“For You, O God, have tested us; You have refined us as silver is refined…we went through fire and through water; but You brought us out to rich fulfillment [abundance]” (Ps. 66:10-12)
There are many verses about God testing us and allowing us to go through trials. Obviously in some cases, trials are of our own making, through poor decisions or sins. But in many other cases, they seem to come out of nowhere, and it’s normal for us to wonder why, and what God’s intention is in allowing the trials. Is it because He’s angry and wants to punish us?
Of course not. God’s ultimate purpose is to make us into strong, useful instruments (James 1:2-3, I Pet. 1:6-7). He has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the strong and wise, and so that those chosen don’t think it’s because of their own amazing capabilities (I Cor. 9:27-28). But just because he selects us when we’re weak doesn’t mean we’re meant to stay that way. Myriad verses make it clear that God is tearing us down and remaking us in His image (Rom. 12:2, Eph. 4:24).
In Acts we read where Jesus told Ananias through a vision that Saul (Paul) would be “a chosen instrument (or vessel)” of His plan (Acts 9:15). This is the same word used when Paul tells the Romans that the potter has “power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor” (Rom. 9:21). So how does God make us into the strong instrument He is looking for?
A while back I read an article from a modern-day blacksmith talking about his craft, and for whatever reason, on that particular day the biblical analogies just jumped off the page at me and I had to dig further.
Removing impurities in the midst of fire
The first thing the blacksmith does is take a piece of metal and heat it in the fire until it’s almost translucent. Or he might melt the metal down entirely to pour into a mold. Both of these processes make the metal workable, but also illuminate the metal’s impurities or deficiencies.
Fire is a refining element, and used in the bible as an analogy for trials as well. There are many verses that use the analogy of melting down metal in a furnace to remove impurities:
- “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Is. 48:10)
- “The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart” (Prov. 17:3)
- “Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to Me; they are all bronze, tin, iron, and lead, in the midst of a furnace…Yes I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of My wrath, and you shall be melted in its midst” (Ezek. 22:18-21)
Heat is also an agent of change, making things malleable so they can be worked with. It might be to stretch it, to transform its shape, or to melt it down completely to start from scratch. And that brings us to the next part of the blacksmithing process.
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Applying pressure to shape the instrument
Once the blacksmith has heated the metal enough so that it is malleable, he hammers on it to create the shape he is looking for. This is not a split-second process. He heats, hammers, and shapes. Heats, hammers, and shapes. Over time, the metal begins to reflect the shape that the blacksmith desires.
Paul tells us, “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 5:11).
As I mentioned in the introduction, anger or vindictiveness isn’t the motivation behind trials and challenges. The article I referenced at the outset has the blacksmith talking about how many people assume it feels really good to pound out your frustrations on the metal. His response is really interesting.
“No, indeed,” he says. “Hitting hard is part of the equation, but hitting accurately is more important. If a blacksmith is frustrated, he oughta go punch a bag until he gets over it, then go work at the anvil…It’s not so much strength but control.”
This part of the analogy rings very true as well. God doesn’t strike out in uncontrolled anger. That’s not why we go through trials. Instead, He very patiently and deliberately shapes us, with measured force based on the final shape He desires.
The analogy of a blacksmith has a lot of similarities to the analogy of a potter that is used many times in the bible. One of the biggest similarities is that both metal and clay offer almost unlimited second chances. Unlike wood or stone, where there is no “undo” button in shaping, metal and clay are completely recyclable until they are quenched or fired to set the final shape. There are no true mistakes—if a piece is messed up, wait a little, then re-heat it and start again.
There was a really lovely paragraph in the blacksmithing article that I wanted to include here verbatim because I thought it really drove this point home:
“I once made a drive hook, a combination nail and hook that log cabin dwellers used to hang up their stuff. I realized when I had finished it that the nail was facing the hook. Worthless, I threw it on the ground and walked out into the cool night air. I was beating myself up for a lack of mindfulness. My wise and loving mentor, Larry, walked outside and stood with me for a moment. “There are no mistakes,” he said in his lovely Alabama drawl. We went inside, he heated the hook with a torch and gave it a few twists, ending with the nail pointing in the proper direction. It was actually more beautiful than the original. There are no mistakes. And there are second chances, in metal and in men.”
Water to strengthen and set
After all the heating and pressure to shape the metal, the blacksmith finally plunges the hot metal into cold water, a process called quenching. The shock of the cold water on the molten-hot steel makes it strong and sets its shape. Here’s a little more about how it works:
“Plunging hot metal into water after it has been forged to shape [is called quenching]. It is important to judge exactly the right time to do this. If it is done too soon the metal may become brittle and shatter easily; but leave it too long to quench and the metal may be too soft to sharpen into an edge. Sometimes, it is necessary to re-heat metal to the correct temperature before quenching it.” (Source).
Through trials, God is tempering us to withstand future challenges and tribulations, so that we are strong enough to overcome the trials of this life and hold fast to our crowns (Rev. 2-3). Just like the paragraph above indicates, He understands how to work with each of us, when we’re “at the right temperature” rather than when we might have gone too soft or too brittle, or in need of some extra work. And just like that bucket of cold water, it occasionally takes a shock to the system to achieve His purpose.
James wrote to the brethren that they should “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3). The word translated “patience” here means endurance or constancy. Steadfastness. In other words, staying the course and holding up under adversity. Let’s go back to the blacksmith analogy. The smith is trying to make an instrument out of steel. Whether it’s a sword, a nail, or (on a big scale) the frame to hold up a skyscraper, the final product has to be almost indestructibly strong.
Now the obvious parallel here with water is baptism, and I think that’s a piece of it. Although in this analogy, baptism doesn’t magically freeze us in our final shape with enough strength to withstand anything that comes our way. Instead, baptism is a beginning, a commitment to the process of being re-made. But we could still look at the plunge into water as providing the metal with greater strength and the ability to withstand adversity—exactly what God’s spirit does for us upon baptism.
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Instruments shaped by a Master
I go back to the question posed at the beginning: What is God’s intention for allowing His people to suffer trials and tribulations?
Peter sums up the purpose of the blacksmith’s fire, hammering, and quenching by telling us, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 1:6-7).
God is working with each of us, using fire and pressure to remove imperfections and shape us into His image (Col. 3:10). We can fight this process, requiring Him to continually apply more heat and pressure to get the desired result. We can become brittle and break. We can refuse to hold the shape He creates. Or we can submit to the heat that is applied in our lives, and become the work He desires us to be. That part of the process is ultimately up to us.