The English language has been a lifetime hobby of mine. I especially enjoy tracking down the source of many of our words. Of course, I was sure that I already knew the only possible meaning of the verb ‘focus’ that God had ‘fixed in my mind’ as his desire for me in the approaching New Year of 2018. But I thought I should just check in my dictionaries the origins of the word. I was surprised to discover in my advanced years that it is in fact the ancient Latin noun for ‘fireplace’.
Interestingly, back in the 1970s we relabelled our regular church members’ business meetings ‘The Fireside Chat’ – strangely named in the era of centrally heated buildings!
Some of God’s fireside chats
- The Lord spoke to Moses at Horeb from a burning bush
When Moses had been the shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock for 40 years, he led them far into the wilderness one day and, according to Exodus 3:1-4 (New Living Translation), he ‘came to Sinai, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up.’ When he drew close to see why the bush didn’t burn up, ‘God called to him from the middle of the bush’ and commissioned him to set his people free from slavery in Egypt.
- God communicated with Israel at Sinai ‘from the heart of the fire’
Now when the Lord brought the word ‘focus’ to my attention I was, in the course of my regular Bible reading, musing my way through the record of Moses’ famous last words – the book of Deuteronomy. I was again taken by surprise at how God also communicated with Israel from Mount Sinai as he had done to Moses. ‘The Lord . . . spoke to you from the heart of the fire at Mount Sinai’ (Deuteronomy 4: 15, NLT), telling them not to worship the Lord by using images of creatures of earth or sky as religious props (Deuteronomy 4:16-20). ‘Has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking from fire – as you did – and survived?’ he asked. ‘He showed you these things so you would know that the Lord is God and there is no other. He let you hear his voice from heaven so he could instruct you. He let you see his great fire here on earth so he could speak to you from it‘ (Deuteronomy 4:33, 35).
However, that ‘fireside chat’ was no cosy armchair experience. The Israelites were scared of God’s visual and audible communication (‘face to face from the heart of the fire’) so that Moses ‘stood as an intermediary between you and the Lord, for you were afraid of the fire’ (Deuteronomy 5:4-5, 22, 25; 9:15; 10:4; 18:16). At Sinai God gave Moses the design of his ‘house’. And that was some schedule, to be financed by freewill offerings out of the farewell presents of Egyptian neighbours.
- God commissioned his missionary church at Pentecost in ‘tongues of fire’
On that memorable occasion, ‘all the believers were meeting together in one place. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. Then, what looked like flames of fire appeared and settled on each of them. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:1-4, The Passion Translation).
Speaking mysteries to God
That gift of tongues is a helpful means of speaking to God when you don’t know how to pray with your mind.
The recently married daughter of a Baptist pastor seemed to be having trouble with miscarriages while she and her husband were resident students at our small Bible College in Yorkshire. When it seemed to be happening again, some of her fellow-students were ardently praying one morning around her bed and had invited me to join them. But I felt restrained from asking for the child’s welfare. So I prayed under my breath in tongues and then in English asking for the Lord to strengthen Sarah. Medical tests revealed that she had never miscarried, because she was unable to conceive due to the state of her ovaries. Later the couple adopted a total of three children. A missionary from Italy had been visiting that day and had joined us around her bed. He said I had spoken in perfect Italian grammar with a natural Italian accent! When I asked what I had said, I was told I had asked the Lord to bless this young woman, rather than praying to save an unborn child.
This experience was a vivid example of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:1-2, TPT): ‘When someone speaks in tongues, no one understands a word he says, because he’s . . . speaking . . . to God – he is speaking intimate mysteries in the Spirit. . . . For if I am praying in a tongue, my spirit is engaged in prayer, but I have no clear understanding of what is being said.’ No wonder he started by encouraging his readers to be ‘enthusiastic and passionate about spiritual gifts.’
Paul made another statement in his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 8:26-27, TPT) about how the Holy Spirit can pray with us when we don’t know what we should be asking for: ‘. . . at times we don’t even know how to pray, or know the best things to ask for. But the Holy Spirit arises up within us to super-intercede on our behalf, pleading to God with emotional sighs too deep for words. God, the searcher of the heart knows fully our longings, yet he also understand the desires of the Spirit, because the Holy Spirit passionately pleads before God for us, his holy ones, in perfect harmony with God’s plan and our destiny.’
I recall an evening when I was prompted to go upstairs to pray for a sister in Christ but felt at a loss to know what I should be interceding about, so I prayed in a spiritual tongue. After some time I felt wrapped around in the peace of God, and rejoined my family. When I next attended our weekly prayer group, she testified that her husband had gone out to minister to someone in need, leaving her doing their ironing, which she attacked in an aggressive manner because she felt sidelined and angry with him. ‘Suddenly I sensed peace pour all over me, and I thought that someone somewhere had been praying for me!’ When I asked her about the day and time, it coincided exactly with my ‘mystery’ praying!
‘So, beloved friends, with all this in mind, be passionate to prophesy and don’t forbid anyone from speaking in tongues’ (1 Corinthians 14:19. TPT).
I rest my case!