Sanctification, the Spirit’s work of setting apart the Church to the love and service of God, is one of the many benefits promised to us in the gospel. Yet, throughout Scripture, the sanctifying work of God is often depicted as an agonising ordeal. In truth, the holiness and happiness of the Church ultimately run together. They are companions. But in practice, this is rarely apparent to the saints, and not altogether comforting.
One of the dominant metaphors used to describe this work of God in the Bible is that of the refinement of precious metals. For example, the prophet Isaiah describes the exile of God’s people from Israel this way:
I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities (Is. 1:25, NIV).
The providence of God is here depicted as a fire. Now, fire can be put to different uses, but the purpose of a refiner’s fire is the purification of some precious metal. If I were to place a lump of metal in your hand, it would probably seem to you like a unified whole. It would have a unity — an identity — that was apparent to you. You would examine its colour, touch its surface, and say to yourself, “Yes, this is metal.” You might be able to guess what kind of metal it was, but you probably could not tell me what other metals might be mixed into it simply by looking at it and feeling it.
However, if a refiner were to take that lump of metal and put it in a refining cup, he could liquify it, separating out the precious metal — silver, gold, platinum — from any impurities or inferior elements alloyed to it — copper, iron, or tin. As any impurities came to the surface, he would be able remove them. In that way, he can strengthen the metal or multiply its value.
Fire, here, is a perfecting instrument. It provides the conditions necessary for separating what is precious from what is worthless. Without it, the impurities cannot even be identified much less removed. But it is down to the wisdom and skill of the refiner to draw out the impurities, to strengthen and form the metal, and to increase its preciousness.
God Intends to Make Us Pure
Scripture compares God’s providence to a refining fire. Life’s trials test our metal, so to speak. But the purpose of God’s providence in this is the sanctification of his Church. God aims to set the Church apart as holy. He aims not to destroy, but to perfect us. He intends to enrich the Church’s faith and virtue and to strengthen those gifts with which the Church has been endowed. Sanctification is a fire that heals and perfects us by ridding us of those impure habits of thought, desire, and action that weaken our spiritual resolve and cheapen the dignity of our calling. In short, it purifies the Church by separating us from our sin.
This is a work, of course, that only God is wise enough to do. We cannot do it for ourselves. How could we when sin so determines the whole of our experience that it colours even the way we understand our own desires and intentions, as well as the events which mark our lives? As the prophet Jeremiah asks us, who can know the heart of a man (Jer. 17:9)? We simply are not transparent to ourselves.
Were the judgment left with us to separate-out the gold from the dross of our lives, we would inevitably struggle to do so. Who but the Creator knows our nature — knows who we are and what we were created to be? Who but God could distinguish our virtues from our vices, and draw from the elements of our broken lives witnesses — monuments of grace that bring honour and glory to God?
Only God could order and design the course of our lives to perfect us. This is one of the many benefits that we are promised in the gospel, and it is something that Jesus teaches us to pray for. We ask for sanctification whenever we pray that God might “deliver us from evil.” There is a marvellous promise extended to us here, but it also contains a challenge.
When God’s providence places us in times of trial and testing, how will we respond?
One of the hardest things to do in times of trial, whether personal or corporate, is to respond in faith. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the circumstance or to be paralysed with fear. Yet Scripture teaches us in these moments to trust in God’s purposes because “we know that in everything, God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28, RSV).
In times of great hardship, that can be a difficult promise to cling to. It will not remove all the pain, fear, or grief — those feelings are natural, and it is right for us to feel them. But it can provide us a shelter for our souls in the knowledge that God is sovereign, and that he is always working for our good.
One of the encouragements Scripture consistently gives to us in times of hardship is to take the long view — to look beyond the moment, beyond the temporal, and to contemplate a promise that transcends our circumstances. We need more of this today. So many of our hopes and aspirations are so short-sighted or tied to our material prosperity. But if all our hopes are in things which can be taken from us by time and circumstance, then we will never suffer with hope. We need a vision of something greater.
We should follow the example of Paul. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul tells the church that, in spite of his great suffering, he was not in despair: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (v. 17-18, NKJV).
Hope derives its strength from faith and gives us the power to look beyond the moment. If you want to live with more hope, take time to nurture your faith. Remind yourself of who God is. Remind yourself of his promise. And summon your courage to act in faith.
Finally, times of trial and suffering are times to grow in love — love of God and love of neighbour. These are always connected to one another. That’s why Jesus says they summarise the whole of the law (Mt. 22:35-40). But in times of corporate hardship, the latter is often the gateway to the former.
Do you want to know more of God’s love? Do you want to experience more hope and have the benefit of a life that is lived in faith? Then you can start by serving your neighbour. Neighbour-love is the training ground for the love of God. We come to love God more, and to know more of God’s love, as we show ourselves willing to extend ourselves to those God has placed around us.
In times of trial, we need and should pray for greater faith, hope and love. In fact, God intends to use our trials to refine us. Rather than giving in to selfishness, despondency, and disbelief, may we trust God to use our current circumstances to work in us the precious virtues of faith, hope and love.