Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you,
as though something strange were happening to you. 1 Pe. 4:12 ESV
You know fire. I mean the destructive, raging, out-of-control fires of life. But also, the slow burn of suffering drawn out. Some fiery trials others can see—natural disasters, death, financial ruin, public betrayal—while other invisible flames lick away at our insides in the form of anxiety, panic, anger, and grief. Even the tongue is a fire, according to James. Surely, being on the receiving end of someone’s fiery speech is a kind of suffering, as it scorches relationships privately or blazes through welfare and reputations.
Yet, the weight of God’s Word favors the good in our suffering; we can expect heated suffering of various kinds, and eventually not ‘resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends.’ * Speaking of the normality of suffering, Elisabeth Eliot used to say that …suffering is wanting what we don’t have, or having what we don’t want. With flames that regular, we need to know where our comfort and confidence lie:
Suffer with a True Friend. Like a hot oven, your life might scare people away; who wants to jump in there with you—or even touch? In the account of Daniel 3, three faithful men were thrown by a pagan king into a blazing furnace hot enough to immediately incinerate. When the king checked on the sufferers’ status, he saw three men loose in the fire, free from the ropes that bound them, free from destruction. They wouldn’t bend, they wouldn’t bow, they wouldn’t burn, as Johnny Cash sang, not because they were made of stronger stuff than us, but because there was a fourth man in the fire—Jesus, the Son of God. Incidentally, this searing image reminds me that while I cannot be the ‘fourth man’ for others, I repent for ignoring suffering friends and want to be a companion-in-body when possible.
Suffer with a purpose. As I write this, the Lenten season anticipates the only way of Jesus’ suffering that could have secured the redemption of his people—albeit by mockery, injustice, betrayal, darkness, torture, death, and the cross. Our suffering is not eliminated by his (remember we live in a broken world), but Christ took it upon himself. Being made like us in every respect, yet without sin, he comprehends our agony and temptations in fiery trials. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:18 ESV). The cross speaks to both aspects of our identity as sinners and sufferers. The reality of the resurrection promises very present help in the midst of our suffering and sustainable hope that it leads somewhere good and glorious.
As God broke into history to remove our sins and restore us to relationship, so the Suffering Servant speaks to us in suffering, carries us through it (see Isaiah 53:4) in fellowship with him (see Philippians 3:10), according to his redemptive purposes. All of this said, and with a deep respect for you in your sufferings, whatever they may be, let’s embrace these cool words of promise:
When you walk through the fire
You’ll not be burned,
And the flames will not
Consume you. (Is. 43:2)
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
…That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake. (“How Firm a Foundation”)
*James 1:2 (JB Philipps)
For further encouragement: Psalm 34:8; Romans 5:1-5; 1 Peter 4: 12-18; James 1:1-8