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When I began my weight loss journey last August, I began to practice the discipline of exercising. When I first began to use those muscles that hadn’t been used in a long time it felt like I was pushing lead through fire. My muscles burned and my fat began burning, but getting started from nothing was an incredibly difficult and painful process. As followers of Jesus, we are being refined and purified to better reflect Jesus to the world around us. As we experience that refining process we experience pain and resistance from within and without. In today’s scripture Peter reminds us that this experience of trials is normal and will continue as long as we are being refined by God.
12 Dear ones, don’t be surprised when you experience your trial by fire. It is not something strange and unusual, 13 but it is something you should rejoice in. In it you share the Anointed’s sufferings, and you will be that much more joyful when His glory is revealed. 14 If anyone condemns you for following Jesus as the Anointed One, consider yourself blessed. The glorious Spirit of God rests on you. 15 But none of you should ever merit suffering like those who have murdered or stolen, meddled in the affairs of others or done evil things. 16 But if you should suffer for being a Christian, don’t think of it as a disgrace, as it would be if you had done wrong. Praise God that you’re permitted to carry this name. 17 For the time for judgment has come, and it is beginning with the household of God. If it is starting with us, what will happen to those who have rejected God’s good news? 1 Peter 4:12-17
There are a number of translation choices that have been made on the trial by fire but to make things clear the word behind that choice implies testing by exposure to flame. In the ancient world, a heating process was used to test materials to see if something was worth refining or to determine the degree of purity in an already refined metal. This reference could also refer to the refining of precious metals like gold or silver which required repeated exposure to high temperatures to separate out impure elements. I am fairly sure that the text is actually referring to both the process of refining and the process of testing. To make absolutely pure Gold or silver requires multiple instances of melting, skimming off impurities, cooling, and melting again. There are numerous references in Hebrew and Christian writing about the ways God refines us that use the language of refining precious metals. When we look at the ore that is pulled from the ground to make gold or silver it looks nothing even remotely like the end product. No, it looks like an ugly, dense chunk of worthless rock that just needs to be tossed out of the way. God however is the greatest prospector who knows that after being smelted and refined this ugly, dense, chunk of worthless looking rock will mirror His glory.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I forget that I am not the one who controls the refining or testing processes. I want the process to be over quickly and confuse the burning glow of molten rock with the glory of God shining out and think that the process is over. There is a big problem when we think we get to determine when the refining process ends. We can feel betrayed by God because we think we have arrived, or worse, we can think that since we are further along in our refining we can dictate the process to others. We can invite others into the crucible with us, but we don’t get to choose which impurities get removed first. Since we are the ore as well we also don’t get to choose which chunks of ore get refined together. God, the master refiner, is the one to decide what needs to go together to make the most accurate reflection. He is the one that knows what the final product looks like, and it is in the suffering of being refined that we are conformed into more perfect reflections of Jesus.
When the fire is on us, the impurities rise to the surface and we have a choice. We can let God skim those impurities off and show his grace, mercy, and the truth of His forgiveness or we can allow those impurities to sink back down below the surface to mar us and impede our ability to shine. I chose to depend on food for comfort rather than God and ate my anger, ate my frustration, ate my fear for 30 years before the heat got turned up hot enough for me to turn to God for comfort and express my emotions in a healthier way. I resisted the change I needed to make me better reflect Christ’s image, and I am sure that an anonymous poll of this room would lead to everyone saying pretty much the same thing. We resist the pain of being refined, but God desires to fully reveal the beauty he has made within us and will not give up on refining us. It is when we suffer and can say with Jesus “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” that we reflect God’s glory most clearly to the world around us. When the early Christians faced public execution and audibly forgave those killing them it had an effect on everyone who witnessed and participated in those killings. When that depth of Christlikeness was shown, Christianity spread like wildfire.
Peter reminds us that we need to celebrate those times when the heat comes on and no impurities rise to the surface and accept the fire of refining to remove our impurities. Now when Peter lists the things we need to not be happy about suffering for the list starts out making perfect sense and as I read it the first time my internal monologue went “Murder – nope, stolen – no problem, meddled in the affairs of others – crud, really – crud.” The list is pretty easy until we get to that one, and boy can that one hit hard. One of the ways we try to take the heat off of us is by redirecting the heat onto someone else. We say things in our minds like “I know I have my flaws but wow that flaw in someone else really needs to be dealt with.” or even “Well, now that I have so much less impurities that other person really needs the flame more than I do.” The reality is of course the opposite. The closer you get to purity the hotter the flame needed to refine you further. In the refining process every step is hotter, and the testing process is similar. You start out at a lower temperature flame to get rid of the dross, if imperfections show at this lower testing it is the lowest quality and is sent back to be refined. But the purity is shown when the hottest flames bring out no impurities, so the closer you get to the process ending the harder the test of proof required and the hotter the flame to refine. There is some hope here for those who, like Peter’s audience, are experiencing the hottest flames of testing. It means that we are getting ever closer to clearly reflecting the image of Christ.
The testing Peter was addressing is that of persecution and really, we don’t face that here. Inconvenience, maybe, but not outright persecution. We don’t face complete alienation from our community or outright state sponsored murder as that Christian woman from Iran that has been in the news is facing. We have different testing to face:
- The testing of moving from being the primary driver of cultural norms to being weird people on the cultural outskirts.
- The testing of learning how to minister during the decline of Christendom and, I believe, the resurgence of Christianity.
- The testing of loving people with whom we have complete, utter, and total disagreements on everything from doctrine to what is and isn’t missing the mark.
It is important to remember that the best thing for us is to take on Christ’s example of humility in the face of our testing, because God’s judgment starts right here with me. We are the ones who are being refined and we need to openly and honestly admit our flaws and failures so that we may be purified. If we don’t admit that we messed up on something how can we ever learn? If we try to redirect the refining fire onto others how will we ever reach purity? When I got on the exercise bike at the gym for the first time my muscles began to burn and I lasted 15 minutes because it felt like too much, but I went back. The next time I resolved to feel the burn and try to make it through. I lasted 20 minutes. I kept going back, knowing that I needed to get beyond feeling the burn to accepting the burn. When I learned to accept the burn I eventually made it to 45 minutes. But feeling the burn and accepting the burn only got me so far. There came a time when I began to see the results that I could welcome the burn and yesterday I biked out to Gresham City Park on the Springwater trail and back covering almost 15 miles with the family and was able to go for almost two hours and could have easily done more. I think Peter’s instruction to us in this text is to welcome and praise God for the burn that refines and tests us and not resist it or resent it.
By Brian Doerksen
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold
And precious silver
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold
My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy
Set apart for You Lord
I choose to be holy
Set apart for You my Master
Ready to do Your will
Purify my heart
Cleanse me from within
And make me holy
Purify my heart
Cleanse me from my sin
As we enter into open worship let us begin by placing ourselves into God’s hands and inviting God to send the refining fire of his Holy Spirit into us. And when that fire falls, let us resolve here and now to not resist it, to not resent it, to not try to redirect it onto others, but let us welcome that holy, purifying, and testing fire with praise on our lips. After 5 minutes of silence the person with the microphone will stand. Please allow some time for reflection after someone else speaks so that each of the words laid on our hearts can be well received and heard. Let us pray.
[i] CCLI Song # 426298
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