When All That Remains Is Ash: Lessons of God in the Australian Fires

by Chris Thomas January 21, 2020

In recent days, Balrogs have stalked our desperate land, trailing behind them the stink of ashen waste that not even the tears of the fallen can wash away. Most can’t fathom the fear until you face it. A towering inferno of scorching heat travelling faster than many can run, an element so unlike any other that it takes on a living persona. The flames seem to breathe. Pausing to simply gather strength, it launches its attack with an unrelenting pursuit for more. With unquenchable hunger, it consumes all in its path.

The images and stories have spread across the globe, along with them, the smoke that has turned our sun to a smouldering red disk. Stories of courage and resilience, miracles and sacrifice, but these often smothered by the unending stories of grief and loss. Utter destruction taints the prose of our nation’s story in the chapter penned during these days. Even for those who still have clear skies, where no thundering tide of fire gathers just over the horizon, something has changed. Inside we feel it. It is carried on the wind, a scent in the air. As our nation burns, part of our identity is consumed along with it. We’re Australians, and whether we live in the city or the bush, whether your parents came here in a boat or you have lived here for generations without count, we know that things will never be quite the same again.

We weep. And the tears are not out of place.

Slowly, the images and stories of billowing flame and unnatural cloud formations, are giving way to the melancholy vistas of blackened earth and lonely trunks that stand as a poor reminder of the life that once existed. Here and there a sole remnant of green remains, now jarringly out of place. Rivers and valleys are choked with the refuse of destruction, while skies mock us at night with burning sunsets that mirror the ground below.

Fire takes all. Stripped naked, the earth stands in its shame, every nook and cranny exposed. The lush garment of her greenery has been taken away, her undergrowth consumed, all that is left is rock and dirt.

Well may we pray. Well may we call to God for mercy. Many who wouldn’t usually have found themselves pleading to a God they’d ignored before. But what type of God do we call to?

For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. – Deuteronomy 4:24

Of course, God is described and illustrated with many images through the Bible; none on their own are sufficient to capture his wholeness. But it has been this image that has played on my imagination in recent days: God the consuming fire. And should we be tempted to relegate this fearful image to an ancient covenant, we find it again in the New.

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. – Hebrews 12:28-29

This is no trite image, a spark to simply weave into songs and poetic expressions. This is no sheltered candle to give light, or a lamp to guide our path. This is a consuming fire.

A consuming fire takes all, there is no standing before it. Some try. Some take their stand to defend their possessions and the sum of their labours, but they too must turn from the heat or perish.

Are we comfortable with this image of God? Or do we prefer it when his flame is contained? Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not subtly advocating for some wild abandon or free-spirited embracing of a second Pentecost, I’m saying that most of us only want a safe God. But he isn’t. He’s far from it.

All of us will face his fire one day, and none will stand before it. Everything we think we gained will be consumed. All our pursuits and pleasures, all of our bravado and legacy, it will all be engulfed and exposed. Then, naked and bare, only what remains will be seen for what it truly is. When faced with the consuming fire, what will remain?

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. – 1 Corinthians 3:12-13

If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. – 1 Corinthians 3:15

God truly is a consuming fire, yet his fire has burned hot against one who stood in our place. Now God invites us to draw near to his flame. In Christ, I stand with Moses before a bush engulfed in flame but not consumed. In Christ, the Spirit falls on us in flame, but a flame that gives life rather than takes it. And though I may one day be saved, but only as through fire, by his grace I know I will not stand condemned.

Even as I write this, the fires still burn. But one day soon, through the blackened earth, green shoots will spring up again. The stark forests will again echo with the song of birds. The hills will once again be clothed in splendour. The fire will have had its day, but the earth will continue to sing of the glory of its creator. God is a consuming fire, but the balm of his grace has given comfort. The cross stands scorched and smouldering with his wrath and now the Lamb that was slain has overcome our destruction. Though we may soon count everything else as loss, we look to him and discover that he is enough.