The furnace of affliction or ‘the school of hard knocks’ – how God uses severe adversity to melt away the dross from our lives.

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 2 – A closer look at how God develops us as disciples

Not all of the difficult or unpleasant circumstances that we experience are due to God’s chastening or punishment. Some of it has other causes and purposes. One of those is that God allows us to face adversity, struggle, opposition and difficulty as a way of changing us. He allows such things even when He is pleased with us. As we saw above, It is as if the pressure we face has the effect of smelting us, just as precious metal is smelted by a jeweler to melt away the dross within the metal and to refine the silver or gold that remains. He does that to make it purer and better. It is also to test its genuineness. God does the same with us:

6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 1:6-7 (ESV)

Moses also speaks of the time spent as slaves in Egypt as being a ‘furnace’. Evidently God used that time in Egypt to forge the Israelites into what He wanted them to be:

But the Lord has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own possession, as at this day.

Deuteronomy 4:20 (RSV)

Job also spoke of this process. He faced more adversity than most of us ever will. Yet he was aware that it had a redemptive purpose. He knew that, in the end, after God had tested him by pressure, just as precious metal is tested by fire, he would emerge as pure gold rather than as a mixture of gold and dross:

“….when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold”

Job 23:10(b) (NASB)

Therefore, instead of complaining about pressure or difficulty, as we often do, we ought to try to remember its valuable purpose. We should even find it possible to rejoice in our sufferings, because of the benefits they produce in us:

3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Romans 5:3-5 (RSV)

It is good for us if God’s discipline can begin as early as possible, preferably while we are still young:

It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.

Lamentations 3:27 (ESV)

At times the Christian life can be like a furnace in which we are ‘tried’ by being put under severe pressure. That is done firstly to see what we are made of and, secondly, to change us, so that we become better and purer. So, we must not assume that all pressure and difficulty is a departure from God’s will, as if we were going the wrong way.

Neither does it always mean that God is punishing or chastening us. On the contrary, it is often evidence that we are on the right path, because some affliction is essential if we are to become a mature disciple. It is therefore God’s policy to ensure that some of it will come our way, even if we are living well and doing what is right:

“Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.

Isaiah 48:10 (NASB)

God does not adopt this approach of allowing us to face affliction because He is against us or because He wants to harm us. He is for us and He does it for our benefit, because He is wise enough to know that it is what we all need. Often it is these difficulties or restrictions that prevent us from doing things that would have destroyed us if we had been allowed to do all the things we wanted to do:

Surely it was for my benefit
that I suffered such anguish.
In your love you kept me
from the pit of destruction;

Isaiah 38:17(a) (NIV)

God takes no pleasure from our sufferings, or from putting us under pressure. He allows it because there are times when it is necessary and He does it all with compassion. Moreover, it is not permanent. God will only allow the affliction to continue for as long as it is needed in order to bring about the required changes:

31 For the Lord will not
cast off for ever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve the sons of men.

Lamentations 3:31-33 (RSV)

Although God will allow us to face very severe crisis and difficulties at times, and even to be knocked down by people and by circumstances, He will not let us be permanently knocked down. He will raise us up again at some point, when He has achieved the changes in our lives that He is trying to bring about:

Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles
wilt revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
thou wilt bring me up again.
21 Thou wilt increase my honor,
and comfort me again.

Psalm 71:20-21 (RSV)

for a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again;
but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.

Proverbs 24:16 (RSV)

One of the greatest benefits that comes from affliction and opposition is that it tends to drive us towards God’s Word. When a real disciple is put under severe pressure, he will turn more and more to the Scriptures. The Bible will become increasingly important and precious to him. That fact alone makes the affliction worthwhile:

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word.

Psalm 119:67 (ESV)

It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes.

Psalm 119:71 (ESV)
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