The Jesus Burn: a Blessed Experience of God’s Presence

Many people write to me asking for help understanding their experience of the Jesus burn. I too feel this at times. Have you experienced the “Jesus burn”? Do you know what it’s like to feel God’s presence in your body?

Perhaps your heart has been warmed by God’s peace. Or on the back of your neck and shoulders you’ve felt tingly with the Spirit’s blessing or “anointing” when you were being prayed for or seeking God in a special way? Or maybe you’ve had a God-encounter in community worship or solitude that filled you with a deep longing for more of Jesus, a longing so intense that it pierces your heart and hurts in a sweet way.

I hope you have felt Jesus warming your heart with his mercy and love. I hope you have been blessed with experiences of this heavenly peace.

The Jesus burn is more than an emotion — it’s a sweet consolation from the Lord and can actual spiritual experience in your body or emotions. Sometimes we can observe it’s effects in our life. Often it accompanies expressions of wholehearted devotion to the Lord, like when singing praise to God in a vibrant worship community or a time of intensive prayer. (I have a Bible study that unpacks what it means to experience God: “A-B-I-D-E: The Experience of Knowing Christ Today.”)

But, as I’ll explain further, the Jesus burn is not a sign of holiness or merit. It’s not something we produce or control.

If you want to learn more about the Jesus burn the best place to go is to Jesus and his cross where his heart so burned with love for us that he died on the cross for our sins to reconcile us to God.The most powerful and recurring experiences of intimacy with Jesus and God that I have experienced have come from my meditations on Jesus’ crosswalk and sacrifice. I’ve used the ancient stations of the cross to guide me into the Gospel stories that take me up close and personal to my Lord and Savior. You can join me in this life-changing journey in my 68-page booklet, Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross.

On the Road to Emmaus

Let’s go to the cross of Christ now. In the Bible we read the story of two disciples walking on the Emmaus Road. Jesus, their Messiah, had just been crucified. Then there were reports that his body was missing. These disciples didn’t know what to think. They were intently talking about this as they walked. Suddenly, the risen Christ appeared and walked with them, but they didn’t recognize him. All they knew was that a friendly stranger engaged them in conversation and much to their surprise and delight he opened up the Scriptures to them in ways that brought amazing insights, peace, and a longing for more.

When they arrived at their destination they begged their companion to stay with them. Their hearts yearned to spend more time with him, to be closer to him, and learn more from him. He agreed and they ate a meal together, continuing their deep, intimate spiritual conversation. Then despite being the guest at their table, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. Immediately, their eyes were opened: It’s Jesus! He has risen from the dead! Later, they remarked in amazement, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:13-35)

That’s the Jesus burn. It comes in precious solitude. It comes in fervent worship, in deep spiritual conversation with a friend, in difficult trials when you’re crying out to God continually… Sometimes. Whenever it comes it is a surprise because you weren’t seeking it — you were seeking Jesus, only Jesus.

The Blessing of the Jesus Burn

I often say, “Longing for God is the breath of the soul.” Yearning and hungering for more of Christ ought to be the passion of our lives. How sweet it is and how wonderfully renewing to experience Jesus in your heart, to have your will inflamed with desire for him. It’s profoundly confirming of the substance of Christ in your life when his words and his Spirit embrace you sweetly and inspire you to move closer to the Lord in a way that you can feel, even physically.

I believe it’s important that on occasion we are able to experience the reality of God in a tangible, personal way, perhaps not physically, but spiritually and emotionally. If as a Christ-follower you never have this blessing then maybe something is broken in your soul and needing repair. To open up the way of God to your heart psychotherapy or healing prayer may be needed. You may need help to overcome the effects of childhood wounds or deficits, the damage of past addictive behavior, or an experience of trauma.

But no one experiences the Jesus burn continually. If you did I suppose you’d burn up and be translated into heaven! Maybe that’s what happened to Enoch of old who walked with God for 365 years, growing more and more intimate with God until finally he was taken up to heaven (Genesis 5:21-24).

Sometimes people who are struggling with mental illness and having hallucinations or delusions report experiencing the Jesus burn or a similar manifestation. Is it real or psychotic? I don’t know.

The Dark Night of the Soul

We do need to be careful with all this talk about the Jesus burn.

All of us, including the most devoted and mature of Christ-followers, experience times of spiritual dryness when we don’t feel the warmth of God’s presence and perhaps we don’t even long for it. We receive no special visions or profound personal messages. God’s blessings seem remote and inaccessible. There is no Jesus burn for us. In fact, at these times serving the Lord may feel routine, burdensome, even depressing.

John of the Cross identified the most difficult times of spiritual emptiness as a “Dark Night of the Soul.” In the 16th Century he wrote extensively about his experience of this. Over two thousand years before him, the Psalmists prayed about the Dark Night, “Why, O Lord, have you hidden your face from me?” (Psalms 13:1, 88:14, and many others). Job lived it. Also Abraham, Jeremiah, and, of course, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. And many other Biblical heroes. But most of us if we experience this spiritual emptiness we feel confused or like we’re doing something wrong.

The Dark Night is not a punishment from God. It is a time of testing. Will I love and worship the Lord even if I don’t experience any blessing from doing so? Will I continue to seek him if he doesn’t give me special visions, profound personal messages, or blessed spiritual experiences?

In these dry periods that are void of feeling God’s presence the Psalmist teaches us that we can be sustained by remembering our past experiences of God’s grace (Psalm 77) and by continuing to cry out with longing, not so much for God’s blessings, but to see his face, to draw closer to him (Psalm 42).

This Dark Night is an opportunity for spiritual maturation: to identify with Christ and become more like him. On the other side of the Dark Night of the Soul, if we learn from it, we are ready and able to demonstrate love for God and for neighbor even in difficult or unfair situations.

The Dawn that Pierces the Dark Night

When we give up trying to get spiritual highs from God we can learn instead to focus on loving God for God and loving other people for God, not because we should, but because he is so good and beautiful and all we want to do is to bless him.

Then we can begin to know the Lord in a whole new way. Previously, “knowing” God meant having an experience of him or an insight from him that generated strong emotion or confident belief. But now we learn to look around us and know God through observing and relying upon the reality of his character and handiwork that are all around us in nature, other people, and our own life circumstances.

Sometimes the grace we eventually receive from these Dark Nights facilitates profound breakthrough, transformation, and new and surprising experiences of peace, joy, and fruitfulness.

John of the Cross describes this in his poem, “The Dark Night.” He grew to love his solitary confinement in prison. He could’ve been resentful that church leaders were persecuting him. He could’ve despaired that God wasn’t blessing him. Instead, the longing of his heart for God’s face burned in his heart. He experienced the Jesus burn in the middle of his suffering. Countless people have experienced the Jesus burn when they pray his poem.

But for some Christ-followers their dryness goes on for many years, perhaps until they die. For them there is no dawn in their Dark Night until they step into the glory of heaven where Jesus Christ shines like the sun. This was the case with Mother Teresa. Her loving care in Jesus’ name for the poorest of the poor who were suffering in the streets of Calcutta, India and continuing in this through years of spiritual dryness was a most honored identification with Christ and his cross.

The Pseudo Jesus Burn

The Dark Night, if we understand it and learn to trust the Holy Spirit’s hidden work in the depths of our soul, purges us from making an idol out of the Jesus burn. It’s a much needed cleansing for us in our consumerist Christian culture.

Sadly, many Christians today worship the Jesus burn or similar blessed experiences of God. Instead of worshiping the Lord they worship their experience of him — they crave the pleasure or peace they get from singing praise songs with others. Our churches perpetuate this when they crank up the music extra loud (even to the point of damaging people’s ears!) to give people a buzz of excitement or “that loving feeling.”

This is not the Jesus burn. It’s emotionalism.

Although maybe initially the blessed experience in worship was God’s gift. New Christians, especially if they’re young or being delivered from a life of sin and darkness, may have delightful experiences of God in worship and God may use these to draw them out of worldliness and into discipleship to Jesus. Not just when we’re young, but later in life too, God often blesses people to encourage their spiritual renewal, rededication, or consecration. But whenever a spiritual experience is a genuine gift from God it will come as a surprise, unexpectedly falling upon us from heaven.

Of course, because the blessing of these “spiritual highs” is so sweet it’s tempting for us to seek them out and depend upon them. If we do then we slide into a pseudo Jesus burn. It’s a toxic faith. It’s a form of idolatry because we’re not focused on God, but on ourselves and our own experience.

Devouring insights through Christian self-help books or conferences in search of a “quick fix” and using meditation or spiritual retreats to forget about your problems are other examples of toxic faith. Like worshiping worship, these are spiritual gluttony. A spiritual discipline is being misused as a way of denying sin and pain. God is being used like a drug.

The Value of the Jesus Burn

Why is the Jesus burn important? Not because it feels good! The real issue is devoting our will to God and his kingdom purposes. The Jesus burn is a manifestation of our will being ignited to love and serve the Lord with all our heart.

In the language of the Bible the will is essentially the same thing as our heart or spirit; it’s the center of our personality and the most precious part of us that God longs for us to give to him. But we can’t access our will directly except as we go through our thoughts and emotions. Also our bodies and social relationships come into play.

If you experience a true Jesus burn then after the fact (that’s how it was for the disciples on the Emmaus Road) you will observe it’s effects on every other part of your personality and in your life. Your mind and emotions will be set on Jesus. Your body will be in a position of humbly worshiping the Lord. You will be relationally focused on caring for other people in Jesus’ name.

That is the real test of a Jesus burn in your heart. Does it inspire you to sincerely love Christ and to connect other people with his love? Does it help you devote your body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit and to open the doors of this temple to others?

Most of the time when we seek God, read Scripture, and pray we don’t have a Jesus burn. We may even find ourselves in long season of spiritual darkness or dryness. “In the Dark Night Remember God” is one of many Soul Shepherding articles on navigating the Dark Night of the Soul.

At the Cross of Christ You are Unforsaken!

Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross is my own guide to cultivate a burning heart for Jesus on a prayer walk with Jesus and the ancient stations of his cross. You’ll be encouraged by

  • Beautiful art renderings of each Station
  • Fresh re-tellings of Gospel stories
  • Surprising insights from the Bible
  • Personal reflection questions
  • A hope-filled journey with Jesus

This guide is for your personal devotions or to share with friends in a small group or on a retreat. It’s great for Lent or anytime of year. Appendix One features an outline for eight messages or studies.

Readers say:

“I was overwhelmed with the love of Christ!”

“Tears flowed! Seeing Jesus’ sacrifice I received a deep healing for the abuse I went through.”

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