determine our true attitude toward Him (1 Samuel 16:7).

Finally, in 2013, I can say with humble assurance that I’m “on fire” for God. No crazy jumping or waving required. And my walk with Him has never been more intense.

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  • notleia

    Tangential story time: For a few years in high school, a youth group I was associated with went to Acquire the Fire (which I think is a Baptist thing). I wasn’t able to go for two years, due to school events or taking the ACT. I was finally able to go in my freshman year of college, though everyone else except my dude and the preacher had something to do that year. Acquire the Fire actually was the low point of the trip. The message was the usual milk-toothed “Jesus loves you so much,” and the skits were well acted and funny in parts but really, really cliche, and though I liked Thousand Foot Krutch well enough, I didn’t want to be blasted so loud that my dude and I had to communicate in fingerspelling. I did not acquire any fire; I wanted out. We skipped out and went to the zoo the next day. So much for two years’ worth of curiosity and anticipation.
    I realized I was no longer in the demographic this stuff was marketed at, not really in age and definitely not as a new-ish believer, and I pretty much knew that I wouldn’t be a target demographic again until I popped out kids or something. In any case, I’m not the hand-wavingly enthusiastic sort. I can totally relate to being made to feel guilty because I knew my introverted tendencies would have me being accused of “not really loving Jesus.”

  • As a fundamentalist (before I became Pentecostal), I understood the Revelation passage a bit differently. For us it meant not compromising with the ‘world’, and it included legalistic and doctrinal implications and maintaining our status as a ‘peculiar people’ in contrast to our unbelieving, liberal, and lukewarm neighbors and school friends.

    I am not sure which mis-application is worse–yours or mine!

    • I had the fun of getting that one from BOTH interpretations at different times. Joy.

      • Carol

        America is a nation dominated by extroverted alphas. Our national daemons are aggression and excess.
        This is how a 19th century Swiss theologian described American Mainline Christianity:

        “(American Christianity) is more Petrine than Johannean; more like busy Martha than like the pensive Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. It expands more in breadth than in depth. It is often carried on like a secular business, and in a mechanical or utilitarian spirit. It lacks the beautiful enamel of deep fervor and heartiness, the true mysticism, an appreciation of history and the Church; it wants (i.e. “lacks”) the substratum of a profound and spiritual theology; and under the mask of orthodoxy it not infrequently conceals, without intending or knowing it, the tendency to abstract intellectualism and superficial rationalism. This is especially evident in the doctrine of the church and of the sacraments, and in the meagerness of the worship… (wherein) nothing is left but preaching, free prayer, and singing.”–Philip Schaff, a Swiss theologian, analyzing American Christianity for a German audience in 1854.

        The many of the excesses in Evangelicalism are over-reactions to Liberal Mainline religion.

        Adam McHugh has written a book called “Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture:

  • Reblogged this on Revolutionary Faith and commented:
    Here is a guest post I wrote for Defeating the Dragons, an awesome blog I discovered about a week ago. The blog’s author writes about recovering from fundamentalism and spiritual abuse.

  • Elmo

    The interpretation that you grew up with is one of the most blatant forms of behavior modification therapy I have ever heard of.

    • It really is scary and sickening to realize that, isn’t it?

  • Carol

    I worked for a Jesuit priest who was a leading American Catholic homiletist and one of the founders of “Preaching the Just Word”, a movement dedicated to prophetic preaching on social justice issues. One of his favorite teachings was that preachers needed to have “fire in the belly” to preach prophetically.

    Fr. Burkhardt’s ministry was a challenge to the bumper sticker saying that “The Church is a Non-Prophet Organization.”

  • Great post. I spent some time in a charismatic church (although that was mostly a positive experience, compared with the time spent in the Christian Patriarchy movement) during my early high school years. Here is my particular brush with the idea you talk about:

    I attended a camp at age 15, which really was a good time, I will admit, on the whole. However, the first night, I was worshiping next to this guy, who was the stereotypical “on fire” guy. Long curly black hair, dancing all over the place, enthusiastic beyond a doubt. (These days, I would say strong extrovert…) I was my usual self, introverted, quiet, one hand raised at the most, but worshiping in my own way. He kept trying to get me into the “on fire” thing, while I would just nod and say little. (Don’t get me wrong. Unlike the typical leader you speak of, this guy was really a decent guy. Just extroverted.)

    I am a violinist, and I begged my way onto the band by the second night. (I’d played with our church for a few years – and I play semi-professionally now.) After the evening’s worship, the extrovert guy apparently changed his mind completely about me – because I contributed in a way he could understand. I had my instrument, but how many others were similarly introverted, but had no visible way to demonstrate their worship?

    We cannot simply assume to know the heart and the worship from the outward manifestations.

  • Oh you are real teacher, what words of Grace ! If the twenty first century church as a whole would come to this point of truth as you have beautifully laid out, the will of God would be done on earth among The Bride , as it is in Heaven.
    Thanks April, you are a gem.