In Part One, Dr. Keller explored the philosophical aspects of suffering. In Part Two, he took us through what the Bible teaches about it. In Part Three, he is going to take us through the most practical material. Going through the “furnace of affliction” is not a matter of technique, but one of walking with God, or orienting ourselves towards him so that the changes that occur help make us better rather than worse.
Chapter Eleven: Walking
On page 225, Dr. Keller states, “How can we actually, practical, face and get through the suffering that has come upon us? Most books and resources for sufferers today no longer talk about enduring affliction but instead use a vocabulary drawn from business and psychology to enable people to manage, reduce, and cope with stress, strain, or trauma. Sufferers are counseled to avoid negative thoughts; to buffer themselves with time off, exercise, and supportive relationships; to problem solve; and to “learn to accept things we can’t change.” But all the focus is on controlling your immediate emotional responses and environment.”
One of the main metaphors given in the Bible for facing affliction is walking. In many ancient societies, as in our modern western culture, suffering is seen as something to avoid or insulate ourselves from, something that must be endured without flinching or feeling until it passes. But we are not supposed to just stand our ground against it, but to meet it and move through it without shock, surprise, denial, resentment, fear, surrender or despair.
In Isaiah chapter 43 God says to Israel, “When you pass through the waters…when you pass through the rivers…when you walk through the fire…” He doesn’t say “if”, but “when”. And he encourages them by reminding them “do not be afraid, for I am with you.” This is our promise that God is with us, walking beside us.
In the New Testament, Peter takes the metaphor and drives it further. In 1 Peter 1:7, he states, “Trials…have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Gold, when put through fire, is not destroyed, but melts and the impurities within it are burned off or removed.
Our faith is mixed with all sorts of impurities – commitments to comfort, power, pride, pleasure and self. Our faith may be abstract and intellectual, thinking we are sinners saved by grace, yet actually thinking we are doing well because we are more decent, open-minded, hardworking or loving than others. We may have many blemishes on our character. We may be too harsh, ungenerous, impulsive, controlling, unreliable, fragile, timid or cowardly. Going through the furnace, we can see who we really are. Or not.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego found themselves required to conform their religious faith and practice to the dictates of the state. When confronted with their refusal, they declared that God was able to deliver them, yet could confidently state, “But if not…” They declared that their confidence was in God, not because they somehow knew he would deliver them, which they did not, but simply because their God is God. When we trust God for an answer to prayer and it seems that he lets us down when we don’t what we sought, it is because we treat God as a means to an end and our faith and trust is in our own agenda. Our greatest joy comes from honoring God, not from him giving us what we want in life. And while Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego found another in the furnace to walk beside them, Jesus went through the furnace of the cross alone. Why? Because on the cross he not only suffered with us but for us.
So what can we learn? We can learn who we are – our strengths and weaknesses. We can learn to compassionately help others who are hurting. We can learn to trust in God in a way that will fortify us against life’s impending disappointments. And we can learn to be wise about life. God walks with us, but the real question is will we walk with him? In Dr. Keller’s words, “If we have created a false God-of-my-program, then when life falls apart we will simply assume he has abandoned us and we won’t seek him…So what do you have to do in order to grow instead of being destroyed by your suffering? The answer is that you must walk with God. And what is that? It means we must treat God as God and as there…it means to see with the eyes of your heart how Jesus plunged into the fire for you when he went to the cross… This means remembering the gospel.”
Then you can say to yourself in the furnace, “This is my furnace. I am not being punished for my sins, because Jesus was thrown into that ultimate fire for me. And so if he went through that greatest fire steadfastly for me, I can go through this smaller furnace steadfastly for him. And I also know it means that if I trust in him, this furnace will only make me better.”
On page 236 Dr. Keller says, “There are many people who think of spiritual growth as something like high diving. They say, ‘I am going to give my life to the Lord…I am really going to transform!’…[but that] is not what a walk is. A walk is day in and day out praying; day in and day out Bible and Psalms reading; day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends, and going to corporate worship, committing yourself to and fully participating in the life of a church. It is rhythmic, on and on and on…So walking with God through suffering means that, in general, you will not experience some kind of instant deliverance from your questions, your sorrow, your fears…in general it will be slow and steady progress that comes only if you stick to the regular, daily activities of the walking itself...We are called to walk, to grieve and weep, to trust and pray, to think, thank, and love, and to hope.”
Next week Chapter Twelve: Weeping
Until then, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,