As Paul begins his second letter to Timothy, he makes reference to Timothy’s living faith:
I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:5-6, NIV)
Paul seems to think that faith is a living thing that gets passed on from generation to generation. Passing on a living faith isn’t restricted to families: Paul even says the gift (I think he must be referring to Timothy’s faith at least, though “the gift” could be broader than just faith)—Paul says the gift came to Timothy through Paul’s ministry. But family certainly plays a primary role. Grandma Lois is involved; Mother Eunice is involved; and Paul (adopted “faith father”? He calls Timothy “my child,” in verse 1) Paul is also involved in passing down a living faith to Timothy.
This faith that lived in Louis, and in Eunice, and in Paul now lives in Timothy, too; so Paul encourages his young friend to “fan into flame” this gift that now dwells in him.
That’s a really interesting image for a living faith, a faith handed down from one generation to the next.
“Fan into flame.” The Greek verb Paul uses shows up only here in the New Testament. The verb is anazōpuréo and it comes from three distinct Greek words:
“Ana-” as a prefix means “up, anew, over again;” “zō” is a contracted form of the Greek word for “life” or “living thing” (maybe you know the name Zoe means “life”); and “pur” which means “fire.”
Ana + zō + pur = anazōpuréo: to enliven the fire anew; to rekindle the spark; to fan into flame.
What a wonderful image for faith! A living fire that dwelt in Grandma, and Mom, and Paul, and now Timothy—and Timothy is invited to fan that living fire into a flame!
I don’t think this is “passing down the faith” the way we usually imagine it. Typically, “passing the torch” means the people who have more knowledge or experience or faith transfer that knowledge/experience/faith to someone younger and less experienced. That kind “passing down” or “passing on” is always only in one direction, from the one who has more for the benefit of one who has less. And, whether it’s a baton or torch, you pass it on as quickly as possible and then it’s the next person’s turn to run with it…
But that’s not how Paul seems to be imagining this living faith. Paul already said, one verse earlier, how much he longs to see Timothy again, not so he can transfer some more knowledge or experience onto Timothy, but so Paul’s joy might increase. It kind of reminds me of what Paul says elsewhere to some other friends:
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
(Romans 1:11-12, NIV)
Faith is a fire that spreads from person to person, but it’s not exactly a torch that gets passed down. I think faith works more like charcoal.
You know how a grill works: if you want to light the charcoal, you pile it all together because one coal that’s lit will light other coals. Put coals together and they will feed each other; take two live coals and separate them and they will go out. Just being in contact with other coals that are hot will increase the heat for all the coals involved.
Faith is like that. Faith is a living thing. When Lois passed it on to Eunice, that wasn’t the end of their faith relationship; Timothy now has the gift of living faith in him through Paul’s ministry, but Paul can’t wait to be together again, so their mutual faith can stoke their individual faith.
When Paul encourages Timothy to fan his faith into flame, to rekindle the spark, that increase in faith isn’t supposed to happen in a vacuum. (Actually, flame can’t exist at all in a vacuum…) Part of Timothy’s work of fanning his faith into flame is to hang out with people like Paul; Timothy’s faith will rekindle as a result, but so will Paul’s. The last thing you want to do as a coal is to go it alone.
And yet “going it alone” is a real temptation we face as followers of Jesus, especially in a culture that teaches “rugged individualism” and self-sufficiency as lofty values we all should aspire to. Multiple times over the years, I have had people tell me something like, “I’m sorry we haven’t been to church in a while, pastor; we’re really going through a really difficult time. But when things get better, we’ll be back …”
I mean, I can see where they are coming from… When your world is upside down, sometimes you just don’t want to show up and face questions about how you’re doing. And if you go through a rough patch where even your faith seems cold and hard, showing up to worship can make you feel like a hypocrite.
But the thing is, a coal off on its own will naturally go out. What I need when I am hurting or anxious or troubled or full of doubt is not time away from other coals; what I need is someone’s living faith burning in close proximity to my cold and hard faith. Not only will I find a new sense of rekindling in my own faith, but their faith will end up burning even brighter.
We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. He designed us that way. We are mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.
Please don’t hear that as a burden; Jesus intends it as a joy. I know there are times when going back to the same place you have been worshiping, the same place that has perhaps even done damage to your faith or thrown water on your fire, may not actually be a Gospel invitation.
I trust that God works through fallen, sinful humans at fallen, sinful congregations (there aren’t any other kind, of people or congregations…). And I know that sometimes, for a time, in some circumstances, going back to your congregation would mean putting on a mask that you hate wearing and smiling at people who have deeply wounded you. Rekindling your faith may be impossible in that kind of a setting.
But you also can’t rekindle your faith on your own. You need people who follow Jesus to help you regain the joy of following Jesus. They don’t have to be the most experienced Jesus-followers. They don’t have to be semi-professional disciples. Any coal that’s a little white around the edges will help rekindle any other coal, given proximity and time.
The more it feels like things are too difficult to show up at church right now, the more you need somebody who loves Jesus to love you, too.
I wish I had a simple answer for how you find those people in your life. Because when you need those people the most, you have the least amount of energy to go out and look for them.
So maybe we have to start thinking about fanning faith into flame before we get too hard and cold and have no energy left for relationships. Maybe now is the time to start wondering, who is kindling my faith? And who’s faith am I rubbing off on? Which of the people in my address book could I send an email that read, “I long to see you, so that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith?”
I have gone through regular cycles of having people who kindle my faith in close and regular proximity, and ending up all alone at the edge of the grill wondering where all the heat went. I have succeeded, and failed, and succeeded, and failed again at having relationships that help me follow Jesus.
But I know this: I have to keep fighting to find those burning coals in my life. As difficult as it can be to find them, as heart-breaking as it can be to lose them, there is no better way to follow Jesus than to follow him with another person who serves as a live coal touching your faith. We need people, even if they are fallen, sinful people—we don’t have access to any other kind.
If that feels a little daunting to you right now, you aren’t alone. Take heart in this: when it comes to increasing the flame, any coal can help any other coal. You don’t have to do something super-religious; you don’t even have to “get it right.” Mutual rekindling just takes proximity and time.
Almost five hundred years before Paul, a Greek poet and playwright captured an image that I think gets 2 Timothy 1:6 exactly right. “The heavens are an oven,” he wrote—an ancient Greek bread oven looked kind of like a cake tray with a cover except made out of clay: you put the coals on the tray, put the domed cover over the try, and let the coal heat up the oven. So the earth is like the tray and the dome of the sky is like the covering of the oven…
“The heavens are an oven,” he wrote, “and this oven is around us; but we are the coals.”
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” 2 Timothy 1:6 (NIV)
Who can you burn a little closer to this week? You might both need the natural rekindling that takes place when the Spirit blows in the conversations of believers and fans their mutual faith into flame. Start asking that question now, and keep fighting to find those coals in your life. Mutual encouragement in the faith isn’t rocket science, but it does take proximity, and time.
Jesus wants to give you the gift of a rekindled faith. And the means he uses to stoke your fire are the people he places in your life. His is the Spirit, and that Spirit is around us; be we are the coals.