In popular usage, the phrase to “fight fire with fire” means to retaliate – to match aggression with aggression. But the phrase was originally coined in the 19th century to describe a technique by United States settlers for literally fighting brush fires. It means that as a fire is advancing and burning out of control, another fire is deliberately started in the path of the first fire. This second fire – called a back burn – consumes the material, such as vegetation, needed to keep a fire going. When the original fire reaches this point, it has nothing to burn. And so it is stopped.
Lately I’ve been thinking that the concept of a back burn also has a spiritual application. What about replacing the human mind-set of revenge, retaliation, and resentment with the true concept of fighting fire with fire? Wouldn’t this mean that instead of reacting to anger, hate, insult, and attack with more of the same, we would eliminate these combustible mental elements from our consciousness? Then when the flames of conflict seem to come into our experience, they’ll have nothing to feed on – nothing to keep them going. They will burn themselves out for lack of fuel.
But what is the back burn that can rid us of our fears, sensitivity, pride, or whatever else tends to catch fire when it comes to human relationships? It is the Christ, God’s idea, as described in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” Using Truth and Love as synonyms for God, Mary Baker Eddy writes of the Christ, which was most clearly exemplified in the healing love of Christ Jesus: “This immaculate idea ... will baptize with fire; and the fiery baptism will burn up the chaff of error with the fervent heat of Truth and Love, melting and purifying even the gold of human character” (p. 565).
We can deliberately keep this fire of the Christ burning in our hearts every day with consistent, prayerful watchfulness. We can open ourselves up to the pouring in of God’s love to consume resentment, the tendency to keep score, and the desire for revenge. Anger turns to ashes in the blaze of heartfelt forgiveness. We can remain, you might say, fireproof – and save others and ourselves from suffering.
This is what happened in an experience I had several years ago when I was an inner-city high school teacher. The school was located in a low-income neighborhood, where there was marked gang activity. One day when I was leaving school for the walk to the station, the quiet thought came to me to pray about the neighborhood as I walked along. I began to acknowledge every good thing I knew to be true about that neighborhood and the people in it – to see them as God made them. I glimpsed the fact that “there is but one creator and one creation” (Science and Health, p. 502). With every step along the way, my thought of that community brightened.
As I walked under the railroad overpass just before the station, a man left a group of friends and turned toward me with a face full of hatred. As he approached me, he pulled back his arm and formed a fist. By this time, however, I was overflowing with love and joy. In that state of uplifted consciousness, I had none of the mental “kindling” necessary to ignite a reaction – it had been burned up by Christ’s baptism of fire. I didn’t stop or even slow my pace. I looked him right in the eye, smiled with real love, and said with no hesitation, “Good afternoon, sir!” My words were strong and embracing, ringing with respect. I continued walking without a second thought. No harmful contact took place. Not only was I protected from a violent act, but so was he.
These days, there are many fires of the destructive kind burning on all levels of human relationships – from the interpersonal to the international. Nevertheless, we have the God-given power to deprive them of their fuel even when we are not directly involved, by meeting fear and animosity with the love that is their antidote. Inflammatory speech is snuffed out by forbearance, harsh judgment by charitableness, and provocation by meekness – all of which reflect the healing power of Christ.
In any confrontational situation, we can choose to be the healer on the scene, rather than getting caught up in the fray. In this way, whenever those mental fires threaten our peace, they will be stopped in their tracks – with the “fervent heat of Truth and Love.”
Adapted from an article published in the June 2013 issue of The Christian Science Journal