Refinement: How We See and Experience Adversity

“See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.” — Isaiah 48:10, NRSV

In a previous post, we talked about the fact that adversity is a guarantee in life. Struggle, as you probably know, happens to everyone at one point or another. The intensity, causes, and manifestations of struggle may change, but the fact is adversity is a companion we should get used to. This leaves us with those two all-important questions: how will we face it and how will we surface on the other side?

For me, one of the most adverse experiences that I have been faced with is the loss of my job and calling, all in the span of a few months. After being let go from working at my appointed church, I was eager to  get back into ministry elsewhere. The problem was, the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to go back. Don’t get me wrong, we have been attending churches and I have still kept my Christian spiritual life in tact. I also want to get involved at whatever church we join, teaching classes, serving in missions, etc. However, I want to do those things for free, not tethered to the institutional church. There are some who are called to that and who do amazing work in professional ministry. My personal sense of integrity, idealism, and faith keep me from being one of those people. Others may be called to use these gifts in professional ministry, but I have learned it is not my way.

On one hand, this was a good realization. It is just as much a blessing to know when one is not called to something as knowing when one is called to something. I fostered a lot of resentment in my time in professional ministry, mostly toward other clergy who had a sense of belonging that I never experienced. I also had major issues with a necessary component to church in the United States, which is keeping the right people content. To me, if something is true or in need of being presented, it needs to be presented, regardless of the implications for a person’s spiritual life. If their spiritual life is selfishly constructed, what are we even doing?

Anyway, I won’t go much further down that road.

On the other hand, this one hurt. I was planning to spend my life in ministry. I wanted to be important in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God. I wanted my life to matter for the cause of Christ.

I should say that being fired was actually a bit of a blessing. I had issues with that placement. I was bad at keeping boundaries that protected me, my relationships, and the amazing congregation of youth and adults I love. Being let go and having the opportunity to face those ugly truths has actually made me a better man, and it also allowed me the chance to see what I should (and shouldn’t) be doing with my life. All in all, I’m happier now than I have been in a long time, and I have God and my amazing wife, family, and friends to thank for that. However, this is not the only result that could have come.

You see, adversity like this is not strange or uncommon. Whether it is brought on by chance, our own doings, or the doings of others, we are all going to face the ugly side of life and free will at many points throughout our brief existence on this earth. With that in mind, we need to answer those two all-important questions.

I submit that we look at adversity as divine testing. Now, before my more progressive friends close this window, and before my theologically… assertive (Calvinist?) brothers and sisters jump sky-high with delight, let me expand on what I mean by “divine testing.” When most of us think about the idea of God testing us, we look at it in academic terms. Just as the teacher is the one who hands us the blue book or scan-tron, we imagine God is the one who engineers the particular circumstance by which we are tested. God hands it to us, and we are expected to do our best to pass it.

For some of us, this may be comforting, but it isn’t for me. It makes God seem a bit cruel. However, I do believe we are tested in that God watches how we respond to certain things. God gives us freedom and the tools to make choices, even gives us the means of making the right choices, however, it is up to us to complete that act, and God is watching, prepared to give revelation in either an affirming or corrective manner.

This is a middle road opinion, to be sure, but I find it to be the most Scriptural of the available options. For example, take a look at the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. A situation of adversity comes up (4:5), God warns and encourages Cain (4:6-7), a regrettable choice is made (4:8), and God responds accordingly (4:10-12). The same happens with everyone, from the heroes of faith (like Moses and David) to the entire nation of Israel and the body of Christian believers. All are tested, but not because God puts them in crappy situations. Rather, we are all tested when we face adversity that is common to all, specific to our situation, and has the potential to cause us to act unfaithfully. 

If you look at the Scripture at the beginning of this post, you’ll find that it is a quote from a context in which Isaiah is making note of the times Israel failed their tests. This failure led to their conquest and exile as a natural out working of their violation of God’s covenant. There are many tests that we have failed or will fail. However, the grace of God in Christ is relentless. While we may fail, God calls us to repent (to change our ways and move in a different direction). If we do this, and if we continue to put in efforts to better ourselves and stay connected to God, we will eventually see a change in how adversity affects us.  What once drove us to sin, anger, bitterness, addiction, and other negative actions can actually be an opportunity to live in faith, kindness, compassion, and honesty. When we move from the former to the latter, it is the grace of God working within us, refining us, and making us more whole.

I have responded to the recent tests in both positive and negative ways. I have been hurt, angry, and resentful. However, I have also gotten help for those things, and a result, I have grown closer to God, my wife, my friends, and my family. I have also gained more understanding regarding what kind of life I want to have in order to serve God and others best. In the end, I hope you will pray for me that I may come through this process refined and improved. I will also pray for you in that regard, dear reader. 

Go forth in hope, knowing that every day, we are being tested. Every situation presents us with an opportunity to do good or evil, and we must choose. Remember that God is always with you, no matter what, and rise to the occasion the next inevitable time adversity comes to meet you. By the grace of God, I know that we can overcome.

Peace be with you!

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