The Refiner’s Fire
In the book of Job, we have a unique opportunity. We watch Job as his terrible trials unfold and he endures some of the worst suffering recorded in the Bible. His friends—considered to be the wisest of sages—gather around to offer worldly comfort; but it is not comfort. The unique aspect is that we actually have God’s viewpoint from the very beginning of Job’s experience. So, when his friends accuse him of heinous things, we know they can’t be true. God has already declared Job to be righteous.
Yet the knowledge that Job suffered—but did not suffer as punishment for sin—brings up an uncomfortable question for us. Did Job suffer for no reason? Or, asked from a personal perspective, might we suffer for no reason?
Well, I’m not going to make you wait all the way to the end of the blog to find out. The answer is no, Job did not suffer for no reason, and neither do those of us who follow Christ. But there is a caveat here; those who disregard God and go their own way, they may conclude that their suffering is meaningless.
Refinement Removes Impurities
There are three important things for us to understand about trials and suffering in the hands of the Lord. First, trials and suffering are often used by God to refine His children, removing the impurities of sin. Refinement of the believer through trials and suffering is not an uncommon topic of Christian books and messages. John Piper gives us an example of what I consider to be the main interpretation when exploring the topic of refinement. In a message on the refiner mentioned in Malachi, Piper says:
[Jesus] is a refiner’s fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner’s fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner’s fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner’s fire.1
Refinement, from this perspective, burns away the sin and impurity in us.
Refinement Improves Good Qualities
The above has been my stock understanding of the process of refinement in a believer’s life for some years, and not without reason, for the concept is repeated often in the Bible. But Gregory the Great, commenting on Job 23:102, opened my eyes to another understanding. In this passage, Job states:
But He knows the way I take; [When] He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold. Job 23:10 NASB95
“Tried” in this passage, coupled with the metaphor of gold, means to prove or test, like in refining precious metals. The refining fire burns up the impurities—the dross—but at the same time, it causes the good qualities of the material under refinement to be improved. Remember, we already know that Job is righteous in God’s eyes, so he has no impurities to be burned up. Instead, could it be that his fine qualities are refined in order to shine more brightly?
I think James may support this aspect of refinement when he says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have [its] perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” James 1:2-4 NASB95. Here, testing refers to the trial to prove something, such as the refinement of a fire, but it speaks of a good quality which refinement reveals to be even more splendid.
Or consider 1 Peter 1:6-7, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, [being] more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Faith, already present in the believer, through the process of refinement, becomes glorious.
It may be possible, when we find ourselves in a season of trial and suffering, to consider the possibility that the Lord may be refining us to burn off impurities and to reveal fine qualities more spectacularly.
Refinement Is in Vain
The third point is quite sobering. Trials and suffering may be intended by God to refine a person, but His refinement may be refused, and then it will appear meaningless to the sufferer. In Jeremiah 6:29-30 the prophet warns, “The bellows blow fiercely, The lead is consumed by the fire; In vain the refining goes on, But the wicked are not separated. They call them rejected silver, Because the LORD has rejected them.” Here we see that the process of refinement does not produce the intended result. When a person rejects the process of refinement, the person rejects the refiner. In this case, the person will find no redeeming qualities in suffering.
While we may not anticipate trials and suffering in our lives, let’s not turn away from the refinement they bring. Let us welcome the refiner as He burns away our impurities and makes our God-given qualities even more precious.
2 Manlio Simonetti and Marco Conti, eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VI: Job, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006) 126.