During an adult Sunday school class, our teacher mentioned a time when, as a young man, he heard some older Christians in his church commenting on the behavior of young people as the power of God fell on them. They called it “wildfire”. As he said that term I recalled a time from my own past as a teen-ager. A similar thing was happening in my home church in Alabama. And while God moved, I heard a chuckle and the whispered, “It’s just wildfire.”
I was so struck by this that I paused in listening to search my mind on the subject. “What, exactly, is wildfire?” I asked myself. My previous understanding of the word was that it is a random, very quick, very hot fire that is soon extinguished. People use it to describe fads, shallow experience in the spiritual and some types of forest fires. Wildfire used as I understood it, was simply something that becomes hugely popular or destructive, dies out and is never heard from again.
When I got home I got my trusty dictionary and looked up wildfire. What I read set wheels turning in my head. Wildfire is not what I thought. There are five definitions in my American Heritage College Dictionary. They are as follows:
1. A raging, rapidly spreading fire.
2. Something that acts very quickly and intensely.
3. Lightning occurring without audible thunder.
4. A luminosity that appears over swamps or marshes at night. Also called “ignis fatuus” or “foolish fire.”
5. A highly flammable material once used in warfare.
Throughout my life, I have often noticed that when the power of God falls, it acts as a raging, rapidly spreading fire. It moves quickly and intensely, spreading across the room in a wave of spiritual heat, sparing only those who resist. When it’s work is done, everything that can be consumed in the human heart, is consumed.
We have all seen summer heat lightning or wildfire. Usually the sky is cloudy, threatening rain. The air is hot and so thick you could cut it. Then lightning streaks across the sky, over and over. There is no sound, just those amazing flashes. You think the storm is coming, may fervently hope so, but often nothing happens. . . at least, not where you are. Actually, the center of the storm is so far away you can’t hear the thunder, and you never experience the effects of the storm. Light travels about a million times faster than sound. At the origin of that lightning is a raging storm and those beneath it feel its effects, often intensely. So too, those who only see spiritual wildfire, seldom experience the effects of the spiritual storm.
Before flashlights and electricity, the countryside was a dark place. Swamps and marshes were even darker and marsh lights have led people to their deaths. The more common name for this type of wildfire is “will-o’-the-wisp”. An unwary person can be lost if they are not aware of the nature of this wildfire. Once thought to be lost souls doomed to wander, we now know that this wildfire is the burning of a gas produced in swamps and marshes. This gas, called methane, is created by the natural breakdown of decaying matter.
Methane is a very useful but highly explosive gas when combined with air, oxygen, or chlorine. It can ignite spontaneously and results in a very hot fire. The fuel in some acetylene torches is formed from methane. The heat generated by an acetylene torch can reach up to 6000 degrees and will burn virtually anything. Obviously, wildfire is not something to play with or treat lightly.
Greek fire was the name of an ancient weapon, probably a primitive form of napalm, used by the Byzantine Greeks. Upon striking the target, this material stuck, spread, and burned. It was used in two ways: as a missile hurled from a catapult, and in flame-throwers. It was very useful against ships because it burned even under water. One text states it may even have changed the course of history. In AD 716-718 the rulers of Constantinople, who were Christians, destroyed the wooden fleets of the Muslim Arabs who had besieged the city. As a result, this blocked the spread of Islam into Europe. If you fail to see the significance of this one use of “wildfire “ you have missed it all.
Sometimes wildfire is necessary to clear the way for growth. As anyone who understands nature can tell you, a forest can become overgrown. The useless undergrowth of weeds and shrubs choke out light and air, causing a decrease in young, healthy trees and eventually, diseases which can kill off a forest. Nature has taken this into consideration and fixes it, often by lightning wildfires. A lightning wildfire will rapidly and efficiently clear the undergrowth without causing undue harm to healthy trees. Once this useless undergrowth is cleared, young trees quickly sprout and grow. As trees age and die, young trees are waiting to fill their place. When Yellowstone burned so badly several years ago people were surprised at how quickly it began to recover. Within a year, new growth appeared everywhere and wildlife increased dramatically. The conservation officers revealed that the seeds of most of the conifers in Yellowstone would not germinate, or sprout, until they were heated.
“And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” Acts 2:3. Looks like wildfire has been around a long time. Perhaps we all need a little wildfire.