Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? God disciplines us for our good, in order that we might share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness for those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:7, 10-11)
Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering is proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory. — (Peter 1:7 “The Message”)
With the Pan-American Games just over, there’s been a lot of emphasis on gold lately. As Canadians, we’ve identified with the accomplishments of our athletes, and especially the ones who’ve proved they’ve got what it takes to reach the top of the podium. In the long process of getting there, they’ve gone through pain, setbacks, injury, and discouragement. We don’t hear about the ones who gave up along the way, who couldn’t take the heat, who limped to the sidelines and stayed there. We just know about the ones who persevered, who listened to their coaches, overcame their weaknesses and gave it their best.
Gold is the mark of the ultimate achievement because pure gold is so valuable. It takes a lot of refining to separate gold from its alloys and impurities. While we may think in terms of gold being found in big nuggets you can pick up from a riverbed, in reality most of the gold now available exists as tiny particles embedded in chunks of rock. It’s often alloyed to other metals, and these are particularly difficult to separate. Between the mine and the jewellery store there’s a long and complicated process of refinement.
A refiner takes raw ore and works with it until the metal he’s after is extracted and left as pure as he can make it. Only precious metals are worth the time, trouble and expense of this kind of refining. Because you and I are precious to God, his goal is to refine us so that we can reach our full potential. This isn’t a process meant for just a select few of His children. God wants to bring out the gold of full spiritual maturity in you and in me.
We each start out as lumps of rough ore, with all kinds of impurities, alloyed to things we hang on to for dear life. Now, if we were to look around and simply compare ourselves with other lumps, we might think we’re fine already. But God sees the particles of gold embedded in all that rock, and he knows the value of bringing it out by refining us.
Refining takes a hot fire. When God turns up the heat, we don’t always realize we’re in the process of being refined. We may think the fire we’re feeling is unusual, unnecessary and even unfair. In fact, it’s none of the above.
Here’s the thing: everyone who’s in the kitchen is going to feel the heat. Scripture is very clear that every person in this world is going to have trials, and the members of God’s family are no exception. Fire is not only usual; it’s inevitable.
Refining fire is inevitable because it’s necessary. It’s necessary because of the condition in which every one of us finds ourselves. We’re particles of spiritual gold embedded in the hard rock of sin. It doesn’t do any good to say I’m not as bad as a murderer or child molester, or even a grouchy co-worker. The gold that’s in us has been diffused by the clumps of pride and self-interest, lust and lies, envy and anger that, in varying degrees and mixtures, make up our raw ore. If the gold is us in going to have value, it needs to be extracted from these impurities.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us : Therefore, this is what the Almighty says: “See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?” (Jeremiah 9:7) And John warns us that If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John1: 8-9)
We need refining because we’re sinful. Deceit is in us and all around us, and the most damaging deceit of all is self-deceit. We have a great capacity to deny what we don’t want to see. A refining fire gets our attention. It makes us aware of our actual condition, and doesn’t allow us to delude ourselves. Being refined is a process that is usual, necessary and fair.
Like any good Father, God wants us to grow up into all that we can be, to be healthy, well-balanced and mature. Children learn obedience from being instructed, until they start to rebel. Then they learn obedience from consequences. When rebellion happens, someone more powerful and knowledgeable than a child has to intervene with discipline to teach self-discipline. Otherwise, the child will grow older, but not grow up. He or she will be ill-equipped for a productive life with healthy values and relationships. God isn’t interested in raising a dysfunctional brood of wilful and entitled brats. He loves us too much for that.
We learn truth from consequences. Having no consequences would allow us to continue believing lies. We can’t address our sin unless we recognize it. Refining reveals our impurities. Turning up the heat brings everything that’s in us – good, bad and indifferent – to the surface. We may be brought face-to-face with our rage, our jealousy, our crippling insecurities, our immorality, our pride, our ambition, our greed, our deceit, our bitterness, our ungoverned tongue – any number of disturbing tendencies we find hard to admit to ourselves. But God knows that unless we work with Him to burn them off, they’ll eventually burn us up. A refining fire brings our impurities to the surface.
David expressed it this way: Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish. Look upon my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins. (Ps. 25: 16-18)
Refining reveals our impurities. Refining also realigns our priorities. It makes us take a hard look at our tendency to try to get life in line with our will. Pursuing our own agenda is chasing after fool’s gold. It may look like the real thing, but it’s of no value.
Real gold is available when we choose to line ourselves up with God’s will. His will is that we join with Him in wanting to remove our sins and make it our priority to be purified. How do we do that? By asking God to show us what He wants to bring out of the challenge we’re facing, what He wants it to produce in us, and then being committed to work to that end. It may be that God wants us to learn patience, or compassion, or trust in Him — whatever the goal, it requires our cooperation.
Refining realigns our priorities by bringing out what is really of value, and that is knowing God and understanding His purpose for my life. It’s not what I know, it’s Who I know that really counts. That’s where the gold is. Jeremiah recounts God’s word to him:
This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jer. 9: 23-24)
A refining fire brings us in line with God and his priorities.
Refining also reveals clear evidence that God’s goal is our redemption and not our punishment. There are different kinds of fire in Scripture, just as there are in our daily lives. Campfires are enjoyable and useful; wildfires are dangerous and destructive. The fire of God’s judgment is to be dreaded, but his refining fire comes to redeem us from judgment. Refinement is a series of smaller fires to avoid a final and all-consuming blaze.
The psalmist recognizes this when he writes Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (Ps. 119:67,71)
For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver. You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance. (Psalm 66:10-12)
The trials we face have a purpose: to redeem us and bring us to a place of spiritual abundance. The Apostle Peter assures us that the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:9)
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
The bottom line is that we can be refined by fire here, or condemned to eternal fire in the hereafter. Refining fire reveals that God wants above all to redeem us. He is not willing that we perish; we must be willing to let the refinement happen, and not to be a fire fighter.
Ultimately, refining proves the genuineness of our faith. A genuine faith that has been refined through trial speaks volumes to others and glorifies God. The people around us pay particular attention to how we respond to trouble, and a godly response at these times makes a far greater impact than how we respond to more pleasant events.
Years ago, I was blessed to know a man who exemplified this kind of response to trouble. David Nelson was one of the most godly men I’ve ever met, devoted to God and his family. God had called him to establish “The Messenger,” a Christian bookstore that preceded The Lighthouse. His whole life revolved around his faith.
When David was diagnosed with terminal cancer soon in his early 40s, his wife, his children and his church family were devastated. But throughout his illness, David maintained his faith that if God had allowed this, He would use it for a higher good. David’s witness to the hospital staff who cared for him in his final months was such that they were overcome with grief when he died. We’ll never know on this side of heaven how many of them may have come to Christ as a result of David’s faith, but I remain convinced that lives were changed because of it.
Refining fire proves our faith is genuine.
We began by thinking about how positive it is for us to identify with the accomplishments of our athletes, and especially the ones who’ve proved they’ve got what it takes to reach the top of the podium. In getting there, they’ve gone through pain, setbacks, injury, and discouragement – trial by fire. We don’t hear about the ones who gave up along the way, who couldn’t take the heat, who limped to the sidelines and stayed there.
We just know about the ones who persevered, who recognized and overcame their shortcomings, who listened to their coaches and who gave it their best. We too need to persevere, to recognize our weaknesses and overcome them, to listen to God who shows us the best way, and to give Him our best in return. As we read earlier:
Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering is proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.
Our victory comes from His victory in us.
We need to let God’s refining fire reveal and then melt away our impurities, realign our priorities, redeem us and prove our faith genuine. Then we’ll be able to say with Job: “when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” We too can stand on top of God’s podium, receiving not just a medal but a crown, rejoicing in this truth from James:
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)