I was that kid.
You know the one. The one who studied her Bible until it fell apart. The one who got up at the crack of dawn to do devotions and get to school an hour early to walk around her campus and pray for revival. The one who genuinely loved Jesus with all her heart and couldn't wait to tell everyone about him—even passing out gospel tracts to the drug dealers, goths, and drag queens on Hollywood Boulevard. The one who was "on fire for God."
The one who always secretly felt like God was always bummed out that she wasn't doing enough.
The one who kept her struggles private because she didn't want to let anyone down.
The one whose faith got shaken by clever arguments against Christianity....well into adulthood.
In high school, I hated the phrase "on fire for God." It never felt right to me. I remember talking with a friend at church summer camp about our mutual aversion to the term. "It suggests something you have to work up....something that will die out at some point," we would muse. In our youthful zeal and naivete we came up with a phrase we liked even better: "Forever smoldering for God." Now THAT would look great on a t-shirt!
It was cheesy, but maybe we were on to something.
Don't get me wrong. The Bible is chock FULL of fire metaphors. Hebrews 12:29 describes God as an "all-consuming fire." God first appeared to Moses in a burning bush and followed the Israelites in a pillar of fire. The Holy Spirit came upon first-century believers as "tongues of fire" resting on their heads and gave them continued boldness. It's obvious that God likes to use fire as a symbol of His presence.
However, there's an important distinction to make here. In the Bible, God's fire was usually associated with His very presence—and with cleansing. The fire burned away the silver and dross from precious metal in Psalm 66:10, and tested the hearts of men in Proverbs 17:3. Psalm 97:3 describes the fire of God actually consuming His foes.
Often when people talk about someone being "on fire for God," they are referencing an outward passion or enthusiasm about God that isn't necessarily associated with the fearsome cleansing and refining of the fire of God found in Scripture.
If your teen is openly passionate about the things of God, that is wonderful! But outward expressions of emotion and zeal aren't always good indicators of an authentic and deeply rooted faith. If your teen is more subdued....more quiet and thoughtful about their faith, that's ok too—and it might even serve them better in the long run. As someone who was known to be "on fire," I know firsthand the pitfalls and dangers of that label. Here are 4 Reasons being "on fire for God" can be a deceptive indicator of your teen's faith:
1. Being "on fire for God" may reflect a teen's feelings more than their intellectual understanding of the faith.
We are living in a day in age where our Christian beliefs are under attack like never before. Kids have access to more information than they ever had in the history of the world. With a charming and winsome new crop of atheists influencing the world of social media, our teens are always just one click away from compelling videos and blogs that raise doubts about the existence of God and the truthfulness of Christianity. Arguments against the reliability and miraculous nature of the Bible can be incredibly persuasive—especially if they are promoted by actors and "reality stars" whom our kids already like and look up to.
With so many great resources designed to train our teens to know the truth about the reliability of the Bible, the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the truthfulness of Christianity, we might serve them better by encouraging them to investigate their beliefs—instead of simply praising their passion and zeal. (Better yet, start in elementary school!)
Emotional highs may turn them into experience junkies, but they will not give them the strong foundation they will need for their faith to survive a culture that is skeptical or even hostile to their beliefs.
2. Being "on fire for God" doesn't necessarily mean a teen is engaging in true discipleship.
When we talk about the "great commission" in Matthew 28, we often focus on the evangelistic part of the command, forgetting that the emphasis was on discipleship. Jesus didn't say, "Go and do an altar call, make people cry, have an AMAZING experience, and then move on to the next city." He said, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Notice that the focus is on long-term faithfulness and obedience—not on emotion or a short-term spiritual "high."
Faithful discipleship is hard. It requires community, vulnerability, prayer, and study. It can certainly include those "mountain-top experiences," but it doesn't depend on them.
3. Being "on fire for God" may be more about misdirected pride than a deeper relationship with God.
The summer before my senior year in high school I won the coveted "Best Christian Example" award at camp. I was presented with my very own box of cereal and was escorted to the front of the cafeteria line at breakfast. As I walked past all those "Lesser Christian Examples," these words of Jesus, "The first shall be last," were playing on repeat in my mind—making my victory hauntingly empty and ironic. There was a war inside me because I recognized the futility and potential danger of such an award.
But I'm not gonna lie....it felt GREAT. Experiences like this put me on a pedestal and sent me into a battle with pride—pride that made me feel like I had to hide my sins. Pride that made me never want to show weakness. Pride that made me feel like I always had to be "on," always displaying an outward passion for God.
A hyper focus on external indicators of faith can discourage our kids from having the humility it takes to admit to having doubts, questions, or even dry seasons where somehow their faith isn't giving them "all the feels."
4. Being "on fire for God" may be indicative of spiritual ADD.
Let's face it. We are living in a time when even the thought of simply studying the Bible seems boring to many Christians. We want the new and exciting sermon delivered by the fresh young pastor who can hold an audience in the palm of his hand. We want funny stories and practical life-lessons. Many pastors have switched to a more topical approach in sermons that entertain (and have a few Bible verses thrown in), because many Christians can't sit through an expository Bible teaching. And I'm not even talking about teens—I'm talking about us adults!
Multiply that by the on-line overload our teens are being brought up with—with the endless pressure to "go viral," to become a youtube celebrity, or to at least be a social media influencer. Where self-esteem is measured in "likes"—and attention spans are trained to be short as Dory's in Finding Nemo—it can be incredibly difficult to help kids see the value in an in-depth Bible study....or really anything that doesn't fit into a single tweet or stand out on instagram.
Passion and zeal for God are wonderful traits I hope my kids always have! However, if being "on fire for God" isn't accompanied by consistent prayer, compassion for others, careful study of the Bible, and an honest examination of doubts and questions....that "fire" may not be a true signal of their spiritual maturity. It may actually be an indicator of a shallow faith that is always chasing the next spiritual high—or worse, an uninformed faith that is following a wrong spirit altogether.