Updated September 02, 2020
Burning sage is a spiritual ritual practiced by native peoples around the world. The specific practice of burning sage is not mentioned in the Bible, though God did instruct Moses to prepare a blend of herbs and spices to burn as an incense offering.
Also known as smudging, the practice of burning sage is done as part of a ritual which involves the bundling of certain herbs such as sage, cedar, or lavender into sticks and then slow-burning them in a purification ceremony, for meditation, for blessing a home or space, or for the purpose of healing, which is considered to be different than incense burning.
Burning Sage in the Bible
Burning sage, or smudging, is an ancient spiritual purification ritual practiced by some religious groups and native peoples around the world.
Burning sage is not encouraged or expressly forbidden in the Bible, nor is it specifically mentioned in Scripture.
For Christians, sage burning is a matter of conscience and personal conviction.
Sage is a plant used in cooking as an herb, but also for medicinal purposes.
Burning sage began with native cultures in many parts of the world, including Native Americans who held smudging ceremonies to ward off evil spirits and illness, and to encourage positive, healing energy. Over the course of history, smudging found its way into occult rituals, like spell casting, and other pagan practices.
Burning sage has also attracted New Age interest as a way of purging “auras” and eliminating negative vibrations. Today, even among ordinary individuals, the practice of burning herbs and incense is popular simply for the aroma, for spiritual cleansing, or for the supposed health benefits.
Burning Sage in the Bible
In the Bible, burning incense began when God instructed Moses to prepare a specific blend of spices and herbs and to burn them as a holy and perpetual incense offering to the Lord (Exodus 30:8-9, 34-38). All other mixtures of spices used for any other purpose than the worship of God in the tabernacle were expressly forbidden by the Lord. And only the priests could offer the incense.
The burning of incense symbolized the prayers of God’s people going up before him:
Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering. (Psalm 141:2, NLT)
Over time, however, burning incense became a stumbling block to God’s people as they began to intermingle the practice with the worship of pagan deities and idols (1 Kings 22:43; Jeremiah 18:15). Even still, the appropriate burning of incense, as God had initially commanded, continued with the Jews into the New Testament (Luke 1:9) and even after the Temple was destroyed. Today, incense remains in use by Christians in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and some Lutheran churches, as well as in the emergent church movement.
Many denominations reject the practice of burning incense for several reasons. First, the Bible expressly forbids any practice associated with witchcraft, spell casting, and calling forth spirits of the dead:
For example, never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering. And do not let your people practice fortune-telling, or use sorcery, or interpret omens, or engage in witchcraft, or cast spells, or function as mediums or psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD. It is because the other nations have done these detestable things that the LORD your God will drive them out ahead of you. (Deuteronomy 18:10–12, NLT)
Thus, any form of smudging or sage burning tied to pagan rituals, auras, evil spirits, and negative energies, goes against biblical teaching.
Secondly, and most importantly, through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his shed blood, the Law of Moses has now been fulfilled. Therefore, rituals like burning of incense as a means of approaching God are no longer necessary:
So Christ has now become the High Priest over all the good things that have come. He has entered that greater, more perfect tabernacle in heaven … With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever. Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. (Hebrews 9:11–14, NLT)
The Bible teaches that God is the only one who can protect people from evil (2 Thessalonians 3:3). The forgiveness found in Jesus Christ cleanses us from all wickedness (1 John 1:9). God Almighty is the healer of his people (Exodus 15:26; James 5:14-15). Believers do not need to resort to burning sage to ward off the devil or his evil spirits.
Freedom in Christ
There’s nothing wrong with burning sage for non-spiritual reasons, such as the pure enjoyment of the aroma. Christians have freedom in Christ to burn sage or not to burn sage, but believers are also called to exercise our freedom to “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).
If we choose to burn sage, we ought to treat it like any other freedom in Christ, being sure not to let it become a stumbling block for a weaker brother or sister (Romans 14). Everything we do should be for the benefit and not the detriment of others, and ultimately for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:23-33). If a fellow believer comes from a background in paganism and struggles with the idea of burning sage, we are better off refraining for his or her sake.
Believers are to consider their motives for burning sage. We don’t need sage to increase the power of our prayers. The Bible promises that through Jesus Christ, we can boldly approach God’s throne of grace in prayer and find help for whatever we need (Hebrews 4:16).