Monday, April 4, 2011

The Process of Purity

A little over ten years ago – when everybody began giving out their email addresses instead of phone numbers – I decided it was time for a change. My then-current email address myboyfrienddrivesaporsche@yahoo.com no longer seemed plausible. Every time someone asked for it I inevitably had to repeat myself at least five times, spell P-O-R-S-C-H-E, and then had to follow up with “Yes, for real.”

Funny? Yes.
Practical? No.

I set out on a quest to invent the most amazing email address ever – one that would inspire orphans to cure cancer and melt hearts of stone at its very utterance… Ok, maybe not so much, but I wanted something more impactful than flaunting the fact that I got to ride shotgun in an old red Porsche. (Uh, I mean “beautiful, cherry-red, vintage Porsche”.) My dog-eared, picture-covered Bible seemed the most logical place to start. I was reading through Zechariah at the time and was drawn to chapter thirteen, verses seven through nine:

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!" declares the LORD Almighty. "Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land," declares the LORD, "two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, 'They are my people,' and they will say, 'The LORD is our God.’” (NIV)

To my young teenage mind this sounded striking…“refine them like silver and test them like gold.” That was it: refiningsilver@yahoo.com. Little did I realize that I stumbled onto my life’s prophetic theme at that seemingly insignificant moment…

Malachi 3:3 also speaks of refining silver: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” There is a long-told story floating through Bible study circles that gives insight into the process:

In the late 1800's, a group of women enrolled in a Bible study came across Malachi 3:3. Since no one understood the verse, they commissioned one of their members to explore the process of refining silver and report back to them at their next study. The woman made an appointment with a silversmith to watch him work and ask a few questions. On the appointed day, she saw him hold a piece of silver over the fire, letting it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, a silversmith needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest, so that all impurities would burn away. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse, that he sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked, "How do you know when the silver is fully refined?" He smiled. "Oh, that's easy. The refining process is complete when I see my image in it."

While I intellectually understood the passage at that time, it has taken years of painful flames to bring about a complete spiritual understanding. It turns out that my impurities were many and my pain tolerance was low. Through my unfaithfulness and mistakes, God chose to stay with me. No matter how many impurities I held onto, He held onto me and patiently burned them away. I must admit if our roles were reversed – if I was the one sitting at the fire to painstakingly burn away someone else’s impurities – I would have given up and walked away. If I had to hold myself to the fire I would have walked away as soon as the flames brought sweat to my brow.

Over the years, I have often revisited these verses and pondered the ways God is refining my heart. Zechariah 13:7-9 never fails to fill me with hope and remind me of God’s ridiculously generous grace. The passage prophesied Christ’s suffering: “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” refers to the night Christ was betrayed and His disciples fled. However, it speaks far beyond that into our current lives. Two-thirds (the corrupt and hypocritical portion of the professed church) will be struck down, but a remnant will be saved. This remnant refers to the one-third who will be brought to the fire. The word “remnant” derives from the French term meaning “to remain”. Those who remain will be purified, and those who are purified will remain. “But one-third will be left in the land. I will bring that group through the fire and make them pure. I will refine them like silver and purify them like gold. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘These are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’” (NLT)

Notice the order of the passage. It doesn’t say that those who cry out to God will then be purified. It says that God will take them through the fire, and then they will call on His name. God doesn’t wait for us to realize we messed up and ask for His help – he’s already there with us in the midst of the smoke and flames. God didn’t wait for me to admit what a fool I’d been; he didn’t wait for me to write down an exhaustive list of my mistakes and come up with a twelve-step recovery program; he didn’t wait until I cleaned myself up and made myself presentable…he was already there holding me in the midst of the fire.

Some of those fires I willingly jumped into. At those times he held me as the flames blistered my soul…he cleaned my wounds and wiped my tears…he whispered words of comfort as I screamed and writhed in pain. There were other fires he held me to – ones I never would have willingly neared. Those fires were the hottest. They hurt the most, yet they burned away impurities I never knew existed. It was in those fires that he opened my eyes not only to His pain, but to the pain of others…pain that, otherwise, I would have never known existed. He taught me that hidden injuries cannot heal, so he brought my broken places into light and soothed me with the balm of grace and redemption. He taught me to see the hidden wounds of others and to endure the flames with them. This fire does not consume or destroy; it refines, purifies, and heals.

I now clearly see what I could not before: God did not leave me in the fire too long, nor did He ever avert His gaze.

No matter how hot and blistering the flames may feel, He will never leave you there too long.
No matter how lonely and forsaken you may feel, He will never look away from you.

He sees every tear, hears every cry, and holds you through it all. The third chapter of Lamentations reminds me of His faithful truth. Even though I have seen affliction, wandered in darkness, and lost the path, I have not lost hope. I have been driven away, surrounded by bitterness, weighed down with chains, mangled and left without help, pierced with arrows, broken and trampled, yet I have not been without hope. “Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail…Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love.”

(Originally written February 2010...always a good reminder of where I've been & where I'm going.)

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