A pastor of a church I used to attend had an interesting saying… “I’ve never met a man of God worth his salt who had never been through the fire.” The statement is American slang. It essentially says that a man or woman of God who is competent and full of the fruit of the spirit are those who have gone through deep trials and tribulations.
Is this true? It is hard to prove that it is always true since it is hard to define who exactly is “worth his or her salt” and what constitutes going “through the fire.”
I think it is generally true. And the truth of the statement (if true it be) should get us thinking.
Thought #1. There are different types of “fire.” This certainly is not a complete list. One could be a CRISIS OF BELIEF. Faith tested by doubt is stronger than faith where doubt is denied. Noah had 120 years of ineffectual witnessing and building. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his own son. William Carey had disastrous family problems and years of ineffectual ministry to doubt his calling. Another could be CRISIS OF HUMAN OPPOSITION. Daniel and friends had to handle years of, at times, violent opposition. So did Nehemiah and Paul. Many missionaries, both in the past and today, risk their lives in “creative access countries.” Another could be CRISIS OF OWN LIMITATIONS. Elijah successfully faced great opposition but then struggled greatly with burn-out. Many missionaries struggle with chronic health problems, lack of resources, and responsibilities beyond their means to handle. Yet another could be CRISIS OF PERSONAL FAILURE. Sometimes we create our own problems. Both Judas and Peter denied Christ. One fell apart while the other repented and became a great apostle. Foolish decisions hurt King David later in life. Yielding to sin, selfishness, or desire for power can cause all sorts of problems. Finally, there can be CRISIS OF SPIRITUAL OPPOSITION. Jesus was tested by Satan. In many places, missionaries face opposition that appears to go beyond the natural. They appear to be in a spiritual battle that is beyond their own means to handle.
In truth, these crises typically occur simultaneously. Often this leads to depression, feelings of failure, and a desire to quit.
Thought #2. The fire can destroy if it is responded to poorly. A well-made clay pot can be fired into something strong and beautiful in a kiln. A poorly-made clay pot can be destroyed by the same fire. Some ways that are not useful:
(A) Always externalizing the crisis. Always blaming others (people, God, the devil) is a way of saying “I have nothing to learn… this is not my fault.” But we need to realize that our own personal failing and our own limitations always have a part in the crisis. Analyzing and responding to our component in the crisis is important. It is healthy to recognize and adapt to our own limitations. It is also healthy to repent and change in areas of personal failure.
(B) Always internalizing the crisis. Likewise, seeing problems/crises as only having to do with our own inabilities/failures is a path to destruction. To only see our inadequacies is not to see things from God’s perspective. After all, God has made us for good works and for His glory.
(C) Always spiritualizing. Evangelicals often respond to crises (the fire) in the same way… pietism. “You need to pray more, read the Bible more, and fast.” While these may be commendable (especially in moderation) it can, again, be a method to avoid learning and growing. It assumes that all problems are related to spiritual opposition and takes essentially an incantational view of God’s work in us.
(D) Assuming crises are always bad. If crises, “the wilderness experience” can lead to growth, learning, and success, it should not necessarily be avoided. Jesus chose to make His way to Jerusalem even though He knew it would lead to torture and death. A time of crisis/testing is not meant to be fun, but to assume it is always bad also sets one’s mind on rejecting it rather than learning from it.
(E) Assuming that crises is always God’s punishment. Sure, we do things wrong and I believe God does sometimes discipline (but even then it is for our own benefit as Hebrews 12 states). However, success-oriented or prosperity-oriented theologies presume that bad stuff is… well… bad. God blesses those He likes with good (likable) stuff, and He punishes those He doesn’t like with bad (undesirable) stuff. Yet there seems little evidence of this in the Bible. Often the happiest people are the mediocre… not bad enough to fall into the traps of their own misbehavior… not faithful enough to be tested, challenged, and opposed.
Thought #3. Handled properly, the “fire” can be very useful. Here are some thoughts in this area.
(a) First, recognize that the difficult time is not forever. Corrie Ten Boom’s time in prison was a few months and then it was over. Her sister died in prison, but even for her, the time of trial was temporary. Even in the case of a chronic problem, like Joni Eareckson-Tada (with a spinal cord injury), or with the death of a loved one, the true crisis is the transition period… finding a “new normal.” During times of crisis, there is often the feeling that the problems are forever. A wise person should recognize it is a time of struggle to endure; the light one sees at the end of the tunnel may indeed be the sun shining.
(b) Second, consider the POSSIBILITY that the difficult time is a good thing. Don’t simply try to avoid the unpleasant… try to figure out how one can learn and grow through the experience. See if those lemons can indeed be turned into lemonade. It is possible that God not only allowed it (like Job) but even did for our (and others’) good (like Joseph).
(c) Third, honestly evaluate some causes or components to the crisis. Crises rarely have only one component. Sometimes we really have behaved sinfully, foolishly, mistakenly. If so, we need to honestly face this with ourselves, with God, and with others. Sometimes, we need to change plans or direction. Sometimes, we need to honestly face the fact that we are in a spiritual battle and struggle and pain are part of war. On the other hand, we may find that our own bad behavior caused a bad reaction from others. We need to face our own limitations honestly. Do we need more training? Do we need more help? Do we need to do something else?
(d) Thank God for the fire. Even if the problems are the result of our own sin, the fact that we are still alive means that God is giving us the opportunity to move forward and be a faithful servant of His. Jesus said that those who face persecution for the sake of Christ are blessed. Sometimes when God appears to be distant, the drawing away is to help us recognize that we need Him.
(e) Share with others. Sometimes we need help… not only from God, but from others. God gave Elijah a helper in Elisha at his time of struggle. Sometimes we need prayer and encouragement. Sometimes others need to hear what we are going through because they are struggling. They need to know that these times come. They need to see us when we are weak as well as when we are strong.