Fire is a destructive force, capable of taking out homes, forests, and even human life. The catastrophic damage it leaves in its path has broken hearts and devastated lives for all of human existence. We've all heard stories on the news of wildfires ravaging California, an electric fire destroying a family home, and arsonists wreaking havoc on businesses. We have a healthy fear of fire. We only like it when it's contained - when it's in a fireplace, or safely surrounded by glass as a candle on your coffee table. We teach our children that it's not safe to play with fire, and we've all been burned once or twice. It is an element that we fear, outside of our perception of its safe containment.
But fire, and the heat which is its inseparable companion, is also a tool that can heal, create beauty, and make perfect.
Gold must be refined by fire to remove impurities and assure perfect quality.
Forests must be refined by controlled, intentionally-set fires to remove brush and grass that would serve as kindling in the event of a more serious, uncontrolled fire.
Glass is created by heating minerals to incredibly high temperatures until they melt.
Diamonds are formed from coal that experiences high temperatures and high pressure deep within the earth.
Even within our own bodies, fevers occur when our immune system is trying to burn an infection out of our body.
Fire and heat hurt, burn, and destroy. But those same characteristics of fire that cause us to fear it are also tools that can improve our lives, bring about beauty, and remove impurities. I think when the heat is turned up in our lives, we have a tendency to wince, to recoil, and to do everything we can to get away from the discomfort. We've been conditioned for so long to view fire and heat through a lens of fear that we do not know how to welcome it for its benefits. Something that has been quickened to my heart in recent months is the idea that refinement by fire is truly an integral experience to the faith journey.
My husband and I are big Stranger Things fans. There's a scene in Season 2 (spoiler alert ahead!) where one of the characters, Will, gets possessed by the "Shadow Monster", who ultimately begins to control his actions. As the story arc builds, Will's mother, Joyce, has an epiphany - ever since being possessed by the Shadow Monster, Will has demonstrated an aversion to heat and fire. She realizes that the only way to get the Shadow Monster out of her son is to literally turn up the heat, and burn it out of him.
I think that's sometimes how it works with our faith. 1 Peter 1:7 says, "These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed". The comparison being made is that gold, refined and perfected by fire, pales in comparison to the value of our genuine and proven faith. So how is faith genuine and proven? Well... trial by fire. Faith isn't proven unless it's put to the test. We all like things to be tested - we want our food to be tested for bacteria, we want our doctors to be tested for skill, we want our children's toys tested for safety. Likewise, our faith should be tested - but that's the part we try to avoid, if possible.
Jesus talked a lot about pruning - an agricultural necessity to cut away dead branches or branches that are not producing fruit, in order to make space for new growth. It's the same idea of refinement - clarifying, improving, clearing space, and removing imperfections. If this idea of spiritual refinement is such a consistent theme throughout the Bible, we should take note. The product that spiritual refinement produces - godliness - is a gift. So what if we were able to shift our perspective of fire from it causing pain to it bringing purpose?
Here's a brazen idea. What if, in the face of the fires in life, we chose not to run away, shield ourselves, or try to put the flames out? What if we instead boldly walked through the flames, confident that God is with us and, though it may burn, we are being made better. I think we can choose to allow the seasons of trial in our lives to cause us to put on a protective shell and insulate - but I think we'd be better off if we allowed the painful pruning process to take place, cutting away all the impurities and leaving space to grow. I'm reminded of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who chose to stick their ground and endure the literal flames rather than give up their convictions. The product was closer proximity to God and ultimately their deliverance.
I think there is something to the idea of leaning in when we're feeling the heat of life turned up. It means that we are being tested, and if we can emulate the example of those three Hebrew boys and hold fast to what we believe in the face of the flames, we will be drawn closer to God as a result. Fire is painful, but fire is useful. We just need to learn to see the difference.