Thursday, September 26, 2013

Into the Fire

I send a scripture verse to my husband each day.  It's one of the ways I love on him.  I want him to know that I am undergirding him with more than just my own desires for his well being.  I am lifting him up with Strength which comes from beyond me. 

Today's verse:  "The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts" (Proverbs17:3).

The Lord tests our hearts, not so that He can see what is within them, but so we can. 

It seems this was God's intention when He sent the Israelites into the desert, rather than sending them immediately into the Promise:  "Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. . . .  Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the LORD your God disciplines you.  Therefore keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him" (Deuteronomy 8:2, 5-6).

Again and again we see God working through Israel's circumstances to bring them to the place where they recognize the stubbornness of their own hearts, each time asking them to surrender this heart hardness for an authentic relationship that leads to blessing instead of defeat. 

God does the same thing with us.

Silver and gold are refined by fire, in the crucible, the hot place.  Where heat is so intense it melts the elements so that their impurities can float to the surface.  But that which has depth and weight and value settles.  The imperfections are then skimmed from the top of the melted surface and removed.  Once the metal has been purified, the heat is turned off.  As the silver and gold cools, once more taking on sturdiness, what remains is finer, more true to itself than it was before.  It can be melted, reshaped, but it is never destroyed.

I have seen the fire purify and shape my husband.  I am so proud of him for having the courage to stay in the heat, allowing God to reveal and remove those things that needed to go so that he could move forward into God's purposes for his life.  Because he held fast to God, trusting God in experiences that melted his heart, those hugely painful difficulties never had the power to destroy him.  They only made him better, stronger,  more of the man God created him to be.

I think of my own heart tests.  Those places where God has allowed the heat of life to reveal truth to me.  Each time I have melted from the intensity of anguish, sometimes returning to the same ache all over again because the first experience was not enough to rid me of the flaw threatening the good God had in mind.  What I have found in ultimately surrendering to the heat instead of running from it is that I have never missed the thing it removed from my tightly clenched hands.

Early on in my ministry journey I discovered Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote powerfully about the spiritual life.  In his book New Seeds of Contemplation Merton compares the human heart facing adversity to that of wax exposed to heat: 

Souls are like wax waiting for a seal.   By themselves they have no special identity.  Their destiny is to be softened and prepared in this life, by God's will, to receive, at their death, the seal of their own degree of likeness to God in Christ.  And this is what it means, among other things, to be judged by Christ.  The wax that has melted in God's will can easily receive the stamp of its identity, the truth of what it was meant to be.  But the wax that is hard and dry and brittle and without love will not take the seal:  for the hard seal, descending upon it, grinds it to powder.  Therefore if you spend your life trying to escape from the heat of the fire that is meant to soften and prepare you to become your true self, and if you try to keep your substance from melting in the fire--as if your true identity were to be hard wax--the seal will fall upon you at last and crush you.  You will not be able to take your own true name and countenance, and you will be destroyed by the event that was meant to be your fulfillment.
I have found the fire often brings us to a place where we feel intensely alone.  Like nobody understands where we are and nobody seems to care.  On the surface it may look as if we have been abandoned by all rational forms of help, and we storm Heaven angry that we have been mistreated by the life that was supposed to be our promise.  Yet a spiritual aloneness is often the desert God sculpts  so that we may come to a truer understanding of Him and His purposes for us.

If this is the case, then no one can rescue us from His hand.  And we leave it prematurely at our own peril.  Because God brings us to this lonely place, not for our destruction, but for our salvation--as a way of delivering us to a new place of well-being that cannot be disturbed by external influences, a new solidness grounded not in our human capacities but within His Holiness.  If we allow it, the lesser things of our character burn away, and we learn to hold more fiercely to His Being rather than our own.   The truth of this desert experience is that we can only stand on God's Holy ground shoeless.  We have got to relinquish some things if we are to receive from God everything we need to escape the oppression of our circumstances.

I have found myself there, like Gomer stripped of my idols, painfully aware that everything I had trusted in was nothing.  Idols never have power to save us.  The fire simply reveals their instability.  After a while I discovered that raging at the fire would not bring my idols back.  Only when I was ready to see and accept the truth of my own heart was I ready to be healed and restored.  Then I could turn more fully to God, ready to accept what He offered me instead:

Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.  From there I will give here her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.  There she shall respond as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.  On that day, says the LORD, you will call me, "My husband," and no longer will you call me, "My Baal."  For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth  and they shall be mentioned by name no more.  (Hosea 2:14-17)
Surrendered into God's hands, our valleys of trouble bring us to new doors of hope.

The fire reveals, and we get to choose what the fire does in us.  Exposed to heat, impurities always rise to the surface.  We can hold tightly to them, adding bitterness, resentment, and outrage to mix (further alienating us from the life we were meant to live).  Or we can recognize them and surrender them to God's hands, trusting His power to remove them so that we can be more His, more of who He intended us to be.  We can come forth from the experience more of ourselves than before.  Truer.  Stronger.  Sturdier.  Lovelier.  Whole.

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