A monthly column by Michael Cassidy, evangelist, author, Christian leader and founder of African Enterprise whose ministry in Africa and the world has spanned more than 50 years.
Part 1 of a 2-part series on the painful but profitable process of being refined through the ‘baptism of fire’
I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire — Matthew 3:11 (John the Baptist)
In seeking to go forward in our Christian walk, we can often find that the growth comes firstly in situations of pain, and secondly, when caught in the crossfire of conflict.
In fact the twin concepts, firstly of taking up one’s cross, and secondly of being baptised not only with the Spirit but with fire, became the only spiritual framework through which I could interpret many of the difficult and sometimes painful things which happened to me. The cross-and-the-fire.
Holiness and fire
Since early in my Christian experience I have been aware that God is more interested in our characters than our happiness, knowing as He does that the more and the quicker our characters are conformed to the image of Christ, the happier we will be. In the light of this, Hebrews 12:11 had always meant much: No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
However, I had not ever before very clearly linked up in my mind the twin phenomena of the baptism with the Spirit and the baptism with fire.
But I can’t think why not. After all, they were integral and inseparable in John the Baptist’s mind.
This One who was to come, whose sandals he was unworthy to untie, would have the distinction of performing a twin work upon His disciples.
He would baptise not only with the Spirit, but with fire.
He would come to his disciples with his winnowing fork … in his hand, and he would clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12).
As the years unfolded, this truth impressed itself on me afresh.
To come to His Spirit more deeply and to release His Spirit more fully was also to come to the fire more resolutely and be yielded to its painful, purging work.
To say: “Lord, fill me with Your Spirit” is to say: “Lord, step up the heat of the fire and burn the chaff in me more freely” because the two baptisms, if we can so talk, belong together.
Put differently, the one baptism involves two elements — the Spirit and fire.
Curious that we have so many books on our shelves on the baptism with the Holy Spirit and none on the baptism with fire! Seemingly we have a strong, though perhaps not unnatural, preference for power over pain!
In all likelihood this is because we forget that He is the Holy Spirit. And He is described that way more than ninety times in the Bible. As such, His main concern will be with our holiness.
Yet, even from the beginning there was failure in the Church to grasp this. Michael Green has observed:
The Corinthians, with all their claims to fullness and to having entered on their heavenly reign were distressingly defective in Christian behaviour.
Party strife, litigiousness, immorality of a dimension unheard of in paganism, coupled with greed and disorder in the assemblies, marked their lives.
No wonder Paul had to castigate them as carnal Christians and yet they were the very people who possessed these gifts of tongues, miracles, faith, healing, and the like which convinced them that they were the favoured children of Heaven and had already become full.
It is still an observable fact that those who speak most about being full of the Holy Spirit are often governed by other spirits such as arrogance, divisiveness, and party spirit, disorder, lack of love, and criticism. It is hard to see how a man can be full of the Spirit if these glaring failures of character persist.
This is what Paul was on to when he wrote to the Corinthians, and it is often as relevant today in our churches and organisations as it was with the Corinthians: Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly — mere infants in Christ … For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like ordinary humans? — 1 Corinthians 3:1, 3
Seemingly Paul’s concern was to get the Corinthians to behave not as ordinary people but as extraordinary people. This could only happen as the flesh or old nature in them was subordinate to the Spirit and brought under His control.
Spirit and flesh
As Christians we face the challenge of being and becoming, and one is always a beginner. How hard it is therefore to yield to the discipling processes of the Spirit as Peter had to when Jesus said: You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas (which, when translated, is Peter) –John 1:42.
Jesus was alerting Peter to the fact that there was a signal difference between what he then was and what he would later become, though mercifully he left Peter ignorant as to how painful the process would be!
Likewise with Moses in his Midian and Paul in his Arabia, there was an “unlearning” process which had to go on as each was led more deeply, and often with anguish, to learn the ways of God and to unlearn the ways of humans.
It is the challenge of learning to have God’s attitudes and perspectives, even in situations of pain, pressure, personal crisis, or interpersonal alienation.
It is learning to allow the Spirit and the new nature, rather than the flesh or old nature, to predominate.
And the way it happens is the way of the Cross. It is the way of the baptism with fire.
The pain of bereavement
The awareness of the Spirit’s love and power was a particular blessing back in mid-1978 when my father, to whom I was particularly devoted, became seriously ill and we knew he was dying.
I had always been very close to my father and his influence on me had been enormous. In fact it was he who first pointed me to God in a way I can consciously remember. That in itself made him very special.
And now this illness had come out of the blue and I was face-to-face with the grim prospect of seeing him slowly slip into those clawing clutches of the Last Enemy.
I knew these would be weeks when the Spirit’s wisdom, strength, and guidance would be specially needed.
One dilemma faced me. Several weeks before Dad fell ill I had had an argument with him about South African politics. I didn’t feel he was being sufficiently liberal. Not the first time, I might say, and I, in my obtuseness had refused to show him any understanding.
I recollect his phoning me the same evening of our argument. I had the powerful sense of the Holy Spirit whispering: “Apologise to him for all those stupid political discussions that got nowhere.” But my pride was too great and I didn’t.
A few days later he was in hospital with the medical death sentence over him. Somehow I still felt I should apologise for my insensitivity in these discussions and my own heated attitudes, but events swept us along and the opportunity seemed to slip away.
Remorse and regret gripped me. Then early one morning I woke with the sense of the Spirit’s word: “Say to him today what is in your heart.”
By this time the end was very close. After breakfast my sister, Olave Snelling, who knew nothing of my feelings over the political discussions, came to me and said: “In my devotional time this morning the Spirit said to me that we should say everything to Dad today which is on our hearts and which we may need to say.” It was confirmation.
That afternoon I whispered my words of apology for the political arguments, in Dad’s ear, thanked him for all he had meant as a father, and asked his forgiveness for where I had failed him as a son.
He shook his head vigorously, as if to say: “No, you haven’t failed,” smiled a treasured smile of understanding and reassurance, and gripped my hand as if to say: “Thank you.”
But what blessed me over and above Dad’s reaction was the Spirit’s gentle dealing with both of us in this detail and His gracious leading and enabling, so that the decks could be cleared of this one bit of personal clutter which was spoiling.
Also, in these days of anxiety and sadness, something else of the Spirit’s work came home afresh.
There was one nurse tending Dad called Athene. She was a Christian and week after week I observed her ability to give extra care to all her patients, and especially to Dad.
One day I spoke to her about this.
“Well,” she said, “I believe the Lord Jesus would express His care through me to all these people, especially the dying ones.
“You know, it’s the little things that mean much to them. For example, few nurses will bother to help these old folk in the terminal ward to clean their teeth. I make it my business to help them to do their teeth. They feel better for it as they turn in.
“Other nurses say I’m silly to expend energy on things like that, but I feel the Spirit has led me to this.”
Now, I thought to myself, how about that for an evidence of the fullness of the Spirit? Not a lot of extravagant bravado and talk about tongues and so on, but helping dying people to clean their teeth.
Later that night I wrote in my diary: “Thank you, Lord, for pressing upon my heart that the ultimate mark of your Spirit’s work and will is the Spirit of care.
“Baptise me into that Spirit and anoint me to care for people as never before.”
There was another detail in which the Spirit’s guidance was so meaningful to me. I was due in these weeks to go up to Zimbabwe to speak at a huge inter-church conference. The question was — how long would Dad linger? Could I slip away early next day, speak at the conference, and get back to be with Dad? Or should I cancel out? Or should I have my message delayed in the conference, or what?
Assured of the wonderful and gracious ability of the Spirit to speak and guide in such situations, I went down to the bottom of the garden, sat on the children’s swing, poured over my Bible, and asked the Spirit of God to guide me as to whether I should board the plane early next morning or not.
Somehow I was constrained towards Psalm 90 and came on verses 9–10: For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
The words soon gone literally leaped at me from the page, as if radiating with the Spirit’s quickened life. Dad would be soon gone. Very soon. That was the Spirit’s word.
I rose, went up to my study, phoned Zimbabwe and said I would not be on the plane the next day, but I believed I would be up there before the end of the conference. And that is how it ultimately worked out.
Early next morning I was called from a prayer meeting at our church to go to the hospital. A long, searing, but precious morning followed. As a family we were knit closer than ever before.
Dad died at 1:11 pm. Had I not heard the Spirit’s word the day before, I would have been landing at Harare airport at that very time.
And how precious was the sense of Jesus’ presence throughout that experience and after it! I remembered Paul’s words: because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death — Romans 8:2.
Yes, the Spirit is the one who embodies the law of life in Christ Jesus and He frees us from those dreadful clutches of sin and death.
I now knew this in a new way. It had been a time of grief and pain. A Calvary time. Yet how gloriously rich and real had been the Holy Spirit’s ministry to us all!
And it had come as part of a baptism of fire!,