The recent wild fires near Los Angeles have prompted the news media to return to a favorite theme concerning natural disasters. On-line news sites such as USA Today and Fox News referred to the out-of-control California fires as angry; USA Today ran a headline on September 1 that labeled the largest of the fires as very angry. As the fires began to be less intense later on Tuesday, CNN reported that Mike Dietrich, the U.S. Forest Service’s incident commander, said, “I feel a lot more optimistic today than I did yesterday. Yesterday I characterized the fire as ‘angry,’ today I’m going to characterize it as “cranky. “
Ascribing human emotions to a fire is a logical personification, particularly when one is faced with the searing heat and total devastation that large, out-of-control fires produce. Fire is produced by the ignition of a combustible substance and maintained by materials that serve as fuel for the resulting flames. The abundant bone-dry brush of southern California provides ample fuel for the wildfires. The fires are then driven by winds. As long as the winds blow towards acreage with dry brush, the fires will intensify and continue their destruction. So it is easy to look at a raging fire and view it as angry. But this assessment may be a dangerously misleading one. The danger lies in seeing only the fire, but not what is behind the fire. Hebrews 12:28-29 likens God to a consuming fire:
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. ESV
The news media characterizes these destructive fires as angry–but, of course, there is no life in the fire. Still, these fires are not random. They begin and end exactly as God has determined. Officials at the scene of the Los Angeles fires have said they are grateful that the Santa Ana winds are not blowing strongly or else the fires would be even more destructive. By assigning anger to the fires and chance to the lack of wind, the real issue is being ignored. While these fires do not have a life of their own, Scripture uses the imagery of fire to paint a terrifying picture of the wrath of God. Once again, God is choosing to hold back his hand of judgment. With different wind conditions these fires could have caused unthinkable damage. Yet, officials such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offer reasons like this one for the apparent success in holding back the fires:
“We have a lot of fires all over the state of California,” he said Tuesday at
a news conference in San Bernardino County. “But we are very fortunate
that we have the best and the most aggressive, best-trained, the most
courageous firefighters in the world. And that’s why we are able to push back
While I certainly agree with the Governor’s appreciation for the dedicated and courageous firefighters, they are not the ultimate reason that the fires are held back. God is the one who is restraining the fires. Even in the face of these fires, when those threatened by the fires are victims of a “natural disaster,” God calls people everywhere to repent and turn to him. When we think of the fire as angry, we tend to avoid the larger issues. Modern man never stops to consider that his actions may bring the judgment of God. After all, if man is truly innocent until proven guilty, then fires and other “natural” disasters are nothing more than random chance. But the truth is that man is not innocent. Rather, the reverse of the American judicial perspective is true. Man is guilty until proven innocent–by Christ.
Don’t allow the news media to shift the blame for natural disasters–such as fires–to the capricious, angry disposition of the fire itself. The reality is that God is calling sinners to repent. He displays his mighty power in the earthquake, wind and fire. By attempting to ignore God in the fire, man also attempts to ignore God in the rest of life. Raise your children with biblical awareness that God is in all things, and he uses the events of this world to call men to repentance. It is a fearful thing to ignore the living God, for he is a consuming fire.