Finding Strength Through Suffering

The Hammer and the Flame

Strength through suffering. No discipline seems pleasant, but it produces righteousness.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Romans 12:11 (NIV).

I love making jewelry* from raw sheet metal and wire. It's very gratifying to pound away at the metal, conforming it to the shape I have in mind, adding texture with various hammers and degrees of pressure, to give each piece its unique character. I then absolutely adore using a torch to flame-color the metal. The transformation that occurs never fails to amaze me; it is mesmerizing!

You might think that metal would weaken when you hammer or bend it, but actually, the opposite is true. As the metal is pounded, a process called "work-hardening," the metal gets stronger at a molecular level. The most remarkable transformation occurs when intense heat is applied and the metal is cooled, known as "annealing," which brings out the most amazing colors. I never know exactly what the refining flame will produce, but it is always beautiful! Sometimes I must hammer the metal longer to achieve the image I have in mind. Occasionally, due to its thickness or the impurities that need to be burned off, it takes longer for the flame to bring out the colors. However, once the piece is transformed into the image I desire, I stop pounding and turn off the flame.

While working on my latest two pieces I realized a spiritual principle. Do you see it too? God can use, and in fact will use, the trials in our lives, and even our suffering, to strengthen us. Our tragedies can be used by God to work-harden us—that is to strengthen us. And the refining fire of the Holy Spirit purifies us, in order to conform us into the beautiful image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Suffering might tempt us to be hardened by sin's deceitfulness; we could become bitter and angry towards God. It's important that we don't allow this to happen. God can transform our pain. He has a better plan for our lives than we do. We must keep looking to him, asking him for strength and the faith to trust him through our trials; we mustn't give up! 

The Bible says, count it as joy when you experience trials, so that you become mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4). Joy? In trials? Really? This was written by James, the brother of Jesus; it isn't an empty platitude. Initially James didn't believe his brother was the Messiah. They grew up in the same household! How could he be the Messiah? (Siblings have a way of keeping things real with one another! My mother used to say sibling rivalry teaches us to sharpen our wits.) But something changed in James' life. Maybe in the beginning of Jesus' ministry James could explain away the miracles, or maybe he just wasn't that interested in what his brother was doing. But once James saw Jesus resurrected from the dead, he knew that Jesus was who he claimed to be, the Promised Messiah. The resurrection changed everything! He now had an eternal perspective, which is why James could experience joy in the midst of his trials, and why he was willing to proclaim his faith and die a martyr's death!

If you're like me, joyfulness isn't the normal reaction to suffering! But with an eternal perspective, as God works in us to strengthen us and mold us into the likeness of his Son, it is possible to be joyful about our trials. Not that we are joyful of the pain and suffering, but we can experience joy with the knowledge that God is in control and he will work out his plan, a plan for good. This is a difficult thing and I don't write it easily. I have experienced a measure of suffering in my life—more than some, but certainly not as much as many others. There are Christians in the world today who are being tortured and killed for their faith! 

A sane person would never choose to undergo the pounding effects and fiery trials of suffering. Yet, Jesus told us to expect it. He said, "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" John 16:33 (NKJV). And the Apostle Peter also warned us, "Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you" 1 Peter 4:12 (ESV)

Because of sin, our world is out-of-sync; there is death, decay, disease, war, famine, and unbearable, heartbreaking tragedies that affect our lives. The Scriptures remind us that the entire creation groans until the coming of our Lord and Savior (Romans 8:22). But we have a God who understands our suffering. The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness . . . he intercedes for us with groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26). What other religion is based on a god of compassion who identifies with suffering, who did something about it, and who did it out of love for those who believe? God took on human flesh (John 1:14) and died on a cross to take the penalty for our sins. He then rose from the dead to defeat our ultimate enemy—death. God is making all things new. If there were no God and no resurrection from the dead, and this world were all there is, our tragedies would be unbearable. There would be no point in prolonging the misery. But because we have a God who experienced pain and suffering and knows our weaknesses, he promises to work all things—yes, even our suffering—for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). 

If the metal I design could feel pain, I'm sure it wouldn't choose to be pounded upon or willingly experience the flame. I'm quite certain it would be perfectly happy to remain in that untouched, raw state. But how useless it would be! God, our Master Designer, uses the circumstances of our lives to bring about his purpose for us. Then once achieved, the pounding and fiery trial ceases, and we are transformed by incremental degrees, at a spiritually molecular level, into the image of his Beloved Son (2 Corinthians 3:18)! 

This is a promise we can believe, "The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast" 1 Peter 5:10 (NIV).

Our trials and tragedies prepare us to be useful in God's Kingdom. People who have endured suffering are perfectly positioned to comfort others who are suffering, because they can share the comfort they received from the Lord with those who are hurting (2 Corinthians 1:4). Scripture tells us of a coming day, when Jesus will wipe away all of our tears, and the world will be set right. In the meantime, Jesus promises to walk this journey with us, he will never leave us or abandon us (Hebrews 13:5). 

Dear God, help me to trust you in the midst of my suffering. Help me to remember that you love me and that you are good. I ask that you would use the difficult circumstances of my life to strengthen me, and your refining flame to purify me, so that I am useful for your kingdom. Amen.

Copyright 2016 Sarah A. Keith

*Top photo shows raw sheet metal and wire. Bottom photos show the metal after it's been hammered, shaped, and put under the flame. The raw metal has now been transformed into useful and unique pieces of jewelry.

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