How do you love?
What would it be like if we could call down fire from heaven whenever we felt like it? (see Luke 9:51-56). Every time someone irritated us, whenever someone angered us, every time someone was behaving badly, we could just call down fire on them. Or maybe we’d be a bit more careful with it: leaving it for someone who was really outrageous, or maybe just for our enemies, those who really don’t deserve to be around, or without whom the world would run a lot more smoothly. Except Jesus told us to love our enemies, not to call down fire from heaven on them (however much we might wish to sometimes). Thankfully, we can’t. That’s not to say I haven’t done that in a metaphorical sense sometimes; I suspect I have. Loving your neighbour can be extremely difficult at times, let alone any I might call enemies. We all know people who rub us up the wrong way, people who maybe don’t quite fit in or who bring up difficult feelings; we all have people on whom we project whatever is in us that we don’t want to acknowledge in ourselves. I suspect I’m not the only person to have got extremely angry with people I’m supposed to love. If I could have literally called down fire from heaven on them, would I have done? I kind of hope not – or, at least, that it would only have been enough to singe them. Although even then … it’s not exactly loving your neighbour, is it? The thing is, it’s so easy to blame the other person for how we feel; she makes me angry … therefore it’s her problem, and she has to change, not me. For anger can make you feel self-righteous, the very strength of the feeling proving that you are the one in the right, whereas, if you’re letting anger do the talking, you may be going astray somewhere, whatever the facts of the case.
What’s struck me is that we don’t necessarily have to hold on to those feelings. That person who was irritating me? If I can accept what they’re doing and let it go, it might stop the irritation – and then, maybe, I will see clearly enough to take the speck out of my neighbour’s eye (Mt 7:3-5), having cleared the log in my own. For all those feelings and responses where we might feel tempted to call down (literal or metaphorical) fire from heaven are to do with me: he’s making me angry, she’s irritating me, they’re bothering me. Therefore, they should do something to change that … often without us knowing why they were behaving that way in the first place. That’s not to say the behaviour is necessarily okay; it might not be, and there may be actions we can take to change that. I just think that those actions might be taken much better if we are not allowing our feelings to cloud our judgement, and often if we take advice (professional or otherwise) from others first. Once the irritation or the anger isn’t there, we might see whether what was provoking it is something that needs to change, or that can be changed, or whether it is us that needs to change (or both). People can be very irritating sometimes; but that irritation affects us, far more than the other person, and why should we let another’s behaviour or actions dominate us to that extent?
Is this part of what it means to love our enemies? Not that we need to feel loving towards them, but we could act lovingly. Bearing in mind that acting lovingly doesn’t mean giving the other person all they want, or letting them get away with dominating us. If someone is using or abusing you, that is wrong, and you should get help as soon as you can, whatever your feelings towards the person in question. Learning to deal with the feelings that arise from trauma or abuse, and the effects of deep hurt, can take a long time, but I am not trained in these matters, and I have no experience of this. What I am saying applies more to the ordinary kind of anger or irritation that can spring up in daily life.
Jesus rebuked James and John for wanting to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village that wouldn’t accept them; it wasn’t an appropriate response to that situation, in an area that was quite fraught with difficulties anyway. Jesus’ response is merely to go and find another village. Sometimes anger can give us the energy needed to change situations, although at others it can make life more toxic. I think what I’m really pondering here is the extent to which we expect the behaviour of other people to bend around our own needs. Maybe you don’t do this, but I suspect many of us do, even if we don’t realise it. It is my need, my desire for life to go a certain way, therefore I am irritated when it doesn’t: I don’t like noisy engines, therefore I am irritated every time one goes past; I’m by nature a rule keeper, therefore it irritates me when you don’t (to say nothing of feeling rather threatening). But why should you keep all the rules (especially the unwritten ones you may not even know about), just to keep me happy? Depending on the rule, of course…
Would it actually be helpful to keep the image of calling down fire from heaven on others? Not to do so (thankfully, we can’t); and not to do so metaphorically either. But I wonder if that image came up when someone bothers us, that we could use it as an image of challenge, as an aide-memoire to prompt us to ponder why we’re reacting this way, and what, if anything, we can do about it; whether that be for ourselves, or more practical responses to change what is happening. Bearing in mind that fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, we could even change the image into a prayer for the Spirit to come and work in that situation – although we might need to be prepared to be part of the answer.