Our Savior's Fires
Recent sickness in our congregation has left many, including me, asking, “Lord, is it I?” I am “sold in sin, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Having known God’s truth, I have often wandered from it. Covetous, lazy, and selfish – this unholy trinity of folly plagues my heart. While it is easier to ask, “Lord, is it he,” we should remember that all but Judas asked, “Is it I?” He finally asked, but only after Jesus read his heart like an open book, exposing and unsettling him (Matt. 26:23-25).
While we can always fall back upon the world’s favorite cliché, “Nobody is perfect,” if we fear God, we must haul our consciences before him and pointedly examine ourselves. Have we been the praying people God calls us to be? Are we merciful people, caring for one another and the lost around us, bearing with one another’s weakness, and thinking the best of one another, forgiving “seven times seventy?” Or, have we become self-appointed censors of others, arrogant in our knowledge, self-loving and self-trusting? Have we walked with our Lord with a transparency and child-like dependence that makes his gospel our natural testimony to unbelievers? Have the elders been faithful in overseeing the congregation, disciplining its members, and going after the wandering? Have we partaken of the Lord’s Supper and at the same time celebrated at the table of demons – worldliness, lust, idolatry, hatefulness in our hearts and homes? Are we deeply thankful that we have his word? Have we prayed for the pastor and elders, submitted to their biblical counsel, and sought out their guidance? “The curse causeless shall not come” (Prov. 26:2). While it is beyond us to know the full mind of God, we know what he has revealed (Deut. 29:29). If we are unfaithful in known duties of faith, love, and doctrine, we may be certain that if he loves us, he will chasten us. His love has a long memory, and his correction is never haphazard.
Though much of modern life is designed to circumvent hardship, the word of God holds true: “The Lord tries the righteous” (Ps. 11:5). No amount of progress changes God’s government of the world and shepherding of his people. He will test and purify faith (1 Pet. 1:7). He will use whatever means he deems wise to confront our sins and form us into the image of his Son. Trials of various sorts, so far from being a cause of anxiety, should make us rejoice (James 1:2). It is a blessing to be brought low, to feel our weakness, to face our mortality and total dependence upon God. “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9). It is a paradox of heaven-born faith. When life is going well, pride often mounts a fresh assault. As rare as Job is the man who seeks God with fervency when all is well. Trouble is usually required to wake us up, pray as constantly as we breathe, and hunger after God’s word as our daily bread.
God is wise and his providence diverse, so his refining fires do not take the same form in all. Some who never struggle financially are beset with doubts and must do hard battle before gaining assurance of salvation. Others to whom he grants fuller assurance may struggle with disease or with children. When these troubles come, we want them “fixed,” but since God tests the righteous, if “fixing” means “getting rid of the trouble” then we may be fighting against the very pressures to which the Lord wants us to submit. This life will not be heaven anywhere. We should expect to be tested and tried. There is much corruption in us, much that dishonors God. It is because he loves us that he chastens and disciplines, so that we “might be partakers of his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). And since only the holy are happy (Ps. 119:1), God sends trouble to make us happy. He chastens to fill us with his joy and to confirm that we are truly his sons and daughters. Immediately after the voice came from heaven, “Thou are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” he was “led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil” (Matt. 3:17-4:1). What was true of him is true of all God’s children. He will have our sonship tested in the fire so that his power may be revealed and our faith purified.
But this will result only if we yield ourselves to him. We want his fires to be extinguished – marital strife to cease, health restored, children to be more obedient, finances to be more secure. We cry and weep when these troubles come, complain and fret, or grit our teeth and try to bear them as best we can. Are we boasting in them (2 Cor. 12:9)? We must be careful here. It is possible to have a “life is so hard” morbidity that crushes the spirit, but is really pride. Holy boasting is neither passive resignation nor stoic fatalism. Only God can teach us to boast or glory in our troubles. Faith believes his promises through the tears. It trusts his wisdom through the pain. It sees beyond the immediate to the goal of trouble: more love for God, less inclination toward sin, more delight in God himself. Our Lord learned this obedience by suffering (Heb. 5:8-9). It is the only way to learn it – not “get this cross off my back” but “make this cross a blessing to me, Lord Jesus. I do not understand the reason you have brought this into my life, but I understand that you are good and faithful, wise and strong. If you want me to suffer through this, it must be for sufficient reasons. I do not have to know them. I only want your strength, to bear your image more fully, and to have heavenly affections that delight in you.”
The Lord’s sifting work sometimes seems so severe that we seriously wonder whether or not we are on the right path at all. We question ourselves. Who am I? Is what I believe true? Am I sincere? Maybe I am a hypocrite, or in the wrong place, or need to make a change. When the Lord touches our health, family, or vocation, anxiety and fear raise their ugly heads. For some, this leads to the proverbial mid-life crisis. Now, the Lord does want us to make changes for the good. Yet, when he is sifting us, peripheral life changes may temporarily mask the deeper issues, but they do not resolve them. Feeling better about one’s appearance or home or automobile is often confused with actually being a better, godlier person. We can change outside, but God alone can truly change the inside.
It is said of our Lord that he is “like a refiner’s fire” (Mal. 3:2). He baptizes with “the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). “Fire” is a strong word for this work. It is our natural reflex to draw back from fire, but it is perilous to draw back from him. When his fires rage in our homes or work, he is teaching us that we are not in control and cannot make our children godly or our spouse better, but that we must be faithful to him no matter how miserable we are in these areas. We look around for someone to blame. We try to change everything. We want to escape the pressure. We cry, but he does not seem to hear. We look around for saviors. Some try new pastors or churches. Women with weak husbands often migrate to church leaders who appear to have it together. Men with unsatisfying or impossible to please wives turn to other women or simply withdraw emotionally. Children who feel they cannot make their parents happy run into the arms of the first person who offers warmth and acceptance. These are self-preservation measures. They are also ways we refuse to let our Savior’s fires burn.
It will do no good but great harm to pull back from his heat. Peter pulled back from our Lord’s frequent warning about his pride, and look where it led him – base denial. We often do the same. Strong preaching or confronting elders are rejected because the pressure feels too great. Like Rachel, we want to be in Jacob’s tent but hide our household idols. This is one reason there is so much migration from church to church: never able to settle, running when the fire of his word is applied, hiding, moving to the next place, and reporting how abused I was before. This is children running to their room to pout when confronted by their sins. I do not need to pout. I do not need to change my doctrine. I do not need fresh faces. I need to submit to Jesus Christ. If I must wander for thirty-eight years in the wilderness because of my sins, so be it. If I must endure a difficult spouse for my entire life, so be it. Might my spouse need to change? Yes, but his lack of change does not justify my bitterness or unfaithfulness. Rather, I must boast in my weakness, for he knew I needed this particular marriage, children, and job so that I would learn obedience through suffering, patience, and the joy of obeying God.
To run from the fire is to run from Jesus Christ. Peter braved the wind-tossed waves to come to Jesus. As long as he kept his eyes fixed upon Jesus, he walked on water. Think of the area in your life in which the Lord is calling you to submit to him, to submit to his refining fire: a lust that needs to be decisively rejected; a fear that must be overcome; a family change in priority or practice. The match is lit. You want to pull back. The Lord has brought this fire into your life so you will learn obedience to him. He loves you. He would have you know his strength, his wisdom. He would have you cry for grace and strength. Did he not cry to his Father? Are you better than he? Can you expect a different path than the one he walked? It is only by yielding to him that peace will come: peace through righteousness (Ps. 119:165), peace like a river (Isa. 48:18; 66:12).