When we are oppressed.

refining fire

There are a few books that have radically changed my life throughout my Spiritual walk, and one of those books is The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards.  Jesus, throughout His earthly ministry, sought to teach the disciples how to love God and love Him, not simply to serve routinely – as was the practice of the Pharisees and others.  He compelled obedience and service as an overflowing of love, not duty.  Many in the early church grasped this foundation and by the time catechisms were being penned, the answer to the primary question, the meaning of life, was understood as thus:

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

We have been created to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.  Some have concluded that we most glorify God by enjoying Him fully, and forever – as God has created us for relationship with Him and commands us to remain in Him.  Thus our religion is driven by an affection of love that is rooted in thankfulness for what God has done for us – namely, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to ransom us from our sin debt and offer us eternal life.

Without affection, Edwards argues, our religion is cold and dead, and simply that of the Pharisees.  But he looks also at the reality of affliction and suffering in the Christian life and he makes this beautiful observation:

“True virtue never appears so lovely as when it is most oppressed; and the divine excellency of real Christianity is never exhibited with such advantage as when under the greatest trials; then it is that true faith appears much more precious than gold, and upon this account is “found to praise and honour and glory.”

– Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections

Paul teaches us in Romans, and James teaches us in his letter that our faith is purified by the fire of suffering, persecution and tribulation (Rom 5.1-5, James 1.2-4).  We understand from natural laws that we can purify and refine metals and natural products by fire.  If you want to make gold more pure, you heat it up.  You place it in the fire to burn out the impurities because gold can withstand a higher heat than most of the dirt and other elements that might be mixed in.  The higher the heat of the refining fire, the more pure the gold.  We have mastered the art of purifying metals and making steel as strong as it can be and gold as pure as it can be.  You never leave it in its natural state.

In the same way, Edwards argues, our faith is never at its most glory at its primary state.  The greater the oppression and the hotter the fire of trial, the more beautiful and pure it becomes.  God promises that all who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted:

“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

– 2 Tim 3.12

He utilizes trials to refine, mature and grow our faith:

“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

And He promises to discipline everyone that He loves:

“For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”

– Heb 12.6

We know and understand that it is God’s will that we suffer in order to purify our faith (1 Peter 1-3).  If we have not walked through seasons of suffering or trials, if we have not experienced the discipline of the Lord in our lives to root out sin, then we can assume that we are not saved.

One of the greatest lies and tactics of the enemy is to keep us complacent and comfortable.  No one desires suffering.  No one wants to be confronted in his sin.  No one enjoys the pain of discipline and the refining fire.  But when we look back over our lives, an honest assessment sees the maturity and growth that came through this times.

When is it that your attention is caught by the faith of another?  When a person walks in regular discipline of quiet time, prayer and daily chores?  Or when a person is walking through an unimaginable trial and remains faithful to God, serving others and exemplifying the peace of the Spirit.  The faith of a man on his death bed, ready and eager to meet Jesus is much more beautiful than a rote prayer uttered over a meal.  The faith of the persecuted who is clinging to Jesus as he is unemployed for his faith or his church is burned down proclaims the excellencies of God more than hosting a Bible study in one’s home with one’s comfortable friends.

Yes, praying over meals and hosting a Bible study are good things.  But it is in the moment of testing that our faith is refined and proven to be more beautiful and more precious.  It is in those moments that we grow.

The enemy draws on our flesh, on our tendency and desire to be comfortable, and teaches us the lie that if God loves us He will give us everything we want and will make our lives easy.  He distorts the beautiful promises of Jesus,

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

– Matt 11.28

Jesus indeed will give us rest.  We will have peace and joy that is un-explainable and full of glory (1 Peter 1.18).  But the rest is spiritual.  We will have confidence in God, in our salvation, in our eternity.  Our eternal life begins at the moment we are born Spiritually and we are made into a new creation – one that understands and takes joy in the testing and refining of our faith.  We no longer have to strive to appease God and earn our salvation, we can rest in Him.  We no longer have to chase the pleasures of the world, we have the joy of God established in our hearts.  And the trials amplify that.

Throughout history, the church has grown and matured the most under persecution.  The early church multiplied and was rich in faith, but when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, people grew complacent, lazy and nonbelievers began to desire to be a part of the church.  Offices were sold, the Gospel was distorted, and the church suffered.  The Church today is bursting in countries like China – where the oppression is still real.  And believers around the world pity American Christians because we are distracted and infatuated with the world.  Our faith is not being tested and refined like most around the world, even today.

So when we enter into trials, let us cling to Jesus.  Let us abide in Him.  Let us rejoice that our faith is being purified.  Let us seek what it is that God wants to teach us, and what impurities need to be removed from our lives.  Let us praise God that He is refining our faith.  Because it is in those moments that we grow, and that our faith is most precious and most beautiful.

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