Malachi, the last of the writing prophets in the Old Testament, painted a double image of God in his third chapter. The "messenger of the covenant" in verse one refers to Jesus Christ and sets the context for his coming: "For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap ..." (Mal 3:2 NIV).
First, Jesus is revealed as a refiner of precious metals. The hot fire removes all impurities from silver and gold. The second picture is of Jesus as a fuller. That's a launderer whose soap makes garments white.
The two metaphors illustrate the double thrust of the purpose of the coming of Jesus. Malachi stresses that it's time to get cleaned up. And we need to heed the message today as much as the people of Malachi's time did.
He comes to purify the faithful and to eliminate the unfaithful. After the purification, the worship of the chosen people will once again be acceptable to God.
As I think of those two images, my perception is that purification would be a painful ordeal, something I would rather avoid.
What would it take, I wonder, for God to make me "white like snow"? I'm not talking about the usual meaning we attach, giving us salvation and cleansing our hearts. This passage refers to what we experience after coming to Christ. It's what we theologically call sanctification, or setting apart.
The refining image sounds terrible to me. It's a picture Peter uses in his first letter. Although he writes out of his experiences of being persecuted, he doesn't lay the blame on outside forces. This is God at work in us, he says, and if we follow Jesus Christ, we're going to be refined. That's part of the preparation for eternity.
It reminds me of a devotional message I read many years ago by long-ago missionary to India, Amy Carmichael. She wrote about Nazirites, men in the Old Testament who vowed to live ascetic lives. One of their restrictions was that they could not eat grapes or drink wine. Carmichael asked, "What, no raisins?" They were denied even the simple pleasures of life. As Nazirites they were in a special relationship of total commitment to God and lived by strict laws.
I wonder if God has called us to be spiritual Nazirites. By that, I mean it becomes a matter of "others may, you may not." It's not that we set legalistic demands for others or ourselves. But it does mean that we voluntarily allow God to treat us more strictly than people around us. If we're truly spiritual Nazirites, we are living in the ongoing refining fire.
It's such a strange paradox. God gradually restricts our lives and shuts out what others might accept as ordinary pleasures. Yet the restrictive life is richer, fuller, and more enjoyable.
Most of the refining happens in silence and out of the public view. The people I consider the most spiritual-that is, the most purified-don't speak of their trials or their purifying. They submit to God's cleansing, but it happens in such a private way that only two people know about it: God and the person involved.
Something about that appeals to me, that is, until I'm the person involved. Then I hear myself ask, "Why can't I have a handful of raisins?"
The God who wants to sanctify or set us apart for specific divine purposes doesn't demand or lay heavy laws on us. We voluntarily assume the load.
As we listen for the divine whisper of guidance, our lives change. It comes as a challenge, maybe as a suggestion, but always to purify us. I think of it as a whisper, and when we respond, we change.
As we ask God for the purifying fire in our lives, we acknowledge that it's a highly individual matter. If God takes away our raisins, it doesn't mean that no one else can eat them. It's simply a choice made by us in obedience to the Spirit of Purification.
I've read about people who've welcomed purification, persecution, and hardships because they believe that they are living the way the Lord lived. I'm not quite there, and I don't know if I'll ever have that kind of therapeutic outlook on suffering. But still-with trepidation-I ask God to continue to purify my life.
Many of us have no sense of nearing the station of Full Spirituality. In fact, when we look back at our progress, it's as if we've scarcely moved forward. "All these years, Lord, and this is all the progress I've made?"
Maybe it's because we can't see ourselves objectively. But we can see the refining fire. Even if we could see our progress, the Messenger of the Covenant is cleansing us in dozens of little ways. Maybe we're more sensitive about the words we speak and the tone of voice we use. Or maybe Jesus is softening the anger that lurks within us.
Because our needs are so different, and our impurities so diverse, who can set up a formula for anyone else? The secret-if there is one-is in listening to that soft whisper and saying, "Lord Jesus, it hurts when you scrub away at me, but thank you for caring enough to do it." On one of my long prayer walks, after I had complained about the purifying process going on in my life, I realized that I was blessed by God. Right! Blessed! It means God cares enough to keep working with me. It reminds me that God still isn't through with me.
As I meditated along that line, a quiet joy filled my soul. "Yes, it's all right," I said to God. "Do it."
Dear friends, don't be surprised that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered. It will prepare you for even greater happiness when he makes his glorious return. --1 Peter 4:12-13, CEV
forgive me for pulling back,
for resisting the refining process.
Give me the grace to surge forward joyfully,
knowing that you are purifying me. Amen.
For more from Cecil, please visit www.cecilmurphey.com.
Cecil Murphey has written more than one hundred books on a variety of topics with an emphasis on Spiritual Growth, Christian Living, Caregiving, and Heaven. He enjoys preaching in churches and speaking and teaching at conferences around the world. To book Cecil for your next event, please contact Twila Belk at 563-332-1622.