Sermon 05-21-2023: “Treasuring Christ Through the Refiner’s Fire”

Scripture: 1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11

It was early one morning, spring of 2005. My son Townshend was four-years-old. He and I were the first ones up. It was daybreak; light was starting to peak through the blinds in our living room. And I walked through the living room on the way to fix breakfast in the kitchen. The living room had a ceiling fan… And, gosh, it looked like… it looked like a large butterfly was fluttering around the fan. Whatever… I didn’t think much of it. 

So I went to the kitchen, when Townshend shouted, “Daddy, look! A bat!” I ran into the living room. It was a bat! Townshend thought this was the coolest thing ever. But I did not think it was the coolest thing ever. See, I learned something about myself that day: I learned that, for me, bats rank just below snakes as animals of which I am irrationally afraid. So naturally I screamed like a little girl… which made Townshend afraid… So we both ran into the bedroom with Lisa and slammed the door shut! When I summoned the courage to wander back into the living room, there was no sign of the bat… naturally. It went… somewhere.

I called the county extension department. A guy came to the house and checked out the attic. He didn’t see any sign of bats. He told us not to worry. “The bat doesn’t want to be in the house any more than you want it in the house. Next time you see it, open the doors and windows, and it’ll probably fly out on its own.” 

And sure enough, the bat reappeared a couple of days later, at dusk. I was in the bedroom. I heard a scream from the living room. It was Lisa, this time. But… because I expected it, I wasn’t nearly as afraid. I calmly opened the doors and windows. Sadly, the poor bat wasn’t quite finding its way outside. But I had planned on this contingency, too. I had set aside some work gloves in the garage and went and got them. And I grabbed that little booger out of the air. It was going “whee-whee-whee,” and I threw it outside and immediately closed all doors and windows. 

I am so proud of that story! That’s nearly the bravest thing I’ve ever done!

But, see, the difference between my first encounter with the bat and my second encounter was not letting myself be surprised when it showed up again. The second time I was expecting to see a bat in the house, so it wasn’t nearly as scary. I was prepared.

And so it is with suffering and enduring difficult trials as a Christian. Peter writes in chapter 4, verse 12: “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.” 

As hard as it is to say, it is nevertheless true that God intends and expects “fiery trials” to be part of the normal, average, every day experience of a disciple of Jesus Christ. 

In last week’s sermon, we looked at two reasons that God wants us to go through trials and to suffer: One was for his glory. And the other was for our witness. But I said last week that there was a third important reason: for our sanctification. That is, God uses suffering and trials to change us into the people he wants us to be. I said I’d get to that point in a later sermon… well, here we are: this sermon is about how God sanctifies us through suffering… And I’m going to explore this question by looking at three important topics in today’s scripture: Number One: the “fiery trial.” Number Two: prayer. And Number Three: the devil.

But first… the “fiery trial”…

Recall that Peter is writing to many Christians around Asia Minor who are, at this very moment, being persecuted for their faith: their social standing, their livelihoods, their freedom, their safety—their very lives—are at risk. They are enduring fiery trials. And this is not the first mention of “trials”: back in chapter 1, verse 6, Peter writes, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…”

This time, when Peter mentions trials, he adds an adjective: fiery. That sounds scary, doesn’t it? “Trials” are bad enough; “fiery trials” sound even worse. Indeed, the 1984 edition of the New International Version Bible translated the literal Greek word “fiery” as “painful”: “do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering”—as if fiery trials, unlike normal, everyday trials, are especially difficult. I’m happy to say the NIV corrected this translation choice in the latest revision.

Because Peter’s purpose isn’t to distinguish really painful and difficult trials from regular trials; rather, his purpose is to emphasize one of God’s overarching reasons for allowing us to endure trials and experience suffering in the first place: which is to purify our faith. 

The reason he calls trials “fiery” is that he’s referring to the process of refining gold and silver. This metal ore, which contains gold or silver, is literally “put to the test,” in a furnace. The fire burns away impurities—it burns away everything in the ore that is not gold or silver. It burns away the dross. And you may have to submit the gold or silver to this test again and again to purify it.

Peter’s point, therefore, is that all the trials that God puts us through are fiery trials: because one thing that they always accomplish is that they purify our faith—which means they strengthen it. 

Of course we know, up here, in our heads, that we’re supposed to trust entirely in God for everything we need; but of course our faith is never quite so pure in this world: we always trust, to some extent, in other things for our safety, security, self-worth, health, happiness… And the fiery trials that God puts us through have a way of exposing everything that’s false about our Christian faith… and “burning it away.”

We see this in two prominent Old Testament events. First, remember Job? God upholds Job as one of his faithful servants, as a man of impeccable integrity, who sincerely loves God and loves his neighbor as himself. And what does Satan say? “Yes, but… Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is!” 1

In other words, the devil says, “Sure Job acts like he loves you and trusts you and fears you—and always seems to obey you. Why wouldn’t he? You’ve done nothing but give him all this great stuff—all these children, all this property, all this wealth.

“Job doesn’t love you and trust in you and fear you and obey you for yourself,because of who you are; he does so because of all the good things you give him. It’s like you’re bribing him; he’s not sincere.”

So God puts Job’s faith to the test: If there is anything false or insincere about his faith in God, it’s going to be exposed in this fiery trial and, one hopes, burned away.

Or what about Abraham in Genesis 22, when God commands him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham, at this point, has been following God for about 40 years. He has made tremendous sacrifices; he has risked his life; he has endured incredible hardships. “Okay,” we can practically hear the devil saying, “But Abraham was just making all these sacrifices and risking his life and enduring all these hardships for one reason: not so much because he loved and feared and wanted to please God; he did so because God gave him some amazing promises

“I mean, earlier in his life, he and his wife, Sarah, were unable to have children at all… And we know how deeply disappointing, even shameful, childlessness was in the ancient world. So what does God promise him? ‘If you do all these things for me, I’ll do this amazing thing for you: I will bless you beyond your wildest dreams: I’ll make of you and your descendants a great nation like no other! Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky: And it will all start with one promised son: Isaac. Isaac is the answer to your deepest prayers!’ So, sure, Abraham has ‘faith,’ but it isn’t so much motivated by love and awe and respect for God, or a sincere desire to please God… It’s based on what Abraham is going to get out of the deal.

“In other words, Abraham doesn’t ‘fear God for nothing.’ He fears God for something.” For descendants as numerous as stars in the sky… because God has given him the promised son, Isaac!

Well, as with Job, God puts Abraham’s faith to the test in the most extreme way imaginable, by asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Of course, God doesn’t make him go through with it. But Abraham doesn’t know that when he lifts the knife to slay his son. But guess what? 

Abraham’s faith holds up! He passes the test! And that is glorious.

Well… we’re tested by God for the same reason.

In the first two of the Ten Commandments, when God forbids us to believe in or treasure or possess or worship any gods other than the one true God, he means it. Idolatry is the biggest sin of all. God hates idolatry; he hates when we put our faith in any rival god… He hates when we look to someone or something else—someone or something other than God… to meet our deepest needs.

And we’re all tempted to do this all the time!

We Christians say, for example, that we trust that God “will supply all of our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”—Philippians 4:19. We say we believe Jesus when he says, “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things”—things that we need to satisfy our deepest needs—“all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33. We say we believe that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17. 

We say these things! And these things are incredibly easy to say when our stock portfolio is trending in the right direction; when our investments are paying off; when our business is prospering. 

It’s easy to say we believe that God will provide. But what happens when the economy is in a recession, when we get laid off, when a pandemic disrupts the supply chain? Our lives falls apart. Where’s our faith then?

That’s a fiery trial.

Jesus said that in comparison to our love for him, our love for everyone else should look like hatred.Luke 14:26. 

So, sure, we say we love God more than anyone else—that there’s not even a close number two. Jesus is number one in our lives. We need no one else!

But that is incredibly easy to say when we’re in love with someone, when our romantic relationships are going well… But then we break up. We’re devastated. Our life falls apart. Where’s our faith then?

That’s a fiery trial.

When pastors like me answer God’s call, we say, “I’m going to be faithful to Jesus and sacrifice whatever I need to to answer this call.” And then we go to our class reunion, let’s say; we see classmates who are less gifted than we are, less ambitious, less intelligent—classmates who did not answer God’s call into ministry—yet they are thriving and prospering far more than we are. And we’re tempted to covet. We’re tempted to get angry. We fall apart. Where’s our faith then?

That’s a fiery trial.

I’ve shared with you before the way God put Lisa and me to the test when it comes to our finances—back when we first answered God’s call into ministry. And one way he did it was with our automobiles. Going to seminary and getting ordained corresponded to a period of time during which our cars caused us a lot of trouble. This past week we had not one but two cars in the shop. And concerning one of these cars, the mechanic called me to tell me what was going on. He called—and I am not exaggerating when I say this—but he said, “Mr. White, I hope you’re sitting down right now.” You know you’re in trouble when you’re mechanic says that!

And when he said that, I was thinking, “All right, God. Here we go again! You’re testing me again. This is a fiery trial. I get it!” I’m trying not to be surprised when these things happen!

And that particular fiery trial must have been good for me, because you know what I did after the phone call. I prayed

And this brings us to Point Number Two… God wants us to handle fiery trials through prayer.

Let’s look at chapter 5, verses 6 and 7:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

Notice those words, “under the mighty hand of God.” Those words show up in Exodus 3:19 and elsewhere in the exodus story, when God calls Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were eyewitnesses to God’s mighty hand: They saw the ten miraculous plagues; they saw the parting of the Red Sea; they saw the drowning of the Egyptian army; they saw God feed them miraculously with manna from heaven; they saw God bring water from the rock; they saw the miraculous pillar of smoke and fire lead them day and night through the wilderness. They had so much eyewitness evidence of God’s mighty hand, yet their wilderness experience proves that they doubted God constantly.

For example, they doubted that the “mighty hand of God” that drowned the Egyptian army in the sea was mighty enough to lead them in victory over the inhabitants of Canaan, the Promised Land… or to prevent them from dying of thirst… or to prevent them from dying of malnutrition.

They simply could not understand what God was up to! They could not believe that, actually, everything they were enduring was part of God’s plan for them. “If God were really in charge here, we wouldn’t be undergoing these difficult trials in the wilderness! If God were really in charge, we wouldn’t be suffering so much! If God were really in charge, life would be much, much easier.”

And don’t you know that Peter is writing to many Christians who are likewise wondering why they were suffering so much?

So Peter reminds them to do three things in verses 6 and 7: Be humble, be patient, and pray. Be humble enough to recognize—in a way that the Israelites often failed to recognize—that you are not God, that his “thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways [his] ways.” 2 Be humble enough to know that God knows how to run the universe better than you do.

Then Peter says, in so many words, to be patient. Notice those words in verse 6, “so that at the proper time he may exalt you.” At the proper time. 

“God’s timing isn’t our timing,” the old cliché says. And that’s true, except the problem isn’t merely that God’s timing isn’t our timing… It’s that God timing is never, ever early; it’s usually late. Have you noticed? I told you last week about how we were convinced the Lord was going to take my mother-in-law, Anna Lee, home last fall… My sister-in-law and her daughter got off work and flew in from Europe. But no… that wasn’t the “proper time,” as far as God was concerned. The proper time was eight or nine months later… which was last week.

God usually shows up late, and he doesn’t often doesn’t do precisely what we want him to do. Given these hard truths, what are we supposed to do about it?

See verse 7: “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” 

We are, in other words, supposed to pray. But there’s a recommended way of praying here: “cast all our anxieties on God.” There should be a kind of reckless abandon to our prayers. There should be a kind of sloppiness to it. We don’t worry about dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s when we “cast our anxieties on God.” It’s very informal.Like, don’t even think about it too much… If something is making you anxious, you just cast these things onto God… just throw them in God’s direction… Don’t hold on to the things you’re worried about; get rid of them quickly! Our anxieties are like a hot potato.

You know who’s great at doing this, by the way? The Rev. April Briant. Pastor April. Oh my goodness. I know from experience that if you share something on your heart that’s making you feel anxious at that very moment, you will hardly get the words out of your mouth before she stop you, practically in mid-sentence, and says, “We’re just going to pray about this right now.” It’s wonderful. I love that about her!

Because this gets back to Peter’s words about humbling ourselves. You see, a lack of humility often prevents us from praying the way that we should. I’m not a very humble person. So when some situation is causing me stress, and it’s making me anxious, it’s making me worry, I usually mull it over for hours, or even days, before remembering to take it to God in prayer: because I think that I possess what I need within myself to solve whatever problem comes my way. Because I think I should be able to solve it on my own. Because I believe that I have the wisdom and power and responsibility to solve it. Because I believe that the weight of the world is on my shoulders. And I’m desperately afraid of disappointing people if I can’t solve it.

I forget, once again, who’s really in control here. I forget that I’m not in control. That I’m not God. That I’m not running the universe… God is.

Am I humble enough to believe that? If so, then I need to “cast all my anxieties on God.”

The great nineteenth-century English pastor Charles Spurgeon was reflecting on Lamentations 2:19, which says, “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord.” Prayer is “pouring your heart out like water” before the Lord. I like that! Spurgeon, in preaching on this verse, asks: “How does water pour out?” Answer: “The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.”

Finally, Point Number Three… the devil.

Peter mentions the devil in verse 8 of chapter 5: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

And wouldn’t Peter, of all people, know this firsthand? He knows from whence he speaks. In fact, on the night of the last supper, Jesus foretells that Peter will deny Jesus. And he says these words to him in Luke 22:31 and 32, Jesus tells him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have [y’all; you plural, the disciples], that he might sift [ya’ll] like wheat, but I have prayed for you [that’s you singular, meaning Peter] that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

And then in the next verse Peter tells Jesus that Jesus is wrong, that he’s not going to stumble, and that Satan isn’t going to be a problem for him. 

To which I say, Bless your heart, Peter!

Because Jesus was right: Satan was a problem for the disciples. Satan was like a “roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” And he did devour Judas, as Peter saw firsthand!

If we’re in Christ, however, Jesus prays for each of us… every bit as much as he prayed for Peter. Hebrews 7:25 says that Christ in heaven “lives to make intercession for [us Christians].” “Make intercession” means he prays for us. Satan cannot ultimately harm us. But Peter knew that even if Satan doesn’t have the power, like a lion, to destroy us completely, he can certainly cause us great harm—as he did when he encouraged Peter to deny knowing Jesus three times.

But… let’s go back to Luke 22:32: “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 

Peter, contrary to his brazen self-confidence, is going to fail the devil’s test. But Peter is also going to learn from it, and grow from it… And God is going to use Peter’s experience of failure to do what? To change Peter! To strengthen his faith! To sanctify him!

And because of the wisdom that Peter gained from firsthand experience about the devil’s attacks, Jesus says, Peter will be able to “strengthen [his] brothers.” And ultimately, to strengthen us… because here we are, being strengthened by Peter’s words two-thousand years later.

One of my favorite verses in scripture is Genesis 50:20. Joseph confronts his brothers for their evil plot to first kill him but then sell him into slavery. As a result, after many years of suffering, Joseph becomes prime minister of Egypt, and, through his wise leadership, and wise stewardship, he ends up saving what? Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands… from the devastating effects of a famine. He says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

“You meant evil by this thing,” Joseph tells his brothers. “But God meant it for good.”

The devil is even more our adversary to than Joseph’s brothers were to him: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” Paul says. The devil intends evil, but God intends to transform it and use it for our ultimate good. 

If God can take the worst evil the world has ever seen—the death of his Son Jesus—and transform it into the greatest good imaginable—the salvation of everyone who believes—just think what he can do with the evil that the devil throws our way!

Just think: there’s something in your life right now that the devil wants to use in order to harm you. That’s a fact. What is it? Every single person in here has recently been attacked by the devil. Every single person will be attacked again, soon enough.

And when the attack comes, recognize the devil’s handiwork… It’s probably not going to be an “Exorcist”-type attack; unlike in that movie, you’re not going to see Linda Blair’s head spinning around. It’s probably going to be something small, something subtle, at least at first. But when you see it, tell yourself something like this: Satan wants to harm me… But I’m not afraid because God gave me a spirit not of fear but power and love and self-control. And greater is he that is in me than is in the world. And what devil means for evil, God means for good!

I’m going to glorify God when I see the way God has transformed this evil thing into something good. And the way I’m trusting in God in the midst of this crisis is bearing witness to Christ and his love for me. And God is using this experience to transform me, to strengthen my trust in him!

So what the devil means for evil, God means for good.

I am quite certain that the devil wanted to use pancreatic cancer for evil, to harm my dear brother Tim Keller, who died last Friday after a three-year battle with the disease. Listen: You know I quote him all the time. I’ve listened to hundreds of his sermons. I’ve read and have been deeply moved by his books. Few contemporary saints have had a bigger role in shaping my life and ministry than Tim Keller. I’ve never met him, but I dearly love him.

I am sure, before Keller died, that Satan intended to use this fiery trial of terminal cancer to harm Tim Keller, to destroy his faith, if possible—or at least to prevent him from knowing the fullness of joy and comfort and peace that Christ wanted to give him, or to make him doubt whether or to what extent God really cared about him: If God did care about him, why would this be happening?

I’m sure that’s what the devil wanted…

And he failed miserably, I’m happy to report. Two years ago, Keller tweeted the following about the fiery trial that he and his wife, Kathy, were enduring:

“Our situation has driven us to seek God’s face as we never have before. He is giving us more of his sensed presence, more freedom from our besetting sins, more dependence on his Word—things that we had sought for years, but only under these circumstances are we finding them.”

What the devil means for evil, God means for good.

And then just two days before he died, his son Michael heard his dad pray this prayer: “I’m thankful for all the people who’ve prayed for me over the years.” This is Tim Keller praying. “I’m thankful for my family that loves me. I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”

Dear Lord, use the fiery trials of our lives to increase our humility, our patience, and our trust in your goodness, that we may treasure you like our departed brother Tim treasures you. Amen.


  1.  Job 1:9-10 NLT
  2.  Isaiah 55:8

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