Scripture frequently associates God with fire. He appears in the flames of a burning-yet-unburned bush. He leads by a blazing pillar. Flame streams from his throne. The presence of his Spirit flickers as tongues of fire on Pentecost. “[O]ur God,” as Paul says in Hebrews, “is a consuming fire.”
I think that this reference to fire provides a key to explain why our experience of God can change so much.
Paul is reminding us about how differently Moses and the Israelites reacted to God at Mount Sinai. It was a frightening scene. The mountain “was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire,” as it says in Exodus. God’s presence “was like a [consuming] fire on the top of the mountain.” The people were terrified. “[T]his great fire will consume us,” they said, as Deuteronomy records.
But while the people below quaked in their sandals, Moses ascended the mountain, communed with God, and then descended aglow with the glory of God.
Sometimes, when God interacts with people, it’s not the fire that varies; it’s the results. I like how Eusebius of Caesarea put it: “Fire purifies gold, and melts lead: wax it dissolves, clay it hardens, wood it dries, by one burning force accomplishing so many changes.”
That’s how it is with us. The blaze both burns and illumines. It purifies and melts, hardens and dries. We can feel God’s anger or his love, but it’s not that God alternates between the two. Usually it’s that we do.
There’s an obscure passage in in the Psalms that speak to this. “The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire,” says Psalm 29. Commenting on this passage Basil the Great said, “the fierce and punitive part of [God’s] fire may await those who deserve to burn, while its illuminating and radiant part may be allotted for the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing,” that is, the saved.
This is a helpful insight. The fire of God’s presence is constant, but the experience of it (anger or joy) is somehow divided, depending upon the heart of the person coming into contact with the flame. There are confident Moseses and quaking Israelites, but there is only one God.
Such an insight cannot account for every period of unease we feel with God. Sometimes, for instance, he purposefully distances himself to draw us closer to him, to encourage us to seek and pursue him.
But we cannot miss the importance of our hearts in relation to God, not merely God’s in relation to us. A heart that inclines toward the Lord and keeps his commandments experiences God’s presence as love and kindness. On the other hand, one that moves from him and disobeys experiences his presence as anger and punishment.
We may shift between both states, sometimes back and forth in the same day, maybe the same hour. But I think it’s empowering to know that by changing our disposition we may turn and find that God was always there, the same yesterday, today, and forever, unalterably loving, beneficent, and gracious.