Starting a Fire
I was not a boy scout. The only knot I can tie is my shoes. I question why people sleep on the ground when they have perfectly good beds. If I had to survive on my own in the wild, I would spend all my time looking for cell service and praying for manna from heaven.
So when it comes to starting a fire, I know very little. I almost always use lighter fluid or gasoline, and lots of it. But I think I understand the general concept of building a nice fire. From best I can tell, you start small and build it up. You don’t take a log and put a match to it (Unless of course that log has been covered in gasoline). Typically you start a fire by gathering some small kindling and getting that to burn first. Once you have some smoke and light, then you can gradually add bigger sticks working your way up to logs. Eventually, you have a nice sized bonfire. (See, I’m not totally useless.)
As a teenager, I once went to a Christian conference for students called Acquire the Fire. The purpose was to host an exciting event that set thousands of kids on fire…spiritually that is. The conference took place in a large arena and featured popular Christian rock bands, engaging speakers, and lots of energy. It was intense, lasting several hours. The music was loud and the lights were cool. As teenagers, we left the conference on fire for God, ready to impact our school and community for Christ. We made powerful commitments to spend more time in God’s Word, attend church more consistently, and share the gospel with our friends.
But the fire we had acquired eventually expired. A few weeks later, we were back to our old selves. Struggling with the same old sins, falling into the same old routines, waiting for the next big event to light us on fire again.
As a student pastor, I have watched this process many times in my own life and in the lives of students. It happens with adults too. We go to a big event, camp, conference, concert, retreat, etc. We have a powerful, life-altering experience. We make commitments to never be the same again. And then the spiritual high fades away, and we go back to “normal”. We are left wondering where the fire went and how it got put out.
This metaphor of fire as passion for God is not a bad comparison, in my opinion. But I’m not exactly sure where it comes from. There are scriptures that speak of fire in a positive way. At Pentecost in Acts 2, the disciples have tongues of fire when they are given the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Old Testament sometimes speaks of fire as representing God. Sacrifices were offered as burnt offerings, and Paul does encourage us in Romans 12:1 to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice. Paul also tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6 to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…”
So I think the fire analogy works. Fire spreads and affects everything it touches. It conveys the idea of being consumed with passion and love for God, a passion that grows into an uncontainable desire to act. The problem is not our desire for the fire, but I believe the problem is our fire-starting method.
Let me offer two quick observations on fires and how they relate to the Christian life.
1. Fires start small and take time to grow.
Every fire starts from a small spark. That spark then grows over time to become a raging fire. But normally it doesn’t happen in an instant. Yes, you can pour gasoline on that spark and make a big fireball. But once the gasoline burns up, the fire will go out.
I believe this is the problem with depending on an exciting event to give you lasting spiritual fire. Gathering with a large crowd and hearing exciting music and engaging speakers will certainly pump you up. You experience that “high” and your emotions tell your brain that something great is taking place. This is not wrong. I’m not anti-emotion. I think our emotions play an important part in our relationship with God, but emotions are inconsistent and can be deceiving. They come and go. That’s why emotions are high when the worship band is playing your favorite worship song, but they are absent the next morning when you are reading through Leviticus in your quiet time.
So often these big events focus on the effects of a heart that burns for the Lord instead of the causes. They try to manufacture certain feelings and experiences, but they end up being just that: manufactured and short-lived. It’s not hard to make people feel powerful emotions. It happens every day at the movies. So we cannot mistake emotional responses for genuine fire for God. Does a spiritual fire and passion for God produce emotions? Certainly. But don’t be deceived into thinking that emotions and excitement always equal a heart that longs for God. These are effects, not causes.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against camps and conferences or powerful worship experiences. I think they can be a great tool for spiritual formation. My wife was saved at a children’s summer camp. God has taught me some amazing truths in these kinds of big-group settings. I love belting out lyrics to God with thousands of unhindered worshipers around me. These moments can no doubt refresh and refocus believers. But they are the equivalent of gasoline on an open flame. If there is already a fire started, they can make it bigger, faster. They can help keep it going. But they are not sustainable in the long run and are not the key to a long-lasting fire for God.
In Scripture, big moments of spiritual blessing are often preceded by a string of small moments of faithfulness. These are the causes that produce the desired effects. Before the Holy Spirit came on the believers at Pentecost, they were gathered together praying for 9 days. Before Jesus began his miraculous ministry, he spent 40 days in the desert praying and fasting. Before Daniel was thrown to the lions, he was praying three times a day, every day. Before David defeated Goliath, he faithfully served his father in the fields and Saul as his armor-bearer.
Faithfulness brings the fire. God may use certain circumstances and moments to dump gasoline on us, but God typically grows a fire in less dramatic ways. Which brings me to my second thought.
2. For a fire to last, it must be tended.
I know, I know. Forest fires. They aren’t tended, and yet they are hard to put out. (Watch, in five years there will be a worship song about God’s love being like a forest fire.) But doesn’t nature “tend” to forest fires in a way? The wind blows, providing oxygen and direction, and the forest provides the wood. Without these essential elements, even a forest fire will go out.
A spiritual fire must be tended as well. But there is a better way to keep a fire going than by seeking out emotional experience after emotional experience. The best way is to take advantage of what is often called the ordinary means of grace. These are the simple ways that God has given in scripture for us to grow as believers.
This fire-tending method includes private spiritual disciplines like studying the Bible, meditation, prayer, fasting, etc., and also corporate disciplines like regularly sitting under the preaching of the Word. These are the ordinary acts of obedience that we can practice to receive the extraordinary fire of God. We don’t need a light show or a hip speaker to acquire the fire. We simply need to daily feast on God through his Word.
Sounds too easy, doesn’t it? I’ll be honest. On most days, I don’t feel a blazing fire for God in my soul. Sometimes all I feel is the small glow of smoldering ashes. But each day, I put another log on the fire. I poke it. I blow a little on the embers. I keep tending the fire. And you know what I’ve found through this process? God loves starting fires. And he loves sustaining them too.
1 Corinthians 3:7, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”