The Elemental Spirits, IV: Fire
For the Lord is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap,
who will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. —Malachi 3:2–3
It’s remarkable to notice how often in the Bible God appears to God’s people in the form of a fierce flame. When God presented the Ten Commandments to Moses, the form God takes is not a gentle sage in the skies but a scorching conflagration that engulfs Mount Sinai. There are several active volcanoes in the Middle East, and it must have been that human awe before an erupting volcano that inspired this image.
In Malachi, God is a refiner’s fire that purges the dross from precious metal. God appears to Moses in the burning bush, and again to the wandering Hebrews as a flame of fire by night, and to Elijah as a blazing inferno which consumes the apostate priests of the false god Baal. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus of Nazareth will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire; the chaff he will burn with unquenchable flame.
And you can see why Fire is such an apt image for the God we meet in the Bible. Fire is beautiful but dangerous. Don’t get too close. You can’t touch it. It comes and goes at will. It is untamed. Most of all, Fire is both life-giving and death-dealing.
If you Google “Greatest Inventions and Discoveries of All Time,” the usual suspects keep turning up: The Wheel, The Printing Press, Gravity, Electricity, Relativity, Penicillin, Contraceptives, the Internet. The discovery of Fire is at the top of some lists. It might be the most important discovery in history for the thriving of homo sapiens and its predecessors. Of Earth’s seven continents, six are inhabited, but only because of fire. Human beings could not live in North America, Northern Europe, or Russia without fire.
Some anthropologists credit fire for our improbably massive brains. Our brains are disproportionately huge and our digestive tracks remarkably small for our size, because eons ago, Homo erecti or Neanderthals learned to predigest food over open flame. When you cook, you begin to process calories before you open your mouth.
Fire unlocks extra calories in meat and in plants. Without fire, the only plant parts we can digest are seeds, fruits, and flowers; with fire, we can also digest the roots, leaves, and stems.
Fire allows humans to divert energy from our intestines to our brains. The brain is only 2% of our body weight, but it devours 20% of our calories. This is truer of some people than of others, but I won’t mention any names. One article is entitled “Fire Makes Us Human.”
So Fire is life-giving, but it is also death-dealing. Think of history’s famous fires: Troy, Vesuvius, Dresden, Tokyo, napalm, Dany’s Dragons, King’s Landing.
One woman from Darwin, Australia, says, “We survived New Year’s Eve in Mallacoota sitting in a small boat off the shore. There were four of us and a Dalmatian puppy. The fire produced deafening, apocalyptic roars that will stay with me forever.”
In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert, who wrote The Sixth Extinction, tells us that in Australia last month, there were columns of smoke nine miles high, which produced their own weather. They generated lightning strikes that in turn started more fires.
This is neither here nor there, but the hottest fire on earth is lightning, 53,000˚F, five times the surface of the sun, five times ground zero at Hiroshima, and 20 times hotter than the hottest humanmade torches.
Fire is an apt image for the Deity because it is beautiful but dangerous. Don’t touch it. You can’t tame it. It is Life-Giving and Death-Dealing. So two ways to go with this image for God: Life or Death: A torch to light your way, or a flame to purge the dross. You choose what you need.
God is a torch to light your way. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” says the Psalmist. Remember in Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf has his minions light that spectacular series of flaming beacons ranged across the jagged slopes of Gondor to light the way and plea for help?
I don’t know how he got that shot on the stunning peaks of New Zealand; must have been CGI, right?
But those fires lighting the way and signaling for help across the Alpine landscape of Gondor or New Zealand is inspiring to me when I have lost my way in the darkness.
There are times in our lives when it seems as if the only torch along our path is the Light of God and the beam of God’s Holy Word. We grope in the darkness for the flame of God’s direction because we get absolutely no help from our earthly lights, when the most powerful people in the world stumble around in a morass of opacity and gloom without scruple.
Some would keep the world dark and its people ignorant. You’ve been reading the story of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who first tried to warn his country about the dangers of the coronavirus. He died of that very virus last week. He was a brave hero, but the police just shut him down and shut him up.
They asked him two questions: “Can you stop your illegal behavior?” and “Do you understand that you will be punished if you do not stop such behavior?” and forced him to write his response: “I can,” and “I understand.” And then he authenticated his confession with a red thumbprint. Illegal behavior? He tried to enlighten the world, but this unscrupulous, tyrannical leadership forced him back into the darkness.
It’s up to us. You and me. We follow the Light of the World. Without help from leaders who are supposed to be in charge, we strive for a higher, brighter light, God the Fire.
Fire is beautiful but dangerous, Life-Giving and Death-Dealing. Maybe what you need is a do-over. Maybe what you need is God the Refining Fire Malachi wrote and Ryan sang.
It’s a prominent image throughout scripture: the holiness of God which purges the dross, burns away all that is ignoble and inferior in us, death to all that is unworthy in us and resurrection to newness of life.
Someone here might have lost his way in a fog of alcohol or opioids or promiscuity or infidelity or unchecked rage or craven bigotry. And all that needs to be burned away in purifying fire so that something worthier can be born in us.
AA, NA, all these 12-step groups: they’re all about fire, burning away the craven and inferior in us so that we can be born again as something new and finer.
Step 6: We are ready to have God remove all defects of character.
Step 7: We ask God to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8: We make a list of all persons we have harmed and make amends to them all.
It’s all about burning way and rising from the ashes.
A couple of weeks ago, I told you how much I love the Pixar film Up, about an old man named Carl who is just disconsolate after the loss of his beloved wife and pushes the world away, until Russell the Boy Scout and Dug the Golden Retriever insinuate themselves aggressively into his lonely life.
Dug the Golden Retriever says to Carl: “I just met you, and I love you.” Don’t know who you are and don’t care what you’ve done or what you will do; I will just love you. And I said God is like that. God is unconditional love.
And I will always believe that. But there’s more to God the Fire than that. It’s a cliché because it’s true: God loves us just the way we are and too much to stay that way.
God loves us first, just loves us, and then expects us to live up to and into that unmerited love, and God will burn away what is coarse and shabby and mean in us.
“We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old.”
There is a tree in the American and Canadian West called the lodgepole pine—pinus contorta, twisted pine, literally—which depends on forest fires for its survival. Its pinecones are so densely packed and glued together with sap that only fire’s intense heat coaxes the cones to unclench and release seeds for the next generation. It is only in dying that it lives. We become something new by ceasing to be something old.
Could there be anything sadder than the animal holocaust in Australia last month, maybe as many as a billion creatures just gone, including on Kangaroo Island?
Sometimes they called Kangaroo Island Noah’s Ark because of the rich, immaculate biodiversity there. Never any predator foxes there nor ravenous rabbits. Now half of it is just gone. They will never know how many species went extinct forever in those fires.
But the island itself will rise again. It will be back. It may take a hundred years, and it won’t look the same, and many of our friends will be gone forever, but it will be reborn. It is the nature of life. We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go.
In the immortal words of Billy Joel:
We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
It might be the cleverest song in all of popular music.
Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe
We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world's been turning
God the Fire. It’s been always burning since the world’s been turning.
Thanks be to God.
Kevin Dickinson, bigthink.com/surprising-science/inventions-fire, July 31, 2019.
Isabella Kwai and Tiffany May, “Armageddon Is Here: Australian Readers Share Their Wildfire Experiences,” The New York Times, January 8, 2020.
Elizabeth Kolbert, “What Will Another Decade of Climate Crisis Bring?” The New Yorker, 2020-01-13.
Li Yuan, “Widespread Outcry in China over Death of Coronavirus Doctor,” The New York Times, February 7, 2020.
Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), p. 189.