The new year is an opportunity to make resolutions. Perhaps for many of us, however, resolutions may not be enough. We may need an actual conversion experience.
There is a fourth-century story told of two monks in the Egyptian desert in which 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 10 lamp stands, 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, whom John claimed came to separate wheat from chaff (Matthew 3:12), fire was the symbol whereby one was cleansed from all impurities and made right with God.
Whereas resolutions are commitments to do something, conversion transforms our very nature, just as fire can transform the properties of many metals at certain temperatures.
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, it 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 “fall short” and feel disconnected from God. We are in need of salvation. Unfortunately, we cannot save ourselves. This is where the Holy Spirit and “fire” come into play.
We recognize that Jesus is the mediator between ourselves 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, 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. 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.
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Ga. He blogs at Baptist Spirituality and A Tapestry of Love, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.
Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Florida.