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Suffering - The Refiner's Fire

I’m not a goldsmith and have little experience working with precious metals, but what I’ve been told about the process of purifying gold fascinates me. The ore is extracted from the earth. At this point, the gold is mixed in among a variety of impurities. The value of gold is most realized when gold is purer, so the goldsmith has to refine the ore. Gold melts at around 2000º F. Gold is very dense, so the impurities tend to come to the surfaces as the gold melts down. Those impurities are then scrapped off and the gold is cooled. Then the process is repeated. Again and again, until you have reached the purity desired.

This process must be incredibly painful for the gold. Now, I’m well aware that gold is inanimate. But if you were to experience what gold experienced, you would categorize it as suffering. Ripped from the ground. Broken up. Super-heated. Scrapped. Cooled. Super-heated again. Scrapped again. The whole experience must be brutal. But in the end, you have a brick of pure gold. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD test hearts” (Prov 17:3). Beauty and purity come through the refiner’s fire. God uses suffering for our sanctification.

The Puritan John Flavel described the afflictions suffered by Christians as “sanctified afflictions.” Brian Cosby notes that, “These are sufferings brought about by the sovereign will and design of God in accordance with his many purposes for the saints – all of them, to be sure, for their ultimate good.”[1] God in his providence governs all creatures and all their actions (WSC 11). What happens happens because God ordains it to happen. God does not decree sin to happen, but he permits it to happen in order that his greater purposes may be fulfilled. This was Joseph’s response to the evil God permitted his brothers to commit against him. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). Joseph endured great suffering at the hands of his brothers and those to whom he was sold. But God used it for their ultimate good.

This is an easy concept for us to grasp when things are going well. But when we are in the midst of suffering, the reality of God’s goodness through suffering is much more difficult to believe. “Sanctified afflictions” don’t feel very “sanctified” in the moment. And yet God will use our pain to reorient and purify our lives. Because pain and suffering is hard, there is an immense temptation to minimize or simply eliminate it without really understanding its purpose. Most addictions, for example, come from our inability or unwillingness to understand our emotional pain in healthy ways. Instead, we find a drink or pill to take the edge off. We might cut or purge ourselves. We might seek a sexual release. We might hoard possessions or spend recklessly. These actions numb the pain so that we don’t have to deal with it. The problem with addiction, however, is that when the numbness wears off, the pain is still there.

What if God is speaking to us through the pain? What if there is something God is saying to us that we cannot understand it any other way? What if our suffering is a severe mercy? There are a number of lessons that we can only hear through the megaphone of suffering. We have to reject the idea that suffering is just a physical ailment, as if there is just a simple medical solution. The physical and medical need to be addressed by those trained in dealing with the body. But this cannot be done to the exclusion of your soul. Even if the removal of pain was as simple as taking a pill, it still wouldn’t be in our best interest to just medicate it away. Our afflictions will be sanctified when we look to see what God is doing through our suffering.

John Flavel gives a long list of benefits we can glean through our suffering. None of these makes suffering something that isn’t an effect of the fall. Suffering is the result of sin in the world. But God in his sovereign providence and goodness will use it for great purposes. Flavel notes that suffering will reveal, deter, and mortify sin. “When a sharp affliction comes, then the pride, impatience, and unbelief of the heart appear.”[2] When a sin is seen, it can be deterred and then killed. Flavel sees the mortification of sin as a primary reason God ordains suffering.

Suffering can also plow the ground of one’s life so that spiritual fruit may be produced. Sin is removed and good spiritual fruit must take its place. The deep furrows in the soil are cut by a sharp plow. The soil is disturbed and violently turned over, but this makes it ready to receive the seed and bear the harvest.

There are many more blessings that are found only through suffering. Each of them can usher us into greater and deeper sanctification. We can understand the character of God in more meaningful ways. We have the privilege of participating and identifying with Christ in his suffering. This helps us understand better what Christ did for us. And it helps us to put our suffering in perspective to the infinitely great suffering Christ endured on the cross.

Our suffering is meant to purify us. It is a refiner’s fire and God is the master goldsmith. We need to endeavor to enter into our suffering with this attitude and perspective. God is at work bringing good to light through even the evil of men.

[1] Cosby, Suffering and Sovereignty, 59.

[2] Quoted in: Cosby, 62.

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