When fire is a blessing

What were your fears as a child? Fear of the dark? Monsters under the bed? One of mine, as a native of California, was earthquakes. It was unnerving to experience things which seemed so solid — the house, the ground itself — rolling and trembling.

I’m more or less used to earthquakes now. But just the same, I’m not planning to see the movie San Andreas. I’m happy to let The Rock handle things.

When she was young, one of my daughter’s fears (as a native of southern California) was fire. She would have nightmares about the house catching fire; I would try to reassure her that there was nothing to worry about, and would promise to keep her safe.

But fire is a fearsome thing. In 1991, a firestorm in my hometown, whipped by heavy winds, claimed 25 lives and thousands of homes — including the entire neighborhood I had grown up in. We weren’t living there at the time, but had a chance to visit the remains of the house later. It was a sobering reminder of the fragility of the many things we take for granted in this life.

Photo by Suat Eman. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Suat Eman. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Without question, fire has the power to destroy. And biblically, it can symbolize eternal torment and damnation. (One wonders how many children have been frightened into good behavior by the threat of hell.) But fire also has another symbolic function in Scripture: it purifies, as in the process of melting silver or gold to reveal and remove the dross.

A variety of passages in the Old Testament use the metaphor of refining silver and gold to suggest that God tests his people, so that they will be his holy people (e.g., Prov 17:3; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3). The thought of being tested by fire may sound frightening, but the end goal is neither destruction nor rejection, but to be made righteous and to belong to God.

The apostle Peter goes further:

You now rejoice in this hope, even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials. This is necessary so that your faith may be found genuine. (Your faith is more valuable than gold, which will be destroyed even though it is itself tested by fire.) Your genuine faith will result in praise, glory, and honor for you when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Pet 1:6-7, CEB)

As we saw in the previous post, Paul uses the metaphor of refined gold to describe the good works we have done in this lifetime that will survive judgment. But Peter, also looking toward the day of Christ’s return, wants to say that faith is even more valuable than perishable things like gold, and that times of testing will eventually have their glorious result.

The point is this: taken together, such texts suggest that there is ultimately nothing to fear in the fire of judgment believers will eventually face (1 Cor 3:11-15; 2 Cor 5:9-10). Think of the fire not as a punishment, but as that which is necessary to burn off anything that has no place in God’s new heaven and earth. Only what is left will be worthy of reward.

We may experience a sense of loss and perhaps even surprise as some of our cherished work goes up in flames (1 Cor 3:15). But we must be made ready for our new home, where all such pain will become a thing of the past.