There is a fourth-century story told of two monks in the Egyptian desert. One monk came to the other for advice:
“Father Joseph,” the monk said, “According as I am able, I keep my rule, my fast, my prayer, meditation and silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?”
The other monk rose up and stretched out his hands in response. His fingers, held toward heaven, became like ten lampstands, and he said, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
This story reminds me of John the Baptist coming out of the desert to declare that God had come in the form of a messiah. “I baptize with water,” John said, “But he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Fire in the ancient world was as destructive as it is now, but it was also a cleansing agent. Fire was used to purify precious metals, shape iron, and cleanse chaff from wheat. The Greek word for fire is the root word for the English word, “purity.” It was, according to ancient philosophy, the precursor to God’s Word and the harbinger of Spirit.
For John the Baptist and, later, for Jesus who claimed that he came to separate wheat from chaff, fire was the symbol whereby one was cleansed from all impurities and made right with God. It consisted of God’s action as well as one’s decision to “repent” and convert.
Whereas resolutions are commitments to do something, conversion transform our very nature just as fire can transform the properties of many metals at certain temperatures.
Conversion is more concerned about who we are than about what we do, assuming that who we are will eventually inform what we do.
For those who see conversion as an important step in their faith journey, repentance is considered a regular spiritual discipline. It does not occur only once, let alone once a year, but, as Father Joseph implied, is occurs continually: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
The equation for repentance is straightforward, but we always need reminding of how it occurs. With the New Year upon us, it is a good time for a refresher.
Repentance happens when we realize that we are not perfect and fail to be who God wants us to be. The Bible says that all of us are sinful, that we all “fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). The first step in repentance and conversion is to acknowledge this simple fact.
This brings us to another fact: that because we “fall short,” we are disconnected from God and need salvation. Unfortunately, we cannot save ourselves, and being a good person or doing a good deed for the day just does not cut it. This is based on the premise that God is perfect and holy; and, since we are not holy, then we cannot justify our own actions before God.
This is where the Holy Spirit and “fire” come into play. We recognize that Jesus, who died for our sins as a sinless human and bore the weight of our guilt upon him, is the mediator between us and God. The Holy Spirit enlightens us to this truth as He draws us closer to God through the person of Jesus Christ.
Then, as we are set right in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ upon the admission of our sins, we are commissioned to live a life of obedience, sanctification, and discipleship. This is where “fire” comes in, as the Spirit continually fashions us and molds us in the smelter of life experiences and lessons learned. It’s fire that conforms us into the likeness of Christ.
I grew up in a faith tradition that saw conversion as a one-time event; but, as I grow older, I realize that it is a continual cycle with which God is never finished. Just as each New Year brings with it inspiration for a fresh start, so does God’s Son, Spirit, and cleansing fire give us a fresh beginning every day.