Baptized by fire

Passage: Matthew 3:1-12 — John the Baptist prepares the way

Key Verse: Matthew 3:11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: 12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

I ran today. That is no great accomplishment, for I have been running for twenty five-years now. What distinguishes today from other days was the rain, cold, wind, and rawness of the day. I hate to run in cold rain and most of the time this is never an issue. Nine months out of the year I live in Florida and cold, raw, rainy days are a rarity. However, we have just started our summer vacation in Maine, and I have been indulgent with my diet, so when I got up this morning, even though I did not want to run, I knew that I would feel better and assuage my guilt if I did. We innately know that doing difficult things like running eight miles in the cold rain will make us stronger and better, but it is unnatural to embrace the discomfort and pain.

There is a disagreement among scholars as to what baptism by fire means. Some take it to mean being baptized with the fires of hell because of the following verse (v. 12), while others take it to mean that the Christian’s faith will be tested and refined through trials and afflictions, just as gold and silver are purified by fire (Malachi 3:1-3). I take it to mean the latter — a testing of one’s Christian faith.

Forcing myself to run in the cold rain is one thing, but the real test of my faith has been my debilitating IBS. Before I got sick, I was the VP of engineering for a small software company, earning a handsome salary, enjoying my work, and raising four kids — my version of the American dream. But all that changed with IBS. I had chronic fatigue (I could no longer get through the day without a nap; I had to force myself to stay awake until 8 PM), brain fog (I could no longer think, concentrate, recall simple things, write software, write English; once, at a gas station, I could not remember my zip code to verify my credit card), constipation, and host of other inexplicable ailments, for which the doctors could find no cause. (I was told that I was depressed or under too much stress… this is always the medical answer for maladies they cannot explain.) At one point, I lost 40 lb in two months because I was unable to eat solid food. My intestine ached, and I spent all day flat on my back on a hard floor watching TV. That’s all I could do.

It is easy to be a Christian when everything is going well. You feel blessed by God. That is certainly they way I felt until I reached thirty-five. The real challenge is remaining faithful while the life you knew is falling apart. But the illness has a purpose. In my case, it made me a better husband and father, and better human being. I am more involved in family life than I was when I was the VP of engineering securing the Internet. That said, it is not perfect. There are trade-offs. Although I spend more time with my wife and kids, I’m not all there. The brain fog keeps me distant, and I can barely remember the events of yesterday. (For five years, my brain was so addled, I could not recall a single dream. I’m not sure I had any.)

The point with all this is that every Christian, sooner or later, will be baptized with fire, and how you respond determines whether or not you are in Christ. The purpose of the testing is to make us grow. In our flesh, we don’t want to grow, just as I did not want to run in the cold rain. But in the end, running in the rain makes me physically better and stronger, just as being baptized by fire makes me spiritually better and stronger. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Corinthians 9:10-11)

Prayer: Lord, help me to overcome, and help me to endure to the end.

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