May 23, 2019
The Precious Furnace of Affliction
Article by Vaneetha Rendall Risner
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 48:10)
Ten years ago, the furnace of affliction burned hotter than normal. Suddenly a single parent, my life became a waking nightmare. I cried myself to sleep every night. My daughters were living with sorrow that manifested itself in various destructive ways. My body was failing. Some days I struggled to even dress myself. I didn’t know who to confide in, and I doubted if talking would help anyway. No one could fix this for me. No one could fix any of it.
And today, though I’m not in a season of that kind of intense pain, people whom I love are suffering. How can they endure? How did I endure?
God refines us in the fire. The flames in our life sanctify us and draw us to God in ways that nothing else can. We emerge with a stronger faith and an unrivalled dependence on him. But the process isn’t easy.
In the furnace of affliction, I often feel like I can’t go on. I wonder how I can keep going when I don’t see an end. I wonder how I can endure with grace when the heat is almost smothering me. What does the Christian life look like in the furnace?
I struggle to breathe. I wonder if I’m going to get air or if the smoke is going to suffocate me. It’s moment to moment. Breath to breath. I can’t think about the future in the furnace. All I can do is pray I’ll survive.
“The flames in our life sanctify us and draw us to God in ways that nothing else can.”
I know God is my only hope, so I need to engage with him. As I look around, no one else is inhaling thick smoky air, so they can’t understand how panicked I’m feeling. I wonder if I’ll ever breathe freely again. I’m not sure if God will ever deliver me.
So, I get up in the morning, pull out my Bible, and start talking to God, begging him to clear the smoke. To lower the heat. To let me out of the furnace. I talk to him about my fears. My anxiety. What I want him to do. I pore over the Scripture passage I am reading, looking for promises to claim. Something, anything, to cling to.
When I do that, I notice that I’m breathing normally. My heart isn’t pounding. My mind isn’t flooded. It’s as if I’ve walked out of the furnace for a few minutes. It’s clear. I’m not choking. My lungs breathe deeply again.
I can laugh. I have hope. I feel weightless. Nothing matters but God. He shows me things I’ve never seen before. I start underlining my Bible everywhere — God is talking to me. I sit and listen. Sometimes I am still, taking in the holiness of the moment. Other times I scribble furiously in my journal, trying to capture all that God is saying. All of Scripture is alive with promises and hope. Passages I’ve read before, that I’ve passed by in my hurry to get through my “quiet time,” take on new meaning. Now, I linger over them. Savor them. They are as honey in my mouth — the sweetest things I will taste all day. They sustain me.
I begin to understand Jeremiah 15:16 in ways I never have before: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.” When I wasn’t in the furnace of affliction, those words had little meaning. But now those words are life. God-breathed. Bursting with joy. God is giving me “the treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45:3). My everyday life feels almost devoid of sunshine, but now the light is breaking through the clouds.
I cannot adequately describe those moments. Time almost stands still. I feel more alive here than anywhere else. I want to stay here forever, beholding the beauty of the Lord. But I need to start my day, so eventually I close the Bible, push my chair back, and prepare for what the day holds.
“While the furnace of affliction can be unspeakably hot, what we gain through it is indescribably sweet.”
Getting dressed I start worrying about the concerns of the day. The heaviness of life envelops me, and I feel the air getting thick again. The future seems dark and shrouded. My mind races with all I have to do. Fear grips me. I can’t even button my clothes. How am I ever going to make it?
Overwhelmed, I stop and pray. I ask God for peace. When I do, it’s as if I’m sticking my head out of the furnace where I can breathe again. This is the only way I’m going to survive. I whisper, “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word” (Psalm 119:25). And peace washes over me. The Spirit comforts me, assuring me I’m not alone.
As I go about my day, sometimes I forget God is with me. When I do, the furnace can grow so hot that I’m afraid I’ll lose consciousness. I listen to what people are telling me. I listen to the negative things I’m telling myself. I listen to the voices that tell me my situation is hopeless. But then the Spirit gently reminds me that I can breathe if I poke my head out of the furnace. So I call out to God and begin to breathe freely again.
I finally understand what it means to be connected to God all day long. When I wasn’t desperate, I didn’t talk to God continually. Now, in the furnace, I am ever aware of his presence. Calling out to him is the only way to breathe deeply. Otherwise the heat of the furnace becomes unbearable.
I remember God’s promises. When I walk through the fire, I will not be burned. The flames will not consume me (Isaiah 43:2). Before the furnace of affliction, I didn’t know what that meant. Now I know. I am in the fire. Flames almost engulf me. It’s stifling and suffocating.
But when I thrust my head out of the furnace, I realize the fire has no power over me. It will not overwhelm me. And while I may long to be outside, like everyone else, the water and food and air I get when I poke my head out of the furnace is better than any water or food or air I’ve ever experienced. My thirst is satisfied by “rivers of living water” (John 7:38). I’m eating honey sweeter than I’ve ever tasted (Psalm 19:10). And the air is fresh and pure, the breath of life from God himself (Ezekiel 37:5).
The furnace contains treasures I can’t find elsewhere. As Samuel Rutherford said, “If the Lord calls you to suffering, do not be dismayed. For with it he will provide a deeper portion of Christ.”
Only those who have suffered can understand those gifts fully. A deeper portion of Christ. Life-giving water. The honey of the word. While the furnace of affliction can be unspeakably hot, what we gain through it is indescribably sweet. In it, God refines us, turning our pain into gold that will last throughout eternity. Even in the midst of my struggles, in the white heat of the furnace, I am grateful.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Desiring God. She blogs at danceintherain.com, although she doesn’t like rain and has no sense of rhythm. Vaneetha is married to Joel and has two daughters, Katie and Kristi. She and Joel live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Vaneetha is the author of the book The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering.