Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Friends of Fire

Today was tough.

I attended the viewing for my dear friend's dad, who just died of cancer last weekend. Amazingly, in the midst of his own pain and grief, my friend managed to minister to me.

After that, I stopped to talk to another friend I've known for over a decade, only to be confronted with cruel rejection and bitter betrayal because my of my family's present trial. In that moment, it became crystal clear that though we had shared some good times, this person had never really been my true friend.

After this emotionally draining evening, I started thinking that the presence of true friendship and love is explicitly revealed when pain strips away all pretenses. It reminds me of that Eleanor Roosevelt quote: "A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water."

True character is revealed when the heat in our lives is turned up high.

What other time do we get the gift of seeing another human's true colors? Amplified by the pressure of pain, a person’s heart can be expressed either in an instant of hostility, or a gentle word of compassionate love. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34)

This leads me to look at my own heart tonight. On Saturday at church, Pastor Andy was asked a question about how to press past the religious ritual of Bible reading into a real intimacy with Christ. His astute personal observation was that "motive matters." He asked: Are we really seeking relationship with God for who he is?

Recently, I noticed a specific Hollywood coupling of an extremely young, attractive woman with a much older, wealthy man who could generationally be her grandfather. Most would argue they are together because of what the man can provide for the girl. Take the same old man and strip him of the position, power, and money he offers the girl, and he would no longer be worthy of her love. It's because she never really loved him in the first place. She loved the gifts, not the giver.

In his book, "Where is God When it Hurts?" Philip Yancey wrote about loving God for who he is, not what he gives us:

"God wants us to choose to love him freely, even when that choice involves pain, because we are committed to him, not to our own good feelings and rewards. He wants us to cleave to him, as Job did, even when we have every reason to deny him hotly. That, I believe, is the central message of Job. Satan had taunted God with the accusation that humans are not truly free. Was Job being faithful simply because God had allowed him a prosperous life? Job's fiery trials proved the answer beyond doubt. Job clung to God's justice when he was the best example in history of God's apparent injustice. He did not seek the Giver because of his gifts; when all gifts were removed he still sought the Giver." -Yancey pg 91

Am I seeking God only so he can fix my circumstances and I can live free and easy? Am I seeking him only because I want the powerful gifts he can give me? Health, deliverance, safety, vindication? God never promised the Christian life will be easy street-- in fact, he promised just the opposite. He’s calling people into mature relationship—friendship that is deep and will last through the painful tests. What will I do when the heat is turned up?

God uses heat a lot in the Bible as a metaphor for painful trials. He even used it literally with Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego. When they refused to compromise their faith in God, they were thrown into the fiery furnace at the whim of King Nebuchadnezzar, and in a final burst of defiance, the king turned the heat up 7 times hotter than normal. At that moment, they had a choice-- try to save themselves by forsaking God, or stand firm in truth and risk being licked up by the flames of evil punishment. The injustice of the situation cries out from the pages of Daniel. I personally think they would have been justified to do a little whining that God wasn't being very fair and that as faithful servants, they shouldn't be in this mess to begin with. However, the trustworthy and faithful men proved their love for God by willingly going into the furnace all tied up. And because of their faith, Jesus was in the furnace with them; the men were not consumed by the fire, but came out unbound, not even smelling of smoke. “They trusted in him [God] and…were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” Daniel 3:28

What could be a better testimony of a person's love for God than choosing the hard, narrow path of trusting him in trial rather than compromising and taking the easy way out? This is the test that defines our friendships and refines our faith. As a metal refiner works to find pure silver and gold amongst worthless dross, God puts us under the heat to see how we will behave-- as a precious child who loves Him, or as a faithless opportunist-- only out for what we can "get" from God.

I once heard a sermon on Job, and I will never forget what the pastor said: "When we suffer, we are being given a rare opportunity in our lives to show God that we love Him for who He is, not simply for what he's given us."

It is a call to me to look at suffering from God's point of view. Our God designed us men and women specifically for a love relationship with him-- for the deepest kind of friendship-- with our Master and Creator. Our God is (to say the least) well-connected, wealthy, powerful, influential, and can open incredible doors of success and opportunity. He is full of good gifts and longs to bless us—but what happens when like a spoiled child or bribed girlfriend, we find his gifts more delightful than we find just abiding in his presence? What happens when our relationship with him remains superficial because it is full of good times and no hardship? What if the depth of our love never grows for him because it is not tested or tried? Worse yet, what if we angrily turn our backs on him when we are tested-- showing we were never his friends to start with?

Through my painful life circumstances, I have seen the character of each of my friends emerge clearly. I continue to discover and value how deep their love is for me as they stick close by during the fiercest storms, when it isn’t always easy or pleasant to be a friend. So I see the parallel now--How God must long for me to cling to him in my pain-- to not turn my back on him or reject him, but to sit quietly with him, feeling his sweet embrace as he cuts the ties that bind me and prepares to walk me out of this furnace-- not even smelling of smoke.

Isaiah 43:1-3
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God; the Holy One of Israel, your Savior."

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