“If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15)
“Jerry, come look! The sky is dark for this time of morning and there are large pieces of ash in the air. There have been high risk fire warnings for the last two days; I’m worried.” My wife Brenda's words greeted me as I arose early to shower and dress for work.
“I'd better call the clinic to see if we have any patients before I go in,” I muttered to myself. “Patients take any excuse to cancel.”
There was no answer to my call. Hmm, this could be serious, but haven’t we been warned of fire danger many times in the past? We have even been evacuated! They're probably crying “wolf” so I needn't worry. I’ll eat breakfast and mosey on my way. The staff are just late in answering the phone.
“Let’s turn on the scanner,” I suggested. Then the SNF (skilled nursing facility) where my elderly sister and my father-in-law were housed, phoned. “Could you come over and help us evacuate the facility?”
“Sure, my son and I will be right over,” I replied. It was 9:10 a.m. As Jeremiah and I started out the door, Brenda suggested we think about taking some important stuff, “just in case.” That “important stuff” was a large garbage bag full of toys for Jeremiah's five-year-old daughter, Mariah. They lived in the main house with my wife and myself. Our older son Joshua and his wife Jen also lived on our “compound,” in a little cottage.
A mile from our house we were turned back at a roadblock allowing exit out of town but no entrance. “But, but, I need to help evacuate,” I stammered to the official at the roadblock.
“No way! You must turn around,” he shot back with unquestionable authority.
“Okay, okay,” I meekly replied. I could see a serious traffic problem beginning to clog the exit routes from town. As I made the short trip home, I could see “color” coming across the canyon. We had been gone 15 minutes.
Joshua and Jen had horses in the pasture, but they were out of town. “Take some spray paint and mark the two horses, open the gate so they can get out, and we will find them later,” my daughter-in-law suggested. “Oh yes, by the way, we have some important papers and cash in a dresser drawer. Would you please rescue these for us? Thanks.” They contacted friends who prayed for us...the whole fiery day.
This cash turned out to be a great blessing to us later. It was the only money we had for several weeks.
Too Late to Evacuate
After several unsuccessful attempts to mark the horses, we gave up and left the gate open. Rushing back to the house, we noticed the fire on our back lawn and rapidly extending 360 degrees around our property. To evacuate, we would have to pass under a canopy of trees which would risk falling limbs trapping us. We decided our safest place would be on our large front lawn. We stayed there—my wife, son, his five-year-old daughter, and myself—for five hours, watching our house catch fire and burn to the ground. This surreal experience must be a dream, this can't be real!
The wind was ferocious, shifting. At times we struggled for breath, even through moistened dish cloths, as the fire storm created an environment of its own. Little Mariah kept saying, “Trust in the Lord, Grandpa. Trust in the Lord.” Out of the mouth of babes...
“Well, we needed to downsize anyway and this saved a lot of time and effort,” commented Brenda. Indeed! In just hours, our house and its contents were consumed...all gone!
This short video shows the Job-like rapid destruction on the Niswonger property:
Now what?! How do we deal with this? How do we give thanks upon seeing our house and contents burn up? How do we find joy in loss?
I turned to the Bible for answers. I found fire mentioned 549 times in 506 verses, first in Genesis 19: “Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground,” (verses 24-25).
Fire is used in sacrifice, e.g., Genesis 4; fire is an expression of God’s judgment, e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis 19; God delivers His people from fire, e.g., Daniel 3; it is employed in the final treatment of the sin problem, Revelation 20.
So, was it judgment, punishment, or deliverance in our case? Could our experience encourage others? We believe it has been a blessing. How?
Material Dependence or Downsizing?
Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you (Philippians 4:6-9).
In other words, don’t worry about anything. “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” communicate with God, at all times, as Job did.
We recognized that there were conditions in our lives that needed correction. We had a large house filled with “stuff”. My wife had been aware that we needed to “downsize,” and while watching the “stuff” being consumed she shed not one tear. She kept repeating, “Well, we needed to downsize, and this certainly is a quick way.”
God offers counsel on viewing such disasters as we experienced:
There will soon be a sudden change in God's dealings. The world in its perversity is being visited by casualties,—by floods, storms, fires, earthquakes, famines, wars, and bloodshed. The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power; yet he will not at all acquit the wicked. “The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.” O that men might understand the patience and long-suffering of God! He is putting under restraint his own attributes. His omnipotent power is under the control of Omnipotence. O that men would understand that God refuses to be wearied out with the world's perversity, and still holds out the hope of forgiveness even to the most undeserving! But his forbearance will not always continue. Who is prepared for the sudden change that will take place in God's dealing with sinful men? Who will be prepared to escape the punishment that will certainly fall upon transgressors? (Special Testimonies on Education, 133:1)
Total Dependence on God
Psalm 34:7 describes our story: “The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.”
We were blessed by experiencing firsthand the saving of our family from the fire. We were ringed by very hot flames fanned by fierce, shifting winds. Embers were flying in the air and we were constantly keeping an eye on each other to brush off these embers as they lighted on us.
Mariah's words echoed in our minds: “Trust in the Lord, Grandpa.” Passing through such an experience prepares us for future events and gives us confidence in the protective power of our Heavenly Father. This is a very real blessing.
We see conditions all around us that attract the world's attention. Many are concerned about “end-time events”. We must possess a powerful faith and confidence in our God. We are told,
God has not restrained the powers of darkness from carrying forward their deadly work of vitiating (spoiling or reducing the effect of) the air, one of the sources of life and nutrition, with a deadly miasma (oppressive or unhealthy atmosphere). Not only is vegetable life affected, but man suffers from pestilences. Cholera and unexplainable diseases have broken out. Diphtheria, raging to a limited extent, is gathering its harvest of precious little ones, and seems to be almost uncontrollable.” (Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, 312.3, 1891, explanatory parentheses added)
Preparation for Final Events
We had accumulated so much over the years. We had pictures, artifacts from world travels, so-called valuables in art, many books. We resembled the man in the parable of Luke 12:18. “And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.” It is very easy to make idols of our stuff. Yet we found the separation from our idols to be a very real blessing.
James 1:2,3 advises, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” So, we'll learn patience.
We treasure this wonderful passage:
No cross, no crown. How can we be strong in the Lord without trial? To have physical strength, we must have exercise. To have strong faith, we must be placed in circumstances where our faith will be tried. Every temptation resisted, every trial bravely borne, gives us a new experience, and advances us in the work of character building. Our Saviour was tried in every way, yet He triumphed in God constantly. It is our privilege under all circumstances to be strong in the strength of God, and to glory in the cross of Christ.
Through affliction God reveals to us the plague spots in our characters, that by His grace we may overcome our faults. Unknown chapters in regard to ourselves are opened to us, and the test comes, whether we will accept the reproof and the counsel of God. When brought into trial, we are not to fret and worry. We should not rebel, or worry ourselves out of the hand of Christ. We are to humble the soul before God. (Signs of the Times, February 5, 1902, par. 3,4)
Dying to Self
FEMA commandeered an old Sears building in the Chico Mall, where multiple agencies helped fire victims recover documents, file for unemployment, etc. I noticed a friend in the unemployment line. He had lost his job due to the fire.
“You're not working so why don’t you apply?“ he suggested. Yes, this would be good for my ego. Why not apply? I sat down, filled out forms for 30 minutes, and waited until called by the kindly African-American man with glasses and little white goatee.
He reviewed my answers. He asked if we had lost our house and I related our experience. He jumped out of his chair, danced a little jig, and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!”
“YES, are you a believer?” I responded. He was. We high-fived and he sat down. He asked about my church.
“I’m a Seventh-day Adventist,” I said. I asked if I could pray and he enthusiastically agreed. Right there in the mall, we bowed our heads. I prayed for guidance and continued protection, and thanked our Heavenly Father for preserving our lives.
He leaned over the desk toward me and said, “I believe the LORD sent you to me today.”
“I really don’t need the money,” I confessed.
“I know that, the Lord sent you to me today,” he repeated. We gave each other a long hug and then parted, each feeling richly blessed.
Oh, the irony of an 84-year-old applying for unemployment. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:7, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” If so then we must die to self. Romans 6:3,4 explains, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” We experienced this blessed “baptism by fire” in the destruction of our belongings.
My favorite Bible commentator observed this,
We are living in an age when all should especially give heed to the injunction of the Saviour: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.” Let everyone bear in mind that he should be true and loyal to God, believing the truth, growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Saviour's invitation is: “Learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” The Lord is willing to help us, to strengthen and bless us; but we must pass through the refining process until all the impurities in our character are burned away. Every member of the church will be subjected to the furnace, not to consume, but to purify. (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, 485.2)
We gained special comfort and encouragement from the following two quotes:
“Happy is the man whom God correcteth.... He maketh sore, and bindeth up; he woundeth, and his hands make whole.” ... To every stricken one, Jesus comes with the ministry of healing. The life of bereavement, pain, and suffering may be brightened by precious revealings of His presence (Signs of the Times, February 5, 1902) .
The Father's presence encircled Christ, and nothing befell Him but that which infinite love permitted for the blessing of the world. Here was His source of comfort, and it is for us. He who is imbued with the Spirit of Christ abides in Christ. The blow that is aimed at him falls upon the Saviour, who surrounds him with His presence. Whatever comes to him comes from Christ. He has no need to resist evil, for Christ is his defense. Nothing can touch him except by our Lord's permission, and “all things” that are permitted “work together for good to them that love God.” Romans 8:28. (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing 71.2)
Jesus calls each of us. He wants to take us home with him, by choice, not by force. He says in Revelation 3:20-21,
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”
In times of adversity, will you see God’s hand protecting you, or see yourself as a victim? The choice is yours, and mine.
Jerome Niswonger is an active octogenarian Seventh-day Adventist physician and layman who lost his job and his Paradise, CA home during the Camp Fire of November 2018. After four months in a hotel, his family relocated to their Paradise property. They are living in RVs and planning to rebuild, modestly this time.