One of my goals as a Christian counselor is to light a fire under the men and women I work with to ignite change that will continue to spread and intensify long after our work together is finished. True and lasting growth arises from deep within and moves outward, eventually transforming the life and overflowing to bless others. As the great teacher wrote, “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18).
I am constantly reminded that this level of change in the hearts of my clients is beyond my ability to initiate or sustain. It is the work of the Spirit of God. In nature, fire is an awesome and terrifying force. Many have witnessed firsthand the immense destructive power of uncontrolled fire in the record devastation caused by wildfires in the northwestern United States over the last year. Fire also serves positive functions, providing heat, light, energy, and many other elements necessary for human survival as well as the survival of natural ecosystems.
Fire is used figuratively in the Bible in both positive and negative ways. James calls the tongue a “world of evil”, and warns that it can “set the whole course of one’s life on fire” in a detrimental way (James 3:6). On the other hand, the prophet Malachi foretells that the Messiah will be “like a refiner’s fire” when he appears, separating what is precious from what is impure (Malachi 3:2). The Scriptures often use the metaphor of fire to symbolize the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 3:11, Acts 2:3, & 2 Timothy 1:6).
The way I am using fire symbolically here is to represent what is kindled within human hearts by the all-loving and all-powerful Lord of the universe. Instead of leaving a trail of ruin in its wake, this is a fire that awakens, empowers, and refines us, burning away the dross and impurities of sin, fear, guilt, and death so that we are cleansed and made pure, ready to “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).
As Father Thomas Dubay wrote:
“The radiant image of the Father’s glory has come to light a fire in us, a burning love, a consuming yearning…Our communion with Him is to become a blazing fire, a perpetual ecstasy. These strong words will sound strange and exaggerated only to those who have not tasted that the Lord is good. They may have studied and read, but they have not drunk deeply.” – Thomas Dubay
The greatest gift I can give anyone I work with in counseling is to point them toward kindling this type of fire within. I know this is true because I see the needless suffering and despair that result from allowing this fire to grow cold, both in my own life and in the lives of others.The great preacher Charles Spurgeon admonishes us, “Take care of giving up your first zeal; beware of cooling in the least degree. Ye were hot and earnest once; be hot and earnest still, and let the fire which once burnt within you still animate you. Be ye still men of might and vigor, men who serve their God with diligence and zeal.”
Let’s look briefly at the Spiritual Disciplines of Solitude, Service, Confession, Worship, and Celebration as some of the means through which we can stir up this fire within.
Today people avoid solitude because they do not want to be lonely or “bored.” But surrounding yourself with other people is no cure for loneliness, as anyone who has felt alone in a crowded room knows. And the media we use to constantly entertain ourselves must not be very satisfying since we are always on the quest for more and better ways to be entertained.
The truth is, we are lonely people who long for true fulfillment. In solitude, we can experience the deeply satisfying presence of God. Richard Foster writes in his book Celebration of Discipline that “Jesus calls us from loneliness to solitude,” and contrasts these two states of mind this way: “Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.”
Through the discipline of solitude, you will enjoy an increased ability to meet with God. Many people say they want to encounter God, but then allow no silence and solitude in their lives for such a meeting to take place. As the great mystic Teresa of Avila put it, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.”
Spending time alone in silence is an expression of trust that God is there and that He will speak. A young boy named Samuel once called out in the night, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).
If you expect God to speak to you, but are unwilling to make time and space to turn your attention to Him, you are revealing a lack of true desire to encounter Him. As Jesus urged throughout his ministry, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt 11:15, 13:9, & 13:43, Mark 4:9, 4:23, Luke 8:8, 14:35).
In the Biblical account of the prophet Elijah, we learn what the voice of God is like:
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still, small voice. – 1 Kings 19:11-12
It is a great testament to the character of God that He speaks to us in this way. He could shout with a thundering, deafening voice from heaven and drown out all other noise, but he chooses to whisper to us. God desires a relationship, not domination. He wants us to yearn to hear Him. He wants us to turn our hearts and ears to Him and wait in reverent expectation.One benefit of practicing the discipline of solitude is that you will notice your heart growing in love for your neighbors. In his book, Foster quotes Thomas Merton, who observed that “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them.”
I have experienced this in my own marriage. I’m not proud to admit it, but there are many times when I can be harsh and critical of my wife in conversation. However, I have found that upon solitary reflection, my heart glows with a renewed love for her and then I will often go find her and confess my selfishness, ask for mercy, and express my heartfelt love and devotion to her. As far as I can tell, nothing has changed on the surface. I believe my heart is changed through the penetrating love of God experienced in the stillness and silence of solitude.
I sometimes encourage my clients to consider setting aside regular time for solitude and silence. It just may be one of the most valuable uses of your time.
Service is a discipline that is central to the life of the Christian. True service is an outward display of inward humility. As Christians, we desire to serve God out of an abundance of gratitude for His amazing love. In His wisdom, God has designed a way for us to fulfill that desire: serving others.
As John Wesley wrote, “One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbor; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us.”
Look around the world and you will find plenty of people in need. Imagine what a difference you could make in the lives of those in need if you were willing to help! When most people are suffering or facing a trial, the tendency is to turn their focus inward and feel sorry for themselves.
Ask God for the grace to look beyond yourself, and through your service to others, He will begin to heal your heart. Proverbs 11:25 tells us that “The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.”
“How can I find the strength to serve others?” you might ask. Just like with all the Spiritual Disciplines, we receive the power to practice the discipline of service through the overflowing goodness and love of God for us. Dallas Willard once said that “as love fills and flows through us we will be engaged in caring for the welfare of others.” Service is evidence that “my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5).
One of the occupational hazards of the discipline of service is self-righteousness. As Foster writes, “The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honor and recognition.” Service done without the need for recognition is one of the surest signs of true humility.
I have personally experienced the liberating power of confession, both as the confessor and the receiver of confession. By opening up my heart and pouring out the sins I have committed, I gained victory over the grip of shame on my mind. And by receiving the confessions of other believers, I’ve had to privilege to speak God’s mercy and restoration into the lives of others.Confession is a corporate discipline, meaning it can be practiced in community. We can confess our sins directly to God in prayer, but the corporate discipline of confession rescues us from perceived isolation. As the great martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Life Together, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” I’ve worked with many people in counseling who assume they are the only ones in their faith community who struggle with sin.
As Foster points out, “Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. Therefore, we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lies and hypocrisy.”
The good news is that all followers of Christ are given authority to receive the confession of sin and to forgive it in his name (John 20:23). Foster writes that “We have not exhausted our resources nor God’s grace when we have tried private confession…God has given us our brothers and sisters to stand in Christ’s stead and make God’s presence and forgiveness real to us.”
Through the discipline of confession, there is hope for the person burdened by regret and shame. As Bonhoeffer writes, “The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power.” Confession does more than soothe a guilty conscience, it sets a prisoner free.
If you are at a point in your life where you feel called to explore and learn to practice these and other Spiritual Disciplines, reach out to me or another Christian counselor today and allow us to share in the work and the joy of your journey.
(This series will be continued in one additional article to come.)
Bonhoeffer, D. (1954). Life Together. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers
Dubay, T. (1989). Fire within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the cross, and the gospel, on prayer. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Willard, D. (2018). Life without lack: Living in the fullness of psalm 23. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
“The Chimney”, Courtesy of Recardo Gomez Angel, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Country Church”, Courtesy of Max Kukurudziak, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Jack Sharp, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Confession”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License