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God does not treat us all the same. While He pours down blessings on some, others receive constant pain, trauma, and heartache from His hands. When we do not understand the reasons for this different treatment, we fall prey to all kinds of devastating lies. This post is speaking to Christians whose experience of God has led them to conclude that He is a very brutal, indifferent, and merciless Father.
Let’s get out a workbench and put three items on it: a lump of clay, a block of wood, and a block of steel. Now we want to make something useful out of each of these things. What do we need to shape the clay? It’s easy: just our hands and maybe a bit of water to soften it. We can make a nice dish or a decorative figurine. It’s such an easy material to work with that our progress is swift and requires very little effort. We don’t even work up a sweat. When we’re done, we have something pretty to look at or something practical to use. But of course we have to be careful, because clay isn’t strong. If we drop our new creation, it will instantly shatter. It can’t withstand any stress and it has to be stored in a sheltered place. It’s not something we’re going to take on long trips with us because it would be too much of a pain to store and protect. This is a nice shelf item, but it has very limited applications because of the material it is made out of.
Now let’s go on to the wood. This definitely takes more effort. We have to use metal tools to chisel, chip and saw away the parts that we don’t want. It takes much longer to complete our masterpiece, but the end result is far more durable than the clay was. The wood can handle being knocked around a bit, but it’s still pretty limited. It can support weight or hold up books on a shelf, but it’s not going to be any good as a tool for creating other long lasting masterpieces.
Now let’s look at our last item: steel. Here is a material that has some serious potential. We can make anything we want out of this, and whatever we make, it’s going to be extremely durable and strong. If we fashion a tool out of it, that tool will be able to do great things. If we make it into a set of contractor’s tools, we’ll be able to smash down obstacles and construct great buildings. If we make it into a set of surgeon’s tools we’ll be able to make precise cuts into delicate human flesh that will save lives and relieve people of great misery. Steel has endless potential. Steel can be used to shape other steel, wood, and clay. Steel is the most useful material of the three.
But steel has a very different nature than clay and wood. We must do violent things to steel in order to reshape it. We have to torment it in terrible heat to soften its structure, then we have to brutally beat on it to mold it into the shape that we can see in our minds. Is it a flaw of the steel that it is so hard to work with? Is it because the steel is trying to fight against us? Not at all. The steel can strain to cooperate with all its might, yet the shaping process will still be hellish to endure simply because the steel was created with such great strength and potential.
Whenever we find a soul whose life is going wrong in every possible way, we are quick to assume that God must be punishing them because they are rebelling against Him. Whenever we find a soul being relentlessly pounded on with trials and heartbreak, we start talking about unconfessed sins and spiritual shortcomings. But don’t even think about confessing sins or pleading for forgiveness or attaching some “rebel” label to yourself until you answer one simple question: “Is God telling me that He’s displeased with me right now?”
Here’s something about God that you need to drill into your mind: when He is upset with you, He clearly communicates both the problem and a solution. He doesn’t start dropping vague hints and giving you the cold shoulder and waiting for you to make a lucky guess. He doesn’t start picking on every little detail of your life that isn’t utterly righteous. He doesn’t just complain at you without showing you how to get right with Him. And here’s another very important thing to know: when God is upset with you, He will show you the way to immediately reconcile with Him.
Repentance is how we get right with God, and repentance takes about one nanosecond to do. So even if you have been spitting in God’s face for fifty years and He is totally furious with you, His anger will instantly vanish the very second you repent. So if you’re groveling, stop. Groveling, cowering, apologizing fifty million times—these things are only going to exhaust your soul and create an illusion of distance between you and God. The only way you are being disciplined by God is if you are defying Him on a soul level. So think about it: in your heart are you thinking to yourself, “I hate God and I don’t give a darn about pleasing Him.” This is what rebellion is. If any part of you is thinking, “I wish I could please God” then you are not rebelling and He is not disciplining you. Period.
Once you have been properly taught, you will find that it is extremely simple to tell whether God is disciplining you or refining you. You just have to know where to look: inside your heart, not outside at your experiences in life. Both refinement and discipline can feel horribly painful, yet they require vastly different responses. Repentance is the correct way to respond to discipline, but not to refinement. Refinement is an entirely different animal, and refinement is what we are talking about in this post (see Help for Stressing Christians: Is God punishing you?).
For those of you in the refinement camp, we can now answer why God is being so much harder on you than He is on other Christians. It is not because He loves you less. It is because you are one of His steel vessels and He is shaping you into something awesome. This unceasing abuse has nothing to do with you being spiritually flawed or hard to work with. It is not an indication that your submission to Him is somehow lacking. Steel vessels can completely surrender themselves into God’s hands and they will still have a much harder time of it. This is about quality and potential, not about your level of obedience. Steel vessels are equipped with extra strength, extra endurance, and ten times the potential of others. It’s not about favorites or better, it’s about variety. God loves variety. He makes each of us for a different purpose. He loves His delicate little clay and wooden souls. Ah, but the steel ones—they are very special to Him. They stand apart in His eyes as creatures who He can do very special things with. And with that extra equipping also comes an extra ability to bond with God on deep levels. You are paying more because you are going to get more. Will it be worth it to you in the end? Absolutely.
God is like a military commander who has a different relationship with His high ranking officers than He does with His regular soldiers. He cares about all of His men. He loves all of His men. He makes a point to know them all. But He invites His officers to go places with Him that the others can’t come because He hasn’t equipped them. The officers get to know Him in a different way than the rest of the men. He shares things with them that He doesn’t share with others. It is a great privilege to be steel. It isn’t something you earned, it is something God chose for you when He made you, just as He chose the color of your hair and what foods you would like. Steel vessels have been set apart for great things, but before they can realize their full potential, they must go through a hellish refinement process. Why must we suffer in order to know God more? Because God is such a complex Being. We simply cannot understand certain aspects of Him without going through a wide range of experiences (see Why did God create sin?).
Does praying feel pointless to you right now? Is God refusing to speak to you? During intense refinement periods, God intentionally stays aloof. Not because He doesn’t care, but because He is trying to rush the process along as quickly as possible. If the flames are not hot enough, the steel won’t soften enough and harsher pounding will be required. If each blow isn’t strong enough, then the number of blows it takes to finish the task will be increased. God wants to get the whole misery over with as quickly as possible. He does not enjoy putting you through this, but He knows that if you saw the final outcome, you would want it. The fact that He is refusing to let up on you is evidence of His faithfulness to you: He is committed to you experiencing His best. Depending on how harsh His plans for you are, you might go through periods of feeling like you intensely hate Him. But if God sees in your soul that you really do want a closer relationship with Him, you will have it. He will get you there. You cannot fail when God has decided to make you succeed.
Look at your life. Consider all that you’ve been through so far. Consider all of the pain and misery that has already been invested. Do you think you are paying such high prices for some cheap and trivial thing? No, you are clearly being forged into something awesome—something that is so high in value that it is extremely expensive to gain. God can be relentless with that hammer. Perhaps He started on you when you were just a kid, and He still isn’t letting up. Perhaps He is refusing to give you the comfort of ever sensing His Presence drawing near in some warm and fuzzy way. Is five minutes of joy really too much to ask? No, but He wants to finish this part of the project as quickly as possible so He can get you out of the flames and on to experiencing all that He has in store for you. The lying, the disillusionment, the abandoning, the silence—these are the blows that are shaping you into something amazing. Of course right now it feels like they are just smashing you apart and wrecking you.
Michelangelo’s statue of David looked pretty ugly when it was only halfway done. And because you can’t see the finished image in God’s mind, it’s very hard to believe that this mess is really going to end anywhere good. When we are still in the midst of the refining process, we look in the mirror at a warped, bruised, and broken mess and we are convinced that irreparable damage has been done. But intense spiritual refinement is like watching a movie that keeps spiraling downhill until you’re just sure all hope is lost—and then suddenly, unexpected plot twists change everything. Despair is flipped into joy. Great losses are replaced by great gain. God knows how to do this. He is a master at working with steel. You must stay the course. If you were to see what God has in store for you, you would not want to miss it. If you will let God finish this project, you are going to end up with a prize that no one can buy, imitate, or ever take away from you. Best of all, what you gain with God now will flow into the next life, for death is simply a change of scenery in our ongoing relationship with God. He has created you to go to glorious places with Him. No, He didn’t ask your opinion before deciding to make you one of His steel vessels. He didn’t give you the option of being a different kind of material that would require less work, and therefore experience less pain. He didn’t ask you because He had already decided that He wanted you to be part of His inner circle of souls who He could take farther and share more with. Yes, you can survive this because He has equipped you for this. You have been designed to succeed, not crumble. Of course it’s okay to hate the whole process and wish it could all go away. Of course there are times when you can’t help feeling like death is a far more attractive option. But death doesn’t give you anything, it just takes away what you could have had.
This earth is the refining center—all the pain and misery we experience down here impact us in ways that end up expanding our soul options with God. If we try to cut it short, we just end up in eternity with less than we would have had if we’d let God finish preparing us to be in the fullness of His Presence. How much of Him we will be able to soak in—how intimately we’ll be able to know Him—these things are being determined right now as He shapes us in this earthly smelting furnace. This pain is temporary, but the things we gain from it will be eternal. You must be greedy and refuse to except less than the full measure of joy that God wants to give you. You have already come this far. Happily, we only have to get through each day once. This whole nightmare is about you and God getting to share something awesome. It is a process which has always had method, purpose, and (most importantly) an end date. What does God want from you? Not confessions, not apologizing, not cowering. All He wants is for you to try and believe that He is madly in love with you and that He is fighting for you to have nothing less than His absolute best. This is your assignment as He takes you through this refinement period. And when you get out—which you certainly will—you will look back on all this and say, “That was seriously horrible. But now that I see what it has bought me, I can honestly say that it was so worth it.”