Fire warms us in the cold and pushes back the darkness at night. Those same flames can reduce our homes to ashes and consume our flesh.
So when Jesus talks about fire, maybe we shouldn’t rush to erase the ambiguity packed into fire imagery. Instead, we can learn a lesson about passion—divine and human—by staying with that double meaning for a while.
To echo Hildegard of Bingen, Jesus is the fire at the heart of everything, kindling the creation from within. Bringing humans and pelicans, longleaf pines and fire ants into being and stretching them toward mature grace and beauty.
In the Sermon on the Mount, by contrast, Jesus draws upon fire’s destructive power to alert us to the dangers of anger. Anger can tumble toward disdain. Contempt for another person—saying “You fool!”—denies the respect due to every human being. Dehumanizing someone, especially a class of someones, sets us on the path to oppression and violence. (Matthew 5:22)
Those who indulge in scorn for their neighbor are “liable to the hell of fire.” While some will hear Jesus saying that God will punish us for being angry, I take his words differently. Anger is a fire that consumes not only the neighbor we hate but the heart that lights the flame in the first place. Unless extinguished, our anger will leave our souls a charred ruin.
Moses encountered God as flames in a bush and as a pillar of fire leading the Israelites from bondage to promise. God tucked Moses into the cleft of the rock and showed him the divine backside. Seeing God’s face would have scorched Moses. Still, every encounter with the divine left Moses with a sunburned face of his own.
The Bible famously says that humans are created in the image of God. Various cynics and atheists insist that humans have created God in our own image. To be honest, some Christians do exactly that.
I remember what one of my seminary classmates once said. “I’m angry. And since I’m created in the image of God, God can be angry, too. There’s nothing wrong with being angry.” That classmate expressed anger by spreading false rumors about me and one of my friends.
We Christians do believe that every human being is created in the image of God. But that image is something we all have to grow into. And we grow into that image only by cooperating with God’s grace over time. Grace, by the way, is not all sweetness and light.
From time to time I feel the burn of God’s love. I see that I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. Not with another person, but with my obsession with work. I’ve limited what other people can be for me, defining them by the worst story I know about them.
I take this to be a refining fire. God shows me a limited, withered part of myself by the light of the divine love. That bright flame burns away a narrow self to make way for new, expansive growth.
God’s passion is always about the well-being of another. Sometimes, I actually resemble God on this score. In my best moments, my righteous indignation at injustice and poverty and prejudice and violence arises from compassion for those in want and misery.
At other times, everything is all about me. The heat rising in my heart scorches instead of refining. If I fan these flames for too long, they begin to consume me.
Jesus means for us to be filled with a very different kind of fire. The holy fire that Hildegard imagined. The divine fire that brings us into eternal life. Jesus wants to make each of us a God-infused blaze.
A story from the desert mothers and fathers illustrates what I mean:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little rule of prayer, I fast a little, I pray and meditate. I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (from Lauren Winner, Wearing God, Kindle Location 2819).