Uncontrolled heat consumes everything in its flame. That is the fate of all material in this universe. However, when controlled, fire can purify certain elements. It can separate incompatible materials and allow what is of great value to be set free for glorious display and use.
Gold is one of those special elements. So are Christians.
Suffering is the fire pot—the crucible of refinement—through which every human must pass. No one gets a free pass around suffering. We all struggle. We all hurt. We all must face the many faces of death.
Suffering is the mirror of sin. It reflects the fires of wrath for sin in people who all exist in natural defiance against a holy God. For the degenerate and wicked, pain and suffering are biological preambles—songs of death—that announce the pending destruction of a life that cannot and will not be refined. For the redeemed, suffering is the humbling drum beat of refinement—the pounding pain that announces the removal of what dishonors God, while preserving what is of eternal value.
Nobody likes to suffer. Pain hurts. But it has a useful purpose for those who discover its secret.
Everybody experiences suffering. Death comes to all men, as does all the elements of decomposition upon a temporal body. However, for those who come to truly know Jesus as Lord and Savior, suffering can produce something extraordinary, although most seem to miss it.
When we struggle, we naturally try to find relief. Pain forces us to make a choice. Humanly, that choice is to focus on self, on finding a solution, on getting out from under what weighs us down, on fixing our problem. Money, power, intelligence, and other natural resources provide ways out, but they all lead to dead ends. What is natural to mankind, what is normal in how to deal with suffering, will always lead to the remains of a campfire pit.
Christians are instructed to face suffering with a very different approach. We are called to deal with pain in a shocking and unnatural way. To be refined, rather than consumed with fire, believers are expected to deal with all their struggles in a manner reflective of Jesus as he faced the Cross.
It is preferable to profess faith in Jesus, grateful for what he did on the Cross, but avoid taking up our own personal reflection of that extremely unnatural approach toward life. Unfortunately, it is to the Church that the apostle Paul spoke when writing specifically about how to face suffering, when he said:
“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (Phi 3:18)
When faced with pain, it is not normal to go “as a lamb to the slaughter”, but that is the approach our Lord took. When persecuted, it is not natural to remain silent and go without defending ourselves, but that is what Jesus did. When under pain, it is unthinkable to submit to the point of death, and allow ourselves to repeatedly experience the cross, but that is our daily call.
Suffering does something very unexpected in a faithful Christian. When loss, pain, grief, struggle, rejection, betrayal, or abuse are pushed on us—by others, by Satan, or even by circumstance (like famine or cancer)—there are only two ways through the fire: focus on self or focus on others.
The natural response to suffering is to concentrate our thoughts and resources on ourselves until we can escape the pain. The godly response to pain is to concentrate our thoughts and resources outside of ourselves, like modeled by Jesus. It is abnormal to focus on others, and doubly so when we are in need ourselves.
Godly suffering produces a greater focus and interest on others than on self. That is what separates the gold from the dross. Maturing Christians will shift their focus away from a primary emphasis on self-relief toward a principle concentration on the “interests of others”. The time when that shift is most significant and most tested is when that person is under strain. It is when a person is struggling in pain that their true, deep, heart’s-desire focus is brought into the light. That is when their cross becomes visible.
When you are hurting, is that when you show an increasing focus on others or on self?
It was to deceived believers that the prophet quoted God’s rebuke about the typical response to suffering, even self-imposed religious suffering, which would seem like the most godly:
“For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways…Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please…your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” (Isa 58:2-5)
When we are hurting, whatever the cause, it is natural to have a short fuse—to lash out at others like a wounded animal. But that is not of God.
The secret to godly suffering is to intentionally shift our focus away from being consumed with finding relief and put our thoughts and efforts increasingly toward the benefit of others.
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle…Each of you should look not only to your own interests [when suffering], but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phi 1:29, 2:4-5)
You may recall, that while hanging in intense pain on the Cross, our Lord thought and acted with interest toward others, saying: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” He thought of his mother, Mary, and arranged for her future care, while he was struggling to catch his own breath. He allowed himself to be unjustly rejected, abused, and mistreated, in order that you and I could be refined and rescued from the impending fires.
So, when you are struggling, think of Jesus more than yourself. Think of his promises and his plan, and rejoice inside, while the body suffers outside. Put your hope in his salvation, more than in pursuing a solution to what hurts. If you can find relief, great, but don’t allow it to consume your attention or distract you from intentionally allowing suffering as a daily walk of identification with his cross.
Think also of those around you. Push the pain down and elevate the thoughts and expressions of grace toward those you see in need. This doesn’t mean to think of others and never of self, but rather to put a priority on blessing others even to the loss of self-satisfaction and temporary relief. This does not also mean that God expects believers to always allow abuse, for Jesus often hid himself until he believed it was God’s timing for him to expose himself. We don’t honor God by simply being a whipping post. In Jesus’ time on earth, many others died on crosses without any eternal benefit. Godly suffering is about revealing our focus and primary interests away from self and more toward the will of God and the benefit of others. It is when under such strain that the life of Christ is most evident.
There is no greater love, and no greater way for that love to be shown, than to express yourself for the benefit of others at the very moment that your own needs are crying out for relief. Humans are capable of giving and helping others out of excess resources, but it is only through the indwelling of God that a Christian can give away the very relief they need.
It takes amazing grace and a godly faith, like the widow with Elijah, to share your last loaf of bread that might hasten your own end.
It takes great trust in God to “give out of their intense poverty”.
It takes a greater hope in what is promised than holding on to what is here, to rejoice when others take away what we own, or when we refuse to sue others to get our rights.
It takes a biblical Christian to turn the other cheek, when our own lives are being threatened.
It takes a more powerful vision than the American dream, to let go of collecting wealth for the sake of sharing the kingdom of God.
It takes suffering to produce and reveal the truth about God in you.
When under such trials, will you put more effort toward the interests and relief of others than in grasping your own?
“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God…Above all, love each other deeply…Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (1 Pet 4:1-10)
What does your approach to dealing with your suffering say about what is most important to you? Saving self and concentrating on escaping pain will only fuel the fires. Shifting your attention to the benefit of others for the honor of God will control the flames to purify your eternal value in the glorious presence of Almighty God.
May he give you the strength and faith to endure, fixing your eyes on him and the prize for which he has called you near, and may you trust that all your resources are meant for his use rather than your own satisfaction. To God be all glory, and to you be all that you need!