Today I’m going to be talking about the topic of refinement. This isn’t going to be an easy topic to teach on. Some of you will probably feel very convicted, some might be angry, but I’m hoping most of you will be encouraged by what I’m going to say because there is much to be encouraged about.
The term refinement is actually a metallurgical term (metallurgical means the study of metals). It means to remove impurities from a metal. Refinement is a term that has both physical and spiritual meanings. Originally, I got inspired to write about this topic back in December, when I was searching the Bible for Scriptures dealing with metals. You might say that sounds strange, but for those of you who don’t know, I am a Metallurgical Engineer, which means I engineer metals. But when I was looking at all these Scriptures dealing with metal, I found a common theme among them, which is the topic of refinement.
Now to understand the meaning of refinement better, I’m going to be a little nerdy and explain how metal was refined back in Biblical times. Metal is found in nature in many forms, but it is almost never found in its pure state. You’ll never find pure iron or copper just lying around. Metals are found in nature combined with elements like oxygen, silicon, sulfur, phosphorus, and carbon. In order to get the metals, they have to be separated from those impurities in order to get the desired metal. Traditionally, this was accomplished through the application of heat. By heating up the ore to very high temperatures in a furnace, the chemical bonds between the metal and the impurities can be broken. Because of their differing densities, the impurities will rise to the top of the molten metal, where they can be separated from the purer metal. Depending on the purity of metal needed, this process can be repeated several times.
A similar process occurs spiritually within every Christian. God refines every Christian to remove their “impurities” and make them more like Christ. This refinement is both a natural and painful part of being a Christian. And so my challenge to each one of you is this: to stop resisting the refinement of God in your life, but rather embrace it. It will be painful, it will be challenging, but it will be worth it. You will have joy inexpressible and peace that passes all understanding, but more than anything else, you will be more Christ-like.
What is Refinement?
What is refinement in the context of being a Christian? What does it look like? Refinement is closely correlated with what we call sanctification. Sanctification means to be set apart for a specific purpose; in our case that purpose is to be made holy, or as it says in the book of Romans to be conformed to the image of the Son, in other words to be more like Christ. Sanctification is the calling that God has on all Christians and refinement is the mechanism by which He accomplishes that.
So how does God refine us as Christians? God refines us through two different ways: through opposition and through discipline. We face opposition from the devil, the world, and from our flesh, and we face discipline from the Lord. I will explain more about those later. The bottom line is – the only way refinement occurs is by going through the fire. Just as in my analogy about metallurgy, in order to remove the impurities, the metal has to be put through the fiery furnace so that the impurities can rise to the top and be removed. Only by going through trials and tribulations can those things which are not of Christ be brought to our surface to be removed. Do you ever notice that when you are going through something hard, your less admirable qualities seem to rise to the surface? You are more irritable, depressed, unloving, or the like. This leads me to my first point about refinement: That refinement is painful.
Refinement is Painful
The fire is representative of the trials and tribulations that we go through in life. Paul lists several kinds of these in 2 Corinthians 12:10.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Let’s explore each of these a little.
Weaknesses – physical or mental ailments, such as diseases, mental disabilities, or same sex attractions
Insults – Hubris (Greek), being belittled, insulted, or mistreated in some way
Hardships – Being deprived or constrained of the necessities of life; can also include financial hardships
Persecutions – Severe oppression from others, having your life put in danger for being a Christian
Calamities – Circumstances that are distressing, difficult, feels like the rug comes out from under you
How many of you have ever experienced these kinds of things in your life? We all have. I know I have. Every person, whether a Christian or not, experiences these kinds of things in life. None of us have to be told that these things are painful to experience, but God uses these painful events in our lives in order to refine us. Through that pain, those qualities within us that are not of Christ are brought to the surface (just like with metal refining) so that they can be dealt with and removed. So when God refines us, it is painful. And that is why my challenge to you is to stop resisting God’s refining fire. It is painful, but it is worth it.
This is not to condemn those who are resisting. It is human nature to want to avoid pain. Anything that takes us out of our sphere of comfort we naturally want to avoid or get rid of. But what happens when you can’t avoid pain? What happens, when the same trial besets you every day? When we can’t escape pain? Do you see the purpose behind it, or do you start asking God why. Why are you putting me through this? Why are you allowing this to happen to me? Are those really the right questions to be asking? The reality is – they’re not the right questions to be asking during trials and tribulations. Those questions imply that something unusual or out of place is happening to us, as if we shouldn’t be experiencing difficulty of some sort.
But the fact that we experience trials shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us. It is part of being a Christian. Turn to 1 Peter 4:12-19 and listen to what Peter says.
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. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:12-19)
Peter makes the interesting statement in that last verse, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Did you know that suffering and pain can happen in accordance with God’s will? Am I saying that God is the author of that pain? No, not necessarily. But I am saying that God will use the pain in your life to refine you into the image of Christ. Pain is a legitimate part of God’s refinement in a Christian.
Refinement is Natural
This leads me into my next point – refinement is natural. Refinement is a natural thing for a Christian, meaning it is supposed to happen; it is going to happen. If you remember, I brought up that God’s refines us through opposition and discipline. We live in a world that is naturally opposed to God and his kingdom. We have the Devil and his dominion, the world, and the flesh all opposing us in this life. There is no lack of fiery trials or tribulations in this world for us to be refined with. And so long as we stand opposed to the devil, the world, and the flesh, that friction (to use another science analogy) generates heat that will be used to refine us.
We not only face opposition from those things, but we also are disciplined by God himself, and this discipline refines us. Now we normally think about discipline as punishment for doing wrong, but that is not the case when it comes to us in our relationship with God. Jesus subjected himself to God’s punishment on the cross in our place. God does not punish us, even when we do wrong things because Jesus paid the full price for our sins. That does not mean that there aren’t consequences to our actions, but those consequences are not punishment. God instead teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains us as His children because he loves us. We often confuse these things with punishment because they are painful, but that is because we can’t always see the big picture as God can. Turn to Hebrews 12:5-13
“And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:5–13, ESV)
Refinement is natural and painful and will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness. If you are God’s child, you will undergo God’s discipline. If we are not undergoing discipline, we are illegitimate children. In light of all of this, what should our response be to these things? Consider the responses of those as given in Scripture. (I’m just going to read these, so listen carefully. Consider the attitude of James, the brother of Jesus
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2–4, ESV)
What is his response? Count it all joy. Consider the attitude of Paul
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
What is his response? To rejoice in the midst of suffering. Consider the attitude of the Psalmist
It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. (Psalms 119:71)
What is his response? It is good for me. Consider the attitude of Peter and the other apostles
…and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:40-41)
What was their response? To rejoice that they were worthy to suffer. But most of all, we need to consider the attitude of Jesus
…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:2-3)
What was the response of Christ? To look at the joy that was set before Him, ultimately to see beyond the pain.
So what should our response be? The same as theirs! To be joyful, to rejoice, to say, “It is good,” to look beyond the pain that is in front of us towards the God who sanctifies and refines us to become more like Christ, to produce the endurance, character, hope, and ultimately the love that only comes from God. We ought to count our suffering and trials as one of our greatest privileges, not as a burden. Listen to what Paul wrote in Philippians 1:29
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, (Philippians 1:29)
It has been granted to you as a privilege. Most of our natural responses to that would be, “Uhhh, God, I will willingly deprive myself of this privilege,” and by doing so you deprive yourself of the greatest joys of living the Christian life. If you want to live a meaningful Christian life, you will have to learn how to rejoice in the midst of suffering and how to surrender in the midst of trial so that God will refine and remove those things that are not of Him.
God refines us for our own good. It almost never feels that way during the middle of it, but God offers us reassurance.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28-29)
It’s talking about us. Those who love God (that’s us), those who are called according to His purpose (that’s us), those whom he foreknew (that’s us), these are all talking about us. Some of you might ask, “All things work together for good? But what good can come of my situation?” I looked up the Greek word for “all.” It means ‘all.’ All things work together for good. “But Neal, you don’t know what I’m going through.” I don’t need to know. God’s Word says all things work together for good, and I for one am going to believe him. Just because we can’t the good, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that good isn’t being accomplished. We have every limited perspective, but God sees all.
An important point on this to make is: Do not confuse the word good with happiness. You will be deeply disappointed if you believe that God will work all things together to make you happy. I’ve only lived on earth 24 years, and you learn very quickly that God does not work all things to your happiness, but if you have the right perspective, you will see that he works all things for your good, for your joy, and for His glory. God will use all things for your good as He sees it, not how you see it. And praise the Lord for that! In reality, do we really know what’s best for ourselves, or would we rather trust our omniscient Creator? Or do you really think you can run your life better than He can?
So whatever you are going through, God wants to use it for your good and to use it to conform you to the image of His Son. The question is: will you let him? God will not refine the parts of your life you refuse to surrender to Him. (repeat) When we refuse to surrender to God, we will stay stuck in the middle of our trials. This is where so many of us are today. We are stuck in our trials because we refuse to surrender to God. You know that sin that you just can’t stop doing no matter how hard you try? Ask yourself what are you not surrendering to God? What are you holding back from God? Is it your finances, is it your future, is it a relationship? Stop resisting God’s refinement and let Him do what you cannot do.
This is not easy what is being asked of us. Whoever said being a Christian is easy doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
My Story of Refinement
It certainly hasn’t been easy in my life. I’ve undergone intense refinement for a very long time. Most of you know this, but for those that don’t, since I was 12, I’ve had to struggle with same-sex attractions. I didn’t want it, I didn’t expect it. Thankfully, by then, I was already a Christian, so I knew it was wrong, but that didn’t stop the feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, confusion, the lack of control over my own feelings, the hatred I had for myself deep down, and the pain associated with all these things. I wouldn’t have said I hated myself because I knew that was wrong, but in reality I did. I hated my own emotions and desires, and really I hated who I was because the world and even those within the church told me I needed to look a certain way and act a certain way, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t conform to that image. I felt like I could never measure up.
Looking back, I can see God’s refinement in my life so clearly. For over half my life now, I’ve had to work through vulnerability issues, issues with my parents and family, but mostly the issue I have struggled with most is my identity in Christ. These are some of the most painful things I’ve had to deal with. But God is faithful. He has worked and continues to work all things for my good, not for my happiness, but for my good. He’s used the pain I’ve experienced in life to make me more like His Son Jesus.
Where once there existed loneliness, I now have more friends than ever that know the real me and love me for it. Where I had no hope of change, now I do. The closer I draw to God, the less these desires plague me, and the more God gives me desires for those things for which I was designed. Change for me does not mean freedom from my particular temptations, but it does mean mastery over sin, and that is only possible through submission to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Where I had confusion about the origins of my struggles and how to deal with them, I now have clarity. Where I had a lack of control, I now have more. God is still working with me on that one. But most of all, where there existed hatred for who I was, I am learning to love who God has made me. That’s still where I struggle the most and where God is still refining me day after day. That’s where I need your guy’s help too. God has and still is teaching me the purpose behind my pain, and even though I don’t always understand it, I will choose to say, “Thank you God for allowing me to go through this,” because I have seen your grace and truth more clearly than I probably would have any other way. You knew me so well, that you allowed me to struggle through what was going to be the most difficult thing for me so that the greatest good might be accomplished in me, to the praise and glory of your name.
God is doing the same in all of you. He is allowing you to go through those things which are most difficult and painful for you, so that the greatest good might be accomplished in you and through you so that the greatest glory might be given to Him. So stop moping about with this ‘Whoa is me’ attitude. Change your perspective.
This isn’t to make light of people’s suffering. In fact it is just the opposite. By putting on the proper perspective to see the purpose behind your suffering is in fact to not make light of it but rather to see its importance.
We all have a daunting task ahead of us. But do not give in to despair, or God’s going to have to refine that out of you too. Stop resisting His refinement or He will refine your resistance. This message should be convicting, but it should be far more encouraging. Knowing that there is a purpose to our suffering should cause each one of us to embrace God’s refinement in our lives. How do we embrace it? We do that through surrender, by letting God take control and trusting in Him.
Some of you might say, “What I am going through is too much to handle!” That is why, even more so you need to surrender to Jesus. Turn to 2 Corinthians 4:7-11.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
You’re right. It’s too much for you to handle. That is why surrender is required to be victorious in Christ. Embrace the refinement of God in your life. It will be painful, but it will be worth it because we have as our reward the holiness and righteousness of Christ manifested in our lives.
Let me close with this Scripture.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 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 honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3-7, ESV)
I preached this sermon originally on 2/9/14