“I have come to light a fire on earth and how I wish it were already ablaze” (Luke 12:49). This is one of many passages in the New Testament where Our Lord makes known His desire to convert the whole world. However, He phrases this desire in an unusual way. Immediately after speaking of lighting a fire, Jesus goes on to say how he did not come to bring peace but rather to sow discord. The juxtaposition of these two passages raises many questions. Assuming that by lighting a fire on the earth, Jesus’ meaning is that He desires the world to be converted to Him; What role does discord play in converting the world?
As many of us know from science class, fire is the result of combustion the basic elements of which are heat, fuel, and oxygen. The fuel reacts with the oxygen to create heat. Enough heat and oxygen creates makes for intense combustion which produces a flame. One method for inducing combustion and thus fire is the friction method. This is familiar to us colloquially as the “rubbing two sticks together” method. Friction creates heat which allows the fuel to react with the oxygen which produces fire.
Now, to apply this to what Our Lord says above, it seems that He wants to spread the Gospel via the friction method. Living and preaching the Gospel will cause “fathers to be a variance with sons and mothers at variance with daughters.” But, such a method seems at odds with what we usually hear about how evangelism ought to go. Ubiquitous are phrases such as “turn the other cheek” and “peace be with you” in the context of Christian worship and teaching. Why then, does Christ insist on starting a fire and sowing discord?
Recognizing the Need for Forgiveness
To answer this question, I think it is helpful to consider Christ’s mission on earth. As He says in John’s gospel, “For God did not send His only Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him (3:17).” And what He came to save the world from is its sins. It is important to remember that it is not always easy to recognize and turn away from our sins. Sinfulness, just like virtue, is built up by habit over time and it takes immense effort and time to change a habit. The most important step, however, is to recognize one’s own sinfulness. Without this, conversion can never take place. It is apropos then, that our Lord says earlier in the very same chapter in Luke’s gospel that he who commits “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (i.e. not accepting nor even seeking God’s forgiveness) will not be forgiven.
Oftentimes it is very difficult to recognize and/or admit our own sinfulness. It takes humility, courage, and honesty and it is understandably uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it must be done if a conversation is to take place. A patient must admit he has a sickness and accept treatment if he is to be healed. Sometimes the only or, perhaps, the most effective way to recognize a painful truth is through a shock or a jolt to one’s sensibilities. This is what Christ seems to be getting at when He says that families will be divided against one another and that He has come to sow discord.
Salvation Through Suffering
We humans naturally bristle at criticisms of our character, no matter how well-intentioned, truthful, and tactfully put. The moral standards of the Gospel are high and rigorous. So, if a close friend or family member beseeches us to change our ways in accord with this standard, it’s no wonder that discord and fire will follow. As Fulton Sheen once said, “Sometimes the only way the Good Lord can get into a heart is by breaking it.” But, this is not a fire that injures, rather, it is one that can help us walk along the difficult path through the narrow gate and purge us of our sinful inclinations.
The goal of the Christian life is not material abundance and a “nice life.” The goal is heaven and happiness with God and those we love. We should, therefore, not shirk from discord and fire in this life for the sake of making a false peace with ourselves and others. We should also avoid needless controversy and prudently choose how and when friction needs to be applied in our own lives and in those of our loved ones.
For this, we can use St. Monica as our guide. She allowed herself to be a point of friction in her son Augustine’s life. He was the fuel; God’s grace was the heat and Monica’s prayers were the oxygen that lit a tremendous blaze and created one of the great saints and doctors of the Church. How happy and anxious we should be then, to help Christ in His mission to set the world on fire.