From the beginning of man’s discovery of how to create fire, we have experienced a fascination and a fear of it. Fire can provide light, and warmth and we need both to live and survive on the earth, but fire can also destroy things we need, things we love, and ourselves. It can give us a sense of our ability to control it and have that disappear in a nanosecond.
When my mother was in school during her freshman year of high school, a fire swept through her home destroying everything. Her family lost not only the things they needed and used day-to-day, but also those irreplaceable things like photos, special dishes passed down from generation to generation, and the memories of her childhood years there. The only things she had were the clothes on her back and her saxophone that had been at school.
The total destruction resulted in she, her two older sisters, and her parents all living apart from one another for many months until a new farmhouse could be built. They also lived with the uncertainty of what had caused the fire to begin. This scenario has been relived by so many around the world over centuries.
More than 30 years ago when I was writing for a small-town newspaper, I was called to cover the story of a barn on fire, and I watched as the farmer and neighbors sought to get all the animals housed in the barn out as well as much of the expensive farming equipment. Sadly, much was lost because the contents of the barn served as fuel for the fire.
Clearly, fire destroys.
Repeatedly we have watched as thousands of acres of rich wooded forest lands are destroyed by fire. Sometimes the fire begins by a lightning strike. Other times a careless spark or untended campfire may be the catalyst. Then there are times when someone deliberately starts a fire. The cause of a forest fire may come from poor forestry management that doesn’t use prescribed burns and becomes more susceptible to major destructive wildfires that not only destroy the forest, but also the habitats for many animals and the animals themselves.
Fire is a natural phenomenon and ecosystems benefit from periodic fires because they clear out dead organic material as well as some plant and animal populations that require the benefits of fire to survive and reproduce. Prescribed burns result in nutrients being released from the burned material, which includes dead plants and animals. These then return more quickly into the soil than if they had slowly decayed over time. In this way, fire increases soil fertility—a benefit that has been gained by farmers for centuries according to many forestry experts. The risk of destructive uncontrollable wildfires increases when prescribed burns are not employed.
Often, we don’t think about such benefits when fires are used this way. Some pinecones require fire to release the seeds within for new trees to grow and wild lupine requires fire for it to flourish, and beyond our enjoyment of its beauty, it is the only food source for an endangered blue butterfly caterpillar.
None of us are eager to see the destruction of a fire despite our delight of a campfire or a fire in our fireplace. We also cannot forget that fire is used to refine that substance so highly valued in the world – gold. Fire purifies gold. During refining of gold, it is re-liquified in a furnace and then heaped with generous amounts of soda ash and borax. This effectively separates the gold from impurities and other metal traces to make it pure. But the process doesn’t end there since gold is so soft. Certain alloys are then added to the pure gold so it can be fashioned into the rings and other jewelry we enjoy and also be able to withstand wear. What a process that entails from mining the ore to what we admire on a finger.
But there is something else beyond gold that is refined by the fire of testing – our faith. This too is not a fire we welcome as it comes from suffering and challenges we would prefer to avoid. But look at what Peter writes on this:
“Be glad about this, even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of the many kinds of trials you suffer. Their purpose is to prove that your faith is genuine. Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure. Then you will receive praise and glory and honor on the Day when Jesus Christ is revealed.”1 Peter 1:6-7 (GNT)
The writer of Proverbs also speaks of how our hearts are refined and uses the metaphor of refining of gold and silver:
“In the same way that gold and silver are refined by fire, the Lord purifies your heart by the tests and trials of life.”Proverbs 17:3 (TPT)
The Bible has more than a few passages about the use of fire to destroy or refine. In looking at this more closely, I was aware I needed to learn more about the difference between the refining fire of God and destructive fire. The words of John Piper helped me gain greater understanding on this subject as he looked at a passage in Malachi 2:17-3:6.
“He (God) is a refiner’s fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner’s fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner’s fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner’s fire.
It does say FIRE. And therefore purity and holiness will always be a dreadful thing. There will always be a proper “fear and trembling” in the process of becoming pure. We learn it from the time we are little children: never play with fire! And it’s a good lesson! Therefore, Christianity is never a play thing. And the passion for purity is never flippant. He is like fire and fire is serious. You don’t fool around with it.
But it does say, he is like a REFINER’S fire. And therefore this is not merely a word of warning, but a tremendous word of hope. The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction.”
So perhaps the answer to the question of whether fire is a blessing or curse might be BOTH depending on how it is used and by whom. Daniel and his friends were tossed into a fiery furnace for obeying God and in that test they were not only purified and spared, but served as a witness to an unbelieving king and nation.