From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 2 – A closer look at how God develops us as disciples
Obviously, most of us have no desire to suffer or to be put under pressure. Indeed, it would be perverse for us to actually want to suffer, or to gain any pleasure from it. We should not want it in that sense. Nevertheless, it is valid to be willing to pray that God would place us into His “furnace of affliction” if He wishes to, i.e. whenever He feels we need it.
It would be like an overweight person who has no actual desire to diet but who, nonetheless, chooses to go into a health farm or diet clinic for a period of time, where food intake is strictly controlled. It isn’t what they want as such. They may well find it very difficult. But it is still what they choose to do. Likewise, it makes sense that we should take that approach when facing affliction, because anything that God does is for the best, even when He is putting us through an ordeal.
However, we need to think very carefully before we actually pray to ask God to put us into His furnace of affliction. You can make that prayer, and it is a good thing to do. But you need to do it with your eyes wide open, realising the full implications of what you are praying for. God will take you at your word and you will then be sent on a roller-coaster ride involving some “white-knuckle” moments of difficulty and pressure.
You will face incident after incident, and person after person,that God will use to test and stretch you to your limits. He will not take you past the point at which He knows you would snap. But, in my experience, He does seem to go fairly close to that point. At least it feels like that while you are going through it.
I draw attention to this concept of a Christian positively asking to be put into the furnace of affliction because it is a prayer I made myself many years ago. God certainly took me at my word and my life was turned upside down and inside out for more than a decade. I believe it was the direct result of my making that prayer. I asked God to put me into His furnace and not to let me out until He was satisfied that I had been in there long enough to deal with the dross in my life and character.
I made that prayer with my eyes open, fully meaning what I was saying, and knowing that it would lead to some difficulty. I got the idea from listening to a teaching tape in which the speaker recommended it, but warned that we should not pray it unless we really mean it and are willing to pay the price. I did mean it, and was willing to face whatever God saw fit to do with me. However, I had no idea at the time how long that smelting process would take or how arduous it would be. It also never occurred to me that God would put pressure on me in my job and business. Somehow, I didn’t expect Him to reach into those parts of my life.
At any rate, the fact is I prayed that prayer and within a month a series of stress-inducing incidents began which went on for about 13 years. It all began with me discovering that one of my business partners at that time had forged an invoice on the firm’s letterhead. It was typed up by him rather than by the cashiers, and was not entered onto the system at all.
He did it in order to get a client to pay him personally, rather than the firm. So, that was an attempt by him to divert money away from the firm and to have it all for himself instead. I was a one third owner of that firm. I then went to the Senior Partner and reported this to him. He promised to support me when I confronted the partner who had done this.
However, when we met to discuss it at a Partners’ meeting, the Senior Partner said nothing. He never backed me up and just stared at the floor when I turned to him and asked for his comments. He made no reply. I could see then that I was on my own and that the Senior Partner had decided to back the wrongdoer rather than me.
From that moment, I realised that I needed to get out of that firm. So I told the other two partners, shortly afterwards, that I wanted to de-merge the firm and leave, taking my own files and clients with me, plus my own staff. At that point the two of them turned on me aggressively and refused to cooperate or to permit me to leave. So, I appointed solicitors to act for me and then issued court proceedings to have the firm wound up.
I did so on the basis of the second partner’s misconduct and the Senior Partner’s refusal to do anything about it, or to allow me to leave. But they resisted those proceedings. Then, they went to the other extreme and held a further partner’s meeting a few weeks later at which they expelled me from the firm.
The two of them simply voted to expel me as a partner. I voted against, but they had two votes. They expelled me on the supposed basis that I was causing disruption, and they drew up a list of bogus or exaggerated allegations. So, we ended up with the bizarre situation in which I was basically expelled for catching the second partner in an act of wrongdoing and for raising it at a partners’ meeting. It was the sort of thing which you see in films, but which you never expect to happen in real life, least of all to yourself.
In addition to that blow, we also learned, in the very same month, that my wife was being made redundant from her job which she had had for many years. Therefore we suddenly had no income at all. That said, it was also God’s way of providing for us, because the redundancy payment helped us to start up the new firm.
So, in quick succession, I was thrown out of my job and business and then my wife lost her job. Moreover, my former partners then refused to pay me my one third share of the equity or capital in the business. The partnership deed required that they pay me, but instead, they made more allegations against me and argued that these amounted to ‘counterclaims’. They just happened to be equal to what I was owed by them.
I could have fought them in the courts, but it would have taken about two years, especially as they would have dragged it out by causing procedural delays. So, after fighting for a few months, I gave up and discontinued my claim. I could not afford the legal costs involved. In the space of the first three months I had already received bills from my own solicitors of about £20,000 and we had only just got started.
I had also realised by then that my former partners would make whatever further allegations were needed to spin out the case and to avoid, or at least delay, paying me. Moreover, there was a high chance that they would not be able to pay me in the end, even if I eventually won the case and got a court order requiring them to do so.
You can perhaps imagine how painful that whole experience was. It was unjust and hugely disruptive to me financially. I had no option but to start again from scratch by opening a new law firm. It had no staff, no files, no clients, no furniture, no equipment, no anything. On day one I was literally the only person in the so called ‘firm’. The furniture consisted of a dining room chair from home and my mobile phone was the only phone ‘system’ that I had. Yet, only one day earlier, I had been the managing partner and Head of the Litigation department in a quite large firm.
Nevertheless, I then recruited staff, got furniture, and began to open files for new clients, but it was very tough. Moreover, we had very little cash and banks refused to help me. So, for the first three years of the new firm’s life I had to survive in an extremely difficult financial situation. It was emotionally exhausting, always being on a knife edge. I came close to going bust several times, but God always rescued me at the last moment. I survived each crisis, in turn, though only for there to be yet another one within weeks or months afterwards.
On top of all that I began to experience severe problems with some of the staff that I recruited for the new law firm. Person after person came in and caused me great stress and difficulty due to their dishonesty, laziness, incompetence or malice. Again and again I had to go through the process of investigating, disciplining and dismissing them. I found it all very wearing and debilitating, especially as so many of them were so nasty to deal with.
The problem was made worse by the fact that the new firm grew so quickly. At its peak, five years after I started the new firm, there were over 80 staff working in it. That rapid rate of expansion helps to explain why so many bad people got in. But it still doesn’t fully explain the very high numbers of bad staff. It was disproportionate, or statistically unrepresentative, in that I got far more than my fair share of devious and malicious employees.
I now realise that God deliberately allowed this stream of bad people to get in. He wanted to test me to my limits. It was also to give me lots of experience of handling wicked people. The various situations I faced in dealing with them gave me the material I needed to write Book Six in this series, which is about identifying wicked people and how to handle them. So, the long series of confrontations had great value in the end, but the learning process was an exhausting ordeal, which went on for many years.
One of the worst employees I had to deal with was a woman in her early thirties whom I recruited and made a supervisor. I unwisely gave her that role too quickly and she turned out to be both incompetent and disloyal. So we had to dismiss her after only five months in the job. She then issued proceedings in an Employment Tribunal and made up a ridiculously false story as to why she had been sacked. She said that it was because she had worn a short skirt! That had nothing to do with it. Indeed, I hadn’t even seen it. Or, if I had, I hadn’t noticed it.
She also went to the national media making these bogus allegations about me. One day a journalist actually came to the door of our house, while I was out, and upset my wife by questioning her. I defended the case, in which she was claiming over £100,000, but in the end she abandoned her entire claim and received no damages or costs at all.
She had assumed that I would be intimidated by the size of her claim, and by having my name in national newspapers, and that I would accept her demands. But I refused to be intimidated, or to give in to her. Therefore, at the last moment, she dropped the entire claim because she didn’t want it to go to a hearing. She knew that she had no case and was only bluffing.
Nevertheless, for several months I had to deal with the stress of false allegations being made by a malicious claimant and with it being heavily publicized in virtually every national newspaper. It wasn’t easy, to put it mildly. In fact it really got me down. Yet I had no alternative but to fight it. I felt like the Psalmist in his dealings with false witnesses:
Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;Psalm 27:12 (RSV)
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they breathe out violence.
In addition to all these pressures, I was also kept very busy as a Borough Councillor and Chairman of the Conservative Association. I had these two roles at the same time as running a law firm and they added a lot to my workload. However, perhaps the greatest pressure of all though came from something so obscure that less than 0.5% of the population have ever even heard of it. It was a legal issue which threatened my entire livelihood for about ten years. It had to do with the client agreements used in litigation cases. They are called Conditional Fee Agreements (“CFAs”) or “no win, no fee” agreements so far as the public are concerned.
It is much too complex to explain in detail here, but the gist of it is that these CFAs were drafted to comply with very specific (and badly written) legislation. If they were correctly worded, and fully complied with all the minutiae of the CFA regulations, then a law firm would be paid in full. But if not, then the law firm would be paid nothing at all. There were many cases being reported of law firms whose CFA had been ruled to be non-compliant, and therefore invalid, for a variety of trivial reasons.
These reported cases came one after another, and caused major turmoil amongst law firms. Each time I wondered if my firm would be the next to be destroyed by having its CFA declared to have been imperfectly drafted in some obscure way. Therefore, for nearly a decade, there was a “costs war” in which insurance companies and other paying parties were searching for tiny defects in the drafting of these CFAs which they could use to get out of paying.
If a firm’s CFA was held to be non-compliant, then nothing would be payable to that firm for all the work done on that file, for perhaps the previous 12-36 months. And it would not only affect that one file, but all subsequent files as well, because that insurer would then raise the same challenge with that firm on every other file from then on. Moreover, other insurers would also hear of the Court’s judgment and then join in by refusing to pay. This costs war affected most law firms, but mine in particular, because nearly all our work was done through CFAs. Most other firms only did a small percentage of their work that way.
Thus, if my firm’s CFA had ever been held to be technically in breach of the rules, and thus invalid, then I would have been financially wiped out overnight. I would have been bankrupt. I had that huge threat hanging over me for nearly a decade. I managed to fend off various temporary challenges for five years but eventually the first serious legal challenge was made to me. It related to a microscopically small detail in our CFA.
An insurance company challenged it on four different grounds and refused to pay us. We therefore had to go to Court in London to have a judge decide whether they should have to pay us, i.e. whether the drafting of our CFA was valid or invalid.
That case then lasted for five more years. That long delay was mainly because I deliberately slowed their challenge down in every way I could. We also redrafted my firm’s CFA for all new clients from then on. I wanted to try to reduce the potential impact of losing the case by allowing as many as possible of the old ones to get completed and paid before this challenge reached the stage of a court hearing. My aim was to have as few old CFAs remaining as possible, in case I lost at that hearing.
Eventually, it all ended well. I won the case outright and our CFA was fully upheld and declared to be compliant on all counts. The insurer had challenged my CFA on four different points and they lost on all of them. However, during those ten years I had to live with the constant prospect of being wiped out financially and losing my whole business, all because a minor word or phrase in our CFA might be held to be technically non-compliant. It was like the sword of Damocles hanging over my head throughout all those years, on top of all the other work pressures that I had to face, plus the problems of dealing with bad staff.
Moreover, I also had to deal with some major problems in the church I was then part of. The leader was behaving very badly, including being a liar and a manipulator. I was the Chairman of the Trustees of that church and was therefore responsible for all the paid staff of the church. Therefore it fell to me to try to do something about the leader’s misconduct. (See Book One for further details). Tackling him was very disorientating and stressful in itself, but he also did great harm to me by telling lies about me in order to defend himself.
On top of all these things there were also many other miscellaneous, one-off pressures and crises too. It was basically coming from all directions simultaneously and it was unrelenting. At any given time there would always be one, and usually two, three or even more, crises for me to deal with. It never stopped throughout all those years. But God used that sustained ordeal to break me and refine my character. I changed a great deal and learned very much.
As far as I was concerned, it definitely met the definition of being a ‘furnace’. I also believe that that long sequence of events was the direct result of my prayer that God would put me into His furnace. God took that prayer far more seriously than I had. Even so, as I look back, I don’t regret praying as I did. Neither do I regret any of the time spent in the furnace, despite its severity. It all served the purpose of melting me down and changing me for the better.
Therefore if I had my time again I would make the same prayer. I would also advise you to do so too, provided you are serious, really mean what you are praying, and are willing to stay in the furnace for as long as it takes. However, bear in mind that, realistically, it will probably mean years rather than weeks or months.
I say that because when metal is melted it requires very severe heat and for a long time. Ordinary flames would just heat the metal, but not melt it. In the same way, God is not merely seeking to heat you up; He wants to melt you down completely. So, be reconciled to the fact that it will take ages, due to the scale of the task He is attempting to accomplish.
Some might say that it is foolish to pray for additional difficulties, and that, as they say in the army, one should “never volunteer for anything”. There is some sense in that. Most soldiers only do what they have to do and don’t volunteer for any more. That’s not unreasonable. However, there is also a school of thought that says that if you have to be in the army, then you may as well try to be the very best you can be. It’s that kind of reasoning that makes people apply to join the Marines or the Paratroops or some other equivalent.
I was interested to hear, when watching a series about the American 101st Airborne Division in World War Two, that many of the men who applied to join it expressed that view. They had volunteered to join an elite unit because they wanted to be the very best they could be. But choosing to train to become a paratrooper, rather than remaining as an ordinary, conscripted infantryman, meant a much harder physical regime. Many volunteers had to drop out, or else they were weeded out by the Army, because they just couldn’t cope with the rigour of it.
But that minority who could endure it became some of the very best and most effective soldiers in the army. For that reason, when there was a really difficult job to be done, General Eisenhower often sent the 101st Airborne Division to deal with it. So, volunteering for a much harder training regime can be the right thing to do, provided you have thought it through beforehand, and are willing to pay the full price.
Do bear in mind though that being put into God’s furnace is not an entirely voluntary affair. He will put all of us into it, from time to time, and to a certain extent, even if we never ask for it. So, we can’t escape God’s training regime simply by never volunteering for it. The only question is whether you should deliberately seek to be given more of it, or just take whatever level of pressure God was going to give you anyway, without asking for any extra. It all depends on how committed you are and whether you want an easier life now, or a better life in the next world.