Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Mercy of Fire

“Some bells cannot be unrung.”

So goes the saying when something has been done that cannot be undone. The ink has been spilled, the glass has been shattered, the clock cannot be rewound, the world has moved on. The arrow has flown, the words said cannot be recalled to the mouth, and “send” has been pressed. There is no going back, no fixing things “as they were”, or maybe “as they should have been”.

From now on, for good or for ill, things can never be the same.

There aren’t many situations like that in life. But there are some, as King David discovered after his sin with Bathsheba. Forgiven he could be; restored, yes, that too. But whole again in the way he would wish? No, that he could not be. Having taken the wrong path, he was going to have to play out the hand he’d drawn for himself. A child would die, and his home would be fouled by defilement and riven by the sword.

This he had done. It could not be undone.

Living with Losing

I don’t think David is unusual. To live in this world is to make many mistakes, and in any merely human life, some of these are bound to be irrevocable. That’s the nature of reality; it takes the print of what we do to it. Not all these prints are eradicable after the fact. Actions have consequences.

Now, let it be said this is never an excuse for failing to do everything you can to make right what you have done wrong. But let us not think of that. Let us instead presume that guilt on all sides has been fully acknowledged. The apologies have been made, and sincerely too. Repentance has been sought, restitution offered and perhaps even accepted. The book has been closed, the tally balanced so far as it can be. Insofar as biblical reconciliation can be effected, all that has been done.

Still, what’s done sometimes cannot be undone.

What’s to be done with things like that?

Fires of Judgment and Holiness

Thinking about them has brought a strange thought to me: sometimes, there is a mercy in fire.

What do I mean?

After all, fire is almost always in scripture a depiction of wrath, destruction and perdition. One has only to think of such things as the lake of fire or the consumption of the earth by fire, or of the destruction of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. At the same time, fire is also symbolic of purification by the holiness of God, as in the Levitical sacrifices. And so, when we come to this verse, we need to carry the whole package of what “fire” means in scripture in our minds, I think.

And a key verse says this:
“If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
What is Not There

Now, let this be clear at the start. The passage is NOT talking about a man being burned up, but about his work being burned up. That “work” is explicitly whatever he does pertaining to the Church. Some work is “gold, silver, precious stones”; some is “wood, hay, straw”. Some is combustible, some is not. Some things done survive the fire; some are instantaneously incinerated. This, I think, is a function of their association with the holiness of God as delivered to the Church in the Foundation Stone, Christ himself. The holiness of God burns away everything that cannot endure association with holiness.

And since we Christians ourselves are to endure association with a holy God, the man himself is “saved”, not burned up. So there is no speaking of the loss of a soul here. But there is an interesting difference between the man so described and his companions who built with “gold, silver and precious stones” — he is saved only as through fire.

What does that mean? Well, when a fire’s really gone through something, there’s nothing solid left … just ash, which then blows away in the wind and is seen no more. In all of earthly experience, there really isn’t a more thorough picture of a thing really being gone. But the fire of God does not leave anything at all. Gone is gone.

Analyzing the Facts

Here we have a picture of a man who has tried to build within the Church. His work has perhaps been impressive in its day, but it had no spiritual substance. When the fire came through, the entire edifice of his work was incinerated. The man stands and watches … saved, but only as through fire.

But notice this: at the same time, he is saved by the fire. Fire is the instrument of his deliverance. He is saved from having his ill-wrought deeds institutionalized in eternity. He is delivered from his complicity in harming the Church. He is saved from having made such mistakes as would impair others perpetually. He is saved from having his earthly sin permanently before him. He is saved from the shame of having created a permanent monument to his own human failure and folly.

And I suspect that as he watches the flames, a twinge of gratitude appears in his heart: “Lord, thank you for not hanging that permanently around my neck. Thank you for getting rid of that which I did so ill. I am sorry to lose my work, but I am grateful to lose the failure in my work. Thank you for the mercy of fire.”

Merciful Heavens

All that to say simply this:

We know that some things cannot be redeemed. They’re just too bad, too complicated and too consequential. That’s life. And when we’ve done all we can to make the wrong right, and there isn’t one more thing we can think of to fix things, and things still aren’t okay, we have the mercy of fire.

One day, all those things we thought were our permanent failures will be gone. God in his grace will destroy them in such a way that not the tiniest bit of our failure, shame or sin will exist anymore. Were they as inaccessible as that which is buried in the depths of the sea, still we might think about them existing; but as been also pointed out, there will be no more sea. They will be farther gone than that, as far as the east is from the west (which, you will notice, is infinite). They will be burned.

These things will be gone. They will come back no more.

O, the mercy of fire!

Will it not be a relief to know those things are gone? And not merely gone as they are today, meaning only, “in the past, but still a painful memory”? The time will come when they are as gone as if they never existed. Eternal perspective will put all of that right; and by the grace of God, no person ever again will be able to hold to our charge our failures and our shame. Scars will be gone. Joy will be full. And when it is, do you think we will spare even one thought for regretting what has been so removed from us?

At the End of the Line

There is a time to bury the past. On earth, we often just make the best of it we can. We can’t quite get rid of the old mistakes, so while they’re no longer “alive” to us, we live with them propped up in the corner, a corpse that cannot quite be buried. They continue to limit our relations with others, to produce concatenations and consequences that pop up irritatingly when we least expect them. They live on as a haze of sadness over what should be happy and free-spirited situations.

Regret, too, hangs about … and shame, sometimes, at least in our moments of private reflection. And even when other people are too kind to raise them in our faces, they remain as an uncomfortable aura around certain of our relationships. Until eternity, it seems, that’s just how it’s going to be.

Thank God that is not the end of the story. There is the mercy of fire. And one day, we can anticipate restored relationships, the obliteration of failure, the extinction of shame, the blessedness of unimpeded fellowship with the Lord, and an eternity without even a twinge or shadow of guilt. All gone, all burned away forever.

Imagine the relief.

That’s the mercy of fire.

For Now

That time is not yet. For now, it seems inevitable we shall live with some measure of pain from the past. It was our fault. It was our mistake. We did it. It’s done. But Christians should be living as those who have hope. Our failures are not permanent possessions; we know one day they will be gone, and gone with absolute finality. Until then, though, we sometimes do well to live in the shadow of our failures. They are our learning. They are our reminder not to make poor decisions twice, or to devote ourselves to a style of life-building that is ultimately destructible.

We should listen to our shame, but not be slaves to it. We can and should repent. We can and should make all possible restitutions. We can and should eat the consequences some of those of the bad decisions we’ve made, including accepting that some of our relationships may remain damaged, severely impaired or even impossible to restore before the judgment. And doing so can be the affirmation of our sincerity in actually regretting and changing them. So we must accept that.

And note this: we cannot demand that people forgive us or take us back into their good graces. Not even if we happen to think that’s the “Christian” thing for them to do. We are in no position to give such lectures; and adding hypocrisy to our sins by posing as moral instructor to those against whom we have offended will not make them any better.

When we have fallen short, our offenses are always ultimately against God. And it is with him alone that they can be finally settled. Until then, we simply need to take responsibility as much as we can.

Going forward, we must make every effort to do better. But when we have done all we can, we should rest — that is, rest in the certainty of the destruction of these things in the future. Some things really cannot be salvaged for eternity; and if we’re of God’s mind, we should be glad they cannot. We would not want them to exist forever.

Sometimes, even the fire is a mercy of God.
Photo by: newsanna [CC BY 3.0]

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