The word of the day is “burn.” Today in our reading of Proverbs 6:20-7:1, we hear a graphic bit of wisdom, “Can a man take fire to his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? (NKJV vs. 27). We shudder at the thought. We feel the fiery heat burning through our clothing into our chest. We smell the searing flesh. We feel the pain of a thousand knives slicing into our tender body.
Who would do such a thing? The wise sage of Proverbs observes that getting involved in an adulterous affair is like clutching live coals to our chest. Those who commit adultery, the sage promises, will be severely burned. Adulterers will earn “wounds and dishonor,” “reproach that will not be wiped away,” and the jealousy of the betrayed that will not be satisfied (NKJV vs. 33-34). Furthermore, by their own foolishness, adulterers will destroy their souls (NKJV and OSB (vs. 37).
Burning Coals in the Heart
Yet long before the act of adultery is committed–long before the unfaithful persons reap the bitter consequences of their secret liaison– the adulterers already have clutched burning coals to their chest. The Lord said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NKJV Matthew 5:28). The word “lust” in Greek comes from the idea of setting the heart on something. Thus, lust is an intense desire, whether good or bad (Strong’s 1937, 97). Accordingly, the cravings of lust burn in the heart whether or not the actual deed is done (OSB Romans 1:27).
What makes the difference between the adultery of the heart and the adultery of the body? The Philokalia speaks of the demons who “expel self-restraint” (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 68). If allowed to burn, the flame of longing blazes stronger and stronger. If the demons of sexual license are successful and the fire is left to rage, it will overpower reason, sense, and morality and incite the actual deed.
Lust and Other Burning Desires
Yet lust is only one of the fires of passion that can smolder and blaze in us. In Colossians, St. Paul submits a list of “earthly desires” that are associated with lust. The apostle states, “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (NKJV Colossians 3:5). In this passage, the “members” are the parts of the earthly body (Strong’s #3196, 159). Yet from the context, we can say that the “members” refers to those parts of bodies when a common factor rules them. That aspect is the craving of overwhelming desire. Thus, we find that lust is not the only vice that can inflame our hearts to burn with passion.
How do we keep from being consumed by lust and the accompanying passions that St. Paul lists? We can try to keep them in check with self-discipline and control. But that means eternal vigilance against the “demons of indulgence” that would defeat our constraint.
Kindling Fire in Our Souls
The alternative is to “fight fire with fire.” St. Symeon, the New Theologian, taught that when Jesus said that He came to “cast fire on the earth,” He was speaking of kindling fires in our souls. He sends down a heavenly blaze to those who are disposed to let it burn in them. The New Theologian says, “For those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven… this flame at first purifies us from the pollution of the passions and then becomes in us food and drink and light and joy and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourse, #78).
Baptized With the Holy Spirit and Fire
In the same vein, the Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist proclaimed that the Christ would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (NKJV Matthew 3:11). In the fulfillment of this promise, all who are baptized are sealed with the Holy Spirit who will then burn within them. He will dwell in their hearts to cleanse them. And He will abide in them to stir up the love of God, the zeal for His commandments, and the yearning for His Kingdom.
We can let this initial flame smolder in our souls for years. But if we give it the oxygen of faith and love and the fuel of prayer, the sacraments, the study of the Scriptures and the fathers, and deeds of lovingkindness, it will blaze up to the heights. It will be so intense and bright in the love and devotion that it will overpower all lesser flames. And in it, the passions that were so troublesome to our souls will be consumed.
Here is a quotation from Father Alexander Schmemann about the desire of Zacchaeus to “see Jesus.”
“Man follows his desire. One can even say that man is desire, and this fundamental psychological truth about human nature is acknowledged by the Gospel: ‘Where your treasure is,’ says Christ, ‘there shall your heart be.’”
“A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man; he does things of which ‘normally’ he is incapable… The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things, whether the power of desire in us is aimed at the right goal or whether—in the words of the existentialist atheist Jean-Paul Sartre—man is a ‘useless passion.’”
“Zacchaeus…is the first symbol of repentance, for repentance begins with the rediscovery of the deep nature of all desires: the desire for God and His righteousness, for true life” (Schmemann 1990, 18)
Today, let us pray that the Holy Spirit would rekindle in us the “right desire” so that our hearts might be cleansed of all sinful passions and burn ever more brightly with the love of God.
G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber
Schmemann, Alexander. 1990. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.