Refinement

The following blog post is adapted from a very raw journal entry I made earlier this year. In times like these, I think maybe we are all hungry for honesty over pretty. I hope God uses it to encourage those of you in dark and painful seasons.

I’ll get right to the point: 2017 is a year I’d sooner forget. It’s been a year full of sorrow, grief, failure, doubt, confusion, identity crisis, darkness, loss, and pain. I’m certain that this will be a period of life upon which I will reflect back many, many times in future years. We have been through many difficult seasons, and I know each one has felt like the hardest yet…but I can say with certainty that this one wins the blue ribbon in that category. And it has not been because of any one thing so much as it has been a barrage of relentless stripping away, as the Lord has exposed and then toppled idol after idol in the darkest recesses of my heart. Saying the words, “Jesus is all I need” is easy. Living like you believe it, in times of trial and tragedy…well, that’s a different story. It would take me a hundred posts to explore and explain each scenario, each struggle, but the truth is that the “what” doesn’t matter nearly as much as the “why”, so I will instead share that, as it is summed up in one agonizing phrase: refinement.

refinement- (1) the process of removing impurities or unwanted elements from something
(2) the improvement or clarification of something by the making of changes

Those are the definitions that Webster’s gives. The Bible offers an explanation of the reason for this refinement process, found in Hebrews 12: The Lord disciplines the one whom He loves”…”for our good, that we may share His holiness”.  

This has been a year of refinement. Discipline. And wow, has it been excruciating. For a long time, the pain of it has been so intense that I couldn’t make out the hope in it. Have you ever been there? When you are suffering so deeply, maybe even due to your own choices and disobedience, that you can’t even see past the pain? Maybe you know the truth, that something good will come of this…that God is working, moving, sanctifying…but that knowledge feels hollow because your soul can’t summon up the strength to believe it? I was there for a long time. Thankfully, GRACIOUSLY…God didn’t let me stay there. Finally, friends, a light is piercing through, and that light is Jesus Himself. There are yet things to be hopeful for. How can that be amidst such pain? Only God knows…but I’m learning that the most beautiful things seem to be born out of the ugliest and most hopeless beginnings. That is how God likes to work.

You’ve heard the phrase beauty from ashes…but if you’re anything like me, you’ve never taken the time to understand the full picture and meaning behind that phrase. Until this year, I would hear this phrase and picture two scenes or stages: the ash… and then the beauty. I imagined something like a dark pile of dark dust sitting in the dark, then suddenly light and color burst onto the scene as the dust swirled away. Gungor’s Beautiful Things always played in the background of my picture (“you make beautiful things, you make beauti-FUL things out of the dust”…if you’ve never listened to it, it’s worth the listen, but be warned: it will never ever get out of your head. ever.) Dark, cold, lifeless, useless, gray dust. Ash. Into exquisite life and beauty. It’s really not that hard to picture, is it? But the problem is, if we start with the ash, we are missing the full picture of just how beautiful this transformative reality is. We must dig deeper. The full picture involves zooming out to see how the ash got there in the first place, and there is only one answer: through fire.

The ash phase is just one stage away from vibrant beauty. In that cold, lifeless phase, we know and maybe can even believe that beauty is on its way, ready to swirl away the dust  into oblivion. But I have learned that it is hardest to believe that beauty might come, not when everything is in ashes, but when you are in the fire. When life feels like an endless, slow burn…or a raging, angry, out of control force of nature.  When the pain is agonizing. When you couldn’t care less about whether beauty is in your future because you’re just begging to get to the ash stage, where the burning has finally stopped. Dark, gray, lifeless dust sounds like relief when all you feel is the searing pain of the flame.

The full picture involves us seeing all of it: the fire that destroys what needs to be gone forever. The ash that appears cold and lifeless. And then the beauty…the exquisite, incomparable beauty that comes after the fire and ash.

I don’t know yet what the beauty will be. I’m catching glimpses of it, so I know it’s coming. In the thick of the flames, I still believe that God is good. The faith I have in Him is FROM Him…I could never conjure it up myself. In His grace, He is planting seeds of hope in my heart. Hope for what I don’t actually know. I would like to say that I have been given a vision of the future, a concrete image of something glorious: a fruitful ministry born from the sorrow of this season, in which the pain has become a tool for rebirth. But I have no such vision, no specific promise of the result. What I have, and what I’ve had, is the presence of God. Only one other time in my life have I been so acutely aware of and comforted by the presence of Jesus. I sense Him here with me, moment by moment, experiencing my pain with me, holding me together.

Yesterday, I had a moment of acute agony inside my heart, when the sorrow of it all felt too great to bear. I cried out for an answer, waiting for the Spirit to answer with a word of comfort from the Psalms, or an inspiring promise of victory from Romans. His answer was neither. The answer came immediately, and it was not what I was expecting.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or rulers or dominions or authorities-all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

At once I knew: His power and His presence were enough to hold me together. And so He has been. Jesus, my faithful love, my fierce protector, my never-failing, ever-chasing God, is so carefully and tenderly holding all of the broken pieces of me together. My body may feel broken, my heart may be shattered, but not one broken piece has been lost or allowed to slip through His strong and steady hands. Here He stands, arms around me, His voice in my ear, reminding me that I can endure the flames because I’m never alone. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I walk through the scorching heat alive and with my future before me, because His power preserves and protects me. The flames will not last forever. The ash will be but a season as well. The beauty, however, will be eternal. This dear, sweet, merciful taste of the presence of Jesus makes me long for the day when I can experience His presence fully, perfectly…absent from flesh and the curse of this broken body and wayward heart. I may walk through fire now, but it is a light and momentary affliction compared to the weight of glory ahead. I walk through the flames now in the presence of Jesus…and I have only to look to Him to remember the truth that I will never have to endure the fire alone, nor is there fire in my eternal future. The fire I’m in now is not a punishing fire but a merciful one, administered by the Refiner, and though it comes with great cost and great pain, there is greater beauty coming. The pain of the purification process will pale in the glow of the gold that will emerge.

Beauty is coming, yes, but it’s also already here. Within the light of this refining fire burns another Light that is brighter still. How beautiful Jesus is to me! How merciful His chastening. Even now, He fans the flame of my affections for Him with the warmth of His love for me. What a kind and gracious God He is, that He would see fit to burn off all my rough places in order to make me more like Him. That He would remain at my side through it all, walking with me, holding me together, giving me glimpse after glimpse of the beauty that’s coming…it’s the very definition of grace. Because of His love, His sacrifice… His discipline does not mean His distance. Because He was forsaken for me, I never have to be. He stays with me, reminding me that this purifying fire flows out of His love for me. His refining leads to redemption, to restoration. His presence is my portion.

How loving is my Jesus.
How faithful is my Jesus.
How merciful is my Jesus.
How compassionate is my Jesus.
How precious is my Jesus.
How near is my Jesus.

This is my prayer in the fire, in weakness, or trial, or pain…
There is a faith proved of more worth than gold
So refine me, Lord, through the flame.

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