Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 48:10)
Sometimes God pounds us. He intends for his own to suffer at times. But this is not punishment; he’s building something. It is needful for twisted, dirty, and broken things such as we humans are. Sometimes he allows us to be afflicted. Suffering, indeed, comes in many forms. Sin, Satan, death, and other humans all deal their share of blows in our lives. It is a cruel world full of mercilessness, enmity, deception, pain, and loss. Much of the time we are not explicit targets for such afflictions but just happen to be “in the way” when darkness comes around. Saints however are afforded a sure refuge in God from all the afflictions.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but God delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)
It may be a long while ere Deliverance comes, but God never abandons his chosen sons and daughters to any affliction. Even death. For us in the light, death has no sting. (1 Cor 15:55) It is instead a blessing: It releases us from our fallenness and sinfulness and ushers us back into perfection.
In fact those who are in Christ—the saints—are destined for it. God has a “furnace” for us all to go through in this life in order that he might prepare us for entry into perfection.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4)
For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.
You know when God repeats himself like this, For my own sake, for my own sake, he really wants us to understand it. There is a time when intense fire is necessary in Christian walk. God’s promise is that the affliction will only be for a time:
Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering. (Isaiah 51:17)
Thus says your Lord, the LORD, your God who pleads the cause of his people: “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more;” (Isaiah 51:22)
Christ endured the greatest affliction the hand of God could ever deal.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10)
Because he was without sin, you will find no complaint or accusation from his lips for what he had to go through. This is because he understood his purpose, where he was going, and why he was sent here. We likewise would do well to study and know our purpose, where we are going, and why we were sent here so that when afflictions come we will not be ignorant and taken captive to more sin and bitterness, but instead be thankful.
…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… (Eph 5:20)
The way our afflictions in the Christian life begin to make sense is when we understand that they are for his sake not ours. If God was ultimately interacting with us humans for our own sake, things would be a lot different. He would be serving us as his gods, worshiping us as his gods, making offerings to us as his gods, and making every effort possible to please us as his gods. But we know this is as false as your grandpa’s teeth. As absurd and deprived as this would be, how many of us can honestly say that we haven’t had this very kind of attitude toward God? How many times have we accused him in our sufferings and afflictions? How many times have we expected material blessings from him? How many times have we told him that he needed to please us? How many times have we felt like God needs to bow his knee at our every request? This sin and deception is the oldest in the book, but it never seems to fail. Satan is just as indefatigable with this deception today as he was in the beginning. He throws the questions at us like a ton of bricks: How could God do this to you? How could God let this happen to you? How could God not do this for you?
And so we come to the reason for God sending us through the furnace: To break us of our twisted self-idolizing ways so that our thoughts and questions will profoundly change to a whole new breed: How could I do this to God? How could I let this happen to God? How could I not do this for God? It is the very same attitude that sums up the meaning of repentance. It is how we come to bear fruit.
He has us pass through fires for his sake. The painful purification of our souls is so that we might praise God. Thus it was the will of God to crush us and put us to grief. It is how he vindicates his holiness.
It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. (Ezekiel 36:32)
It is a hard truth to swallow but must be a part of every Christian’s language. This doesn’t mean that there is no benefit to us in affliction. On the contrary the entire point of affliction is to make us holy. Read the verse at the beginning of our study again. God says, “I have refined you..” We are sanctified, purified, and refined for his sake! How good it is! It is a holy and blessed thing to undergo trial from the hand of God and should never be seen as an unjust negligence or action of God. In the middle of the book of Isaiah we find an invaluable insight from Hezekiah’s own journal in which we find written these words:
A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness: I said, In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see the LORD, the LORD in the land of the living; I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world. My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he cuts me off from the loom; from day to night you bring me to an end; I calmed myself until morning; like a lion he breaks all my bones; from day to night you bring me to an end. Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; I moan like a dove. My eyes are weary with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety! What shall I say? For he has spoken to me, and he himself has done it. I walk slowly all my years because of the bitterness of my soul. O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these is the life of my spirit. Oh restore me to health and make me live! Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness. The LORD will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD. (Isa 38:9-20)
What incredible poetry and paradox! Any man who would say today, “I walk slowly all my years because of the bitterness of my soul” would be judged a loser. Yet here we have a word that such a person is not a loser, but alive, and moreso than he has ever been before. He is being woken up to something bigger than himself. Notice the part where Hezekiah says, “O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these is the life of my spirit” and then Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness.” Affliction is meant to give us life!
Because of this we can look back on all of our afflictions—every last one of them—and thank God for them. It does not mean we ought to pray for or seek fiery affliction because only God knows our real need. The only affliction we are called to seek is that of fasting (Isaiah 58). We can also thank him for not leaving us to the mercilessness of affliction though he has every right to. The earnings of sin and dead works are nothing but death. We earned death and destruction plain and simple. The fact that creation and the human race continues at all is testimony to God’s mercy and goodness for giving us a chance. This is why it makes sense to rejoice in our afflictions:
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Colossians 1:24)
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13)
Charles de Foucauld writes in Meditations of a Hermit:
If he sends us happiness, let us accept it gratefully. Like the Good Shepherd he sets us in a rich pasture to strengthen us to follow him later into barren lands. If he sends us crosses let us embrace them and say ‘Bona Crux,’ for this is the greatest grace of all. It means walking through life hand in hand with our Lord, helping him to carry his Cross like Simon of Cyrene. It is our Beloved asking us to prove how much we love him. Whether in mental suffering or bodily pain ‘let us rejoice and tremble with joy.’ Our Lord calls us and asks us to tell him of our love and repeat it over and over again all through our sufferings.
Every cross, great or small, even small annoyances, are the voice of the Beloved. He is asking for a declaration of love from us to last whilst the suffering lasts.
Oh, when one thinks of this one would like to suffering to last forever. It will last as long as Our Lord wishes. However sweet the suffering may become to us, we only desire it at such times as Our Lord sends it. Your will be done, my Brother Jesus, and not mine. We long to forget ourselves, we ask nothing, only your glory.
So be of good heart when life comes pounding down on you in fiery torrents. It is God building something.