1 John 4:7-21
I have found myself on many occasions wondering about the purpose of life. What do you think the purpose of life is?
Our Western culture tells us that the purpose of life is to be happy. Our TV ads bombard us with statements like “You deserve it!” and “Do it for you!” and “You can make yourself anything you want to be!”
But the Bible never tells us that the goal in life is to be happy, or even comfortable or at ease. This is not the message that we get from our scriptures, and today’s passages especially show us instead a God who is not seeking our comfort, but is seeking instead to make us more holy, more whole; to make us more godly, to “prune” us as the John passage says, and to “refine” us as the Malachi passage says.
As Rick Warren, author of Purpose Given Life said in an interview, “We were made by God and for God, and until you figure that out, life isn't going to make sense…Life is a series of problems: Either you are in one now, you're just coming out of one, or you're getting ready to go into another one. The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort; God is more interested in making your life holy than (God) is in making your life happy. We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that's not the goal of life. The goal is to grow in character, in Christ likeness.”
As we know, this isn’t easy. The Bible tells us this isn’t easy when it compares the process to the pruning of branches, to the refining of metals. We know from the 1st John passage what that looks like. Growing in character means loving more fully, more deeply, even those we don’t like. But getting there is hard. And knowing exactly how to do this, how to love more deeply and fully, is again, a challenge. So, God calls us, throughout our lives; God challenges us, God “refines” us and “prunes” us so that we might bear more fruit, so that we might be the pure, refined silver we are meant to be.
Some women in a Bible study came across this passage from Malachi, “God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” And so one of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible Study. That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining Silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse that says: 'He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.' She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. It was a difficult and uncomfortable job, holding the silver, working the silver, constantly watching the silver over this very, very hot flame that was hot for the holder as well as for the silver. But, if the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed, so this was the only way to do it. Since he loved his work, loved the silver, the pain and discomfort to the Smith were worth it to him. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, 'How do you know when the silver is fully refined?'
He smiled at her and answered, 'Oh, that's easy -- when I see my image in it.'
“…When I see my image in it”.
To be in the image of the God of love, is to love. To be in the image of the God who loved us so much that that God was willing to die for us, is to love each other so much that we are willing to die for each other. Again, not easy. But that is what being in relationship with God pushes us towards, and challenges us to do.
I want to clarify here, and I will say it again later, that I don’t believe that the bad things that happen to us happen because God is trying to hurt you or test you or make you better. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, I don’t believe people are murdered or children are raped or monsters are allowed to damage the world because God wills it. I cannot believe in a God for whom the only way to bring about the kingdom is through the torture of God’s children. That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that I deeply believe in a God who takes our deepest, hardest, most intense times and will stand with us through them and will work with us to bring the highest good out of them, to refine us through them, to make us better on the other side of whatever we have gone through. I believe deeply in a God who encourages us to have vision for the good and beautiful in the midst of horror, to look for it, to see it, and to allow it to change us for the better.
I invite you for a moment to think about the hardest times in your life. For some this may be obvious, but my guess is that if we are really honest with ourselves, sometimes the hardest experiences are not the most obvious ones. So I invite you to think about what you have lived through that is truly the hardest, most painful time in your life. I know it is not pleasant to go there, but I invite you to sit with it for a minute. And then I invite you to go deeper: to remember anyone who might have been kind to you during that time, or any little silly thing that may have brought laughter during that time. I invite you to remember food you might have enjoyed eating during that time, or a sunset you saw, or a tree or plant in bloom. I invite you to go even deeper and see if there was anything about you that was strengthened through this time. Did you grow in your ability to be patient, in your ability to withstand hardships? Did you grow in your compassion for other people who are suffering? Did you come to understand your circumstances in a different way? Did you gain appreciation for the little gifts that life hands you?
I think about the hardest times in my own life. I realize that they are nothing compared to what some people go through. But they are more than others have experienced. So from that place, I look back and I see what I gained. I learned to be more patient. I learned to stand up for my kids, for myself. I learned not to trust systems and I learned of their inhumanity, but while this may seem like a cynical or bad thing, I feel it helped me to grow in my willingness to confront corrupt systems and the pawns (people) who are used by them. I gained a better picture of what I have control over and what I don’t. I came to understand more fully that there really are things I cannot change at all, and that there are other things I certainly cannot change overnight, without work, without other people, without a long commitment and a plan. I learned to accept help: support, affirmations, care from other people. I learned to ask for help when I needed it, even when my natural inclination is to think I can do it all myself. I learned to work on relationships, and to make the conscious decision to still be engaged in the world, to still love and allow myself to be loved in return. I am learning to pray for and to genuinely care about the well-being of people who hurt us. That’s a big thing: to learn to have compassion for people who hurt us, but I started that path for real. I began to learn to respond to meanness and cruelty with a presence of honest, open grace. I learned that I can choose to be who I want to be and that I choose to be a person of forgiveness and love rather than of vengeance and hate. I continue to learn that loving and being loved are deeper challenges than I knew, challenges that call for all that we are, all that we can be – but challenges, none the less, that make life worth living, that deepen life, that deepen our relationships with God. I learned to take the hard times for what they are – a time of growth, of refinement in a hot fire, a time of challenge for God and I together to work out some kinks and blemishes in my being. Of course the journey continues, the challenges continue, the refinement continues. But through it all, I have felt closer to God than ever. Through it all, I feel at a deeper and deeper level God’s tangible presence. Through it all, I have hope that I will grow to be more like the person God calls me to be each day.
I believe seeing this, seeing the good, looking for ways that the things that are bad can move us, change us – all of that takes work and a strong commitment. But it is a commitment to your own well-being, a commitment to your own growth, a commitment to your own resurrections, a commitment to living and loving fully, to deciding who you want to be and working to become that person. This is not easy. But it is a commitment that is worth our time, attention and care.
The Malachi passage ends with the phrase, “So I will come to put you on trial,… but do not fear me.” This may seem oxymoronic – how can God declare that we will be put on trial and then in the same breath tell us to not be afraid? But the message I receive from this is that it is a gift to us to be in God’s intense gaze as we are refined. It is a gift to us to be challenged to grow and become more the people God calls us to be. Yes, life hurts. Not all of life is good. Certainly, not all of life is easy. But we need not fear it. Because God is there with us – keeping God’s eye on us, and working with us until God can see God’s own image in our very beings. Thanks be to God!