Part 3: Refining Fire
Up to this point we have discussed bad things occurring as a response to choices made, be it ours or someone else’s. But what about uncontrollable events that cause suffering like illness or natural disasters? Where is God when these things happen? Where is God when my prayers seem to go unanswered? Throughout the Bible and looking back at times in my own life, I see that he is often waiting.
How often we want or expect God to step in and rescue us from our moments of despair. It may feel like God is absent or doesn’t care, but it is really the opposite. It is through facing these trials that we are able to grow. Throughout the Old Testament we see examples of God’s people suffering until the appointed time. Joseph was sold into slavery, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt for 400 years, the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years, and the Jews spent 70 years in captivity to Babylon before they were returned to their homeland. It makes it almost seem that God enjoys the suffering of his people. But the truth is they weren’t ready.
Joseph was arrogant before being sold into slavery. It was only through his hardships that he came to be in the right place at the right time. He became Pharaoh’s second in command, ultimately saving the Egyptians and his family from starvation by famine. The Hebrew people were given a good land of their own because of his favor with the Pharaoh where they grew in numbers and multiplied. Later a new Pharaoh, who feared their numbers, subjected them to slavery and persecution. Again this suffering led to the plagues of Egypt and the miraculous liberation of the Hebrew people across the Red Sea. God had planned for them to conquer the current nations to exercise God’s judgement upon them. They were told that He would deliver the enemy into their hands, giving them the promised land. They searched the land and saw that it was just as good as promised but the occupying nations were large with vast armies. Doubting that God had the power to deliver on his promise they said- we can’t go in there. To that God said- you’re right, you can’t go in there. They wandered the desert for 40 years, the time of a generation, before getting another chance. Did God do this just to punish them? No. God saw that their hearts were not ready to follow him. He used those 40 years to teach the next generation to rely on him. He actively led them, guiding them as pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He also provided for their every need, first providing manna from heaven, then water from a rock, and even meat when they grew tired of bread. They didn’t live a life of comfort, but God never abandoned them and always provided. After those 40 years the people had learned to trust God. They were finally ready to listen and obey, and from that act of obedience they conquered the promised land.
All too often we can only see the moment we are in. It doesn’t make sense why we didn’t get the job we prayed for, why a loved one has cancer, or why a person we loved left us. We can’t see what God is doing in the waiting. Looking at situations from our limited perspective can lead us to doubt. But faithful perseverance through the struggle can lead us to unexpected outcomes. Jesus never said that life would be easy or that there wouldn’t be suffering. Instead, he said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” Matthew 16:24. We are all going to experience suffering, the question is what are we going to do about it? We can fall apart in despair and self-pity or we can trust that God loves us and makes “… all things work together for good for those who love God, [and] are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28. It is in these moments that we see who we really are and what we really believe.
The Bible mentions fire frequently as well as its two different characteristics. One is the ability to burn and destroy, the other is its ability to refine and purify. We each pass through the fire in our lives. What we are made of determines which effect we will experience. When our faith is shallow or absent when we experience fire we are burned by it. When our faith is abiding and true the fire is able to refine our character and provide us wisdom. This is made clear in the passage from 1 Corinthians 3:12-13
“For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw his workmanship will be evident, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will prove the quality of each man’s work.…”
We must remember that there is purpose in our suffering just as there is purpose in the waiting. If we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus he will provide for our needs, refine our character, and one day bring us to glory. What are you made of?