How is God Like a Refiner’s Fire?

You have probably heard someone say of a leader who jarred a complacent organization into efficient productivity, “He really put their feet to the fire.” That statement indicates that the leader imposed some pain on the group, pain that motivated change. The first acts and thoughts of the group may have been pain avoidance, but in the end, the group matured in purpose and productivity because the leader created some pain.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:2-4 ESV)

This text speaks of a time when God causes pain. Ever since the time of Job people have asked why God lets bad things happen to good people. It is very common for people to say things such as, “a good God should not let bad things happen.” The very fact that bad things happen, that people do suffer, that pain and sickness and death exist, is used to argue against the existence of God, or, if God is seen to be allowing evil to conquer, then that fact is used to argue against worship of God.

Malachi says that there are absolutely times when God causes pain.

God doesn’t cause evil. Evil is the work of Satan in opposition to God’s purpose. God doesn’t cause evil, but he does apply fire to a dirty, ugly rock in order to get the gold out. When God applies his refining fire to the ore of a corrupt human life, it hurts. Yet, like human leaders who must put someone’s feet to the fire, God must sometimes inflict pain in our lives in order to help us shed the dross that pollutes the gold of God’s creative work in us.

As a consequence, there come times when we feel pain, and we say that bad things are happening to us. We may even wonder how God could let such a thing happen. Yet in the end, we may discover that the things we perceive as bad are actually God’s work, and they actually are not evil.

Job knew how it felt. God stood back and let Satan take everything from Job but his very life. His own wife thought things were so bad that she told him to curse God so he could go ahead and die.

9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9 ESV)

Job would have appeared to be justified in the eyes of the world if he had, indeed, cursed God and died. The world constantly curses God. The latest reproach is to say that because God declares homosexual behavior to be sinful, God is a homophobe and should apologize to the world. Job’s wife had that same attitude. Like today’s social activists, Job’s wife thought she had a right to judge God, and she wanted Job to do the same thing.

It is obvious where Job’s wife and today’s social commentators acquired their ideas. When Satan and God were discussing Job, Satan asked, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” implying that God’s gracious care for Job was the only reason Job served God. After Satan had ravaged Job without touching his body, God confronted Satan again, and Satan said, “Skin for skin! … Strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” Satan encourages and promotes the idea that God owes people something in return for their worship. Satan wants people to believe that if trouble comes their way, God is behaving badly.

One lesson from Job’s story is that God does not exist to make us feel good. Satan wanted to prove the point that God only matters if he is making things easy for human beings. Satan rejected God’s sovereignty, and Milton vividly portrays the battle between Satan and God that resulted in Satan’s ejection from heaven. Job’s story points out how Satan never stops fighting against God’s sovereignty. He chose Job as the fulcrum of his argument that God has no right to assert his sovereignty. Job could not see the forces arrayed in battle around his life, and he suffered terribly as the battle raged. Until Jesus hangs on the cross, the Bible has no other image of a person so desperately alone and abandoned as Job. Even the friends who kept Job company were no friends to him, because they kept probing to find out what Job had done to deserve such punishment. They could allow that God would do such things, but the only reason they understood was to make God vindictive. They did not understand how God was putting Job’s feet to his refining fire, even as God showed Satan his place in the universe. In Job’s life, God demonstrated that he does not exist to make anyone feel good, but rather to accomplish his divine purpose in creation. Secular thinkers search for truth, and when they find something that makes them feel good, they say, “This is truth.” Job’s story shows that good vibes are not the measure of truth.

Job is rightly honored for his faithfulness under fire. Christians who find themselves in Satan’s crosshairs can learn a lot from Job, but they would be well-advised to read the whole story. They should not stop with pithy quotations such as “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21 ESV) or even “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (Job 2:10 NIV84) They need to go all the way to Job’s cry “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! …Let the Almighty answer me.” (Job 31:35 NIV) and then they need to read the answer God gave to Job.

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:1-4)

At Job’s darkest hour, the Lord did not come to Job, give him a hug and make him feel good. God put Job’s feet to the refining fire, because he wanted Job to be something grander than good ore. When miners find good ore, ore that has gold in it, they don’t bag up the ore and sell it in jewelry stores and banks; they crush it and cook it and apply the refiner’s fire to it. It is the gold within that they treasure, and that is what God treasured in Job and in you and in me. God wants the gold that he has put in each of us to stand out and be visible in our lives. That is why he must apply the refiner’s fire.

Was Job proud of himself for standing up to God and calling him to account? Job’s final words in this conversation were:

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6 NIV)

After going through God’s refining fire, Job stopped holding on to the common rock and dirt in his life. Much of the book of Job is his justification of his own righteousness before God, but after the fire, he lets go of his sense that he can justify himself. The gold can finally be seen when he “repent[s] in dust and ashes.” The refining fire is not evil; it is God’s power to purge out evil and purify the good and make you what you always wished you were, even if you didn’t know what that is. God doesn’t let bad things happen to good people. Job discovered that even though he could make a strong case for his own goodness as the world defines it, he was not “good people” before God’s righteousness. Each person must discover that same truth in order to let go of the dross and impurity in his life. Each person must “repent in dust and ashes.” Every person created by God is good ore. Every person is polluted by his own desire to justify himself before God; in other words, every person would rather be his own god. Only when God’s refining fire burns away all the “stuff” that isn’t gold can anyone’s gold shine through. That is the purpose of God’s painful, disintegrating, miserable, blistering refiner’s fire.

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