“Afoot” in the Furnace With God”
By Dr. Deborah C. Bauers
Sara’s eyes were ravaged from hours of crying. Head bowed and shoulders drooping, she entered my office. I had been seeing her for some weeks, helping her to cope with her daughter’s terminal illness and prepare for what appeared to be the inevitable. One look at her face told me that the end had finally come. Sara was consumed with unimaginable grief as fresh tears wracked her body. I sat with her as she cried, allowing her the dignity of her tears. After perhaps a half an hour or so, the young women raised her head and stared at me for a moment. Then, thrusting her chin forward, she angrily demanded, “Why is it that some Christians seem to have more than their share of suffering?!? “Where is God when you need Him the most?”
Sara’s most recent weeks and months had been filled with round after round of doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy, sponge baths and spoon feeding. During intermittent counseling appointments she poured out her heartache and desperately reached out for an anchor in the midst of a grief that threatened to ravage her. Like a parched soul in the desert, she greedily drank the content of each session, until she felt that she could return home and do it all over again for another week. Now Brianna was gone and her mother was consumed with endless questions in her struggle to wrap her mind round the enormity of her loss. Sara desperately needed comfort and she was far from ready to receive the answers to her questions. I could not, however, ignore the implications of the question that she was asking.
Indeed, where was God as six year old Brianna lay struggling for the last few breaths? And why had He seen fit to allow Sara, a single mother, to endure the heartache and loneliness of watching her only child die of leukemia? I felt the weight of awareness fall heavily upon my shoulders as I considered how my reply might shape this young woman’s future relationship to God. A few weeks before, I recalled listening as Sara shared her profound faith in the many prayers being offered for Brianna’s healing. I knew that she had clung tenaciously to the belief that God was going to heal her daughter. The tone of her questioning belied an unspoken accusation against a God Whom she would now believe had miserably failed her. She might as well have asked, “What good is a God Who doesn’t answer prayer?
I felt inadequate to counsel this single mom, by offering only God’s Word as solace for her hurting heart, although, I knew that only the power of God could begin to apply the healing balm for her aching soul. As a fellow sufferer, however, I wanted to do more. I wanted to give more. As I gazed upon Sara’s swollen face with compassion, I saw myself, twenty years earlier, shaking my spiritual fist in the face of God. Raven black hair and almond eyes flashed across the screen of my memory and for perhaps a minute or two, I was transported back in time. There had been more to reckon with than just mountain-moving faith on that day of my life. There had been the hand of Almighty God. The feelings of guilt, the unrelenting pain, it all came back to me, along with the poignant memory of raising my fists against a God, who I believed was not living up to His promises. As I thought about the outcome of my own painful journey, I knew that I could offer my own encounter with God’s fiery furnace as solace for this young mother’s soul.
The weight of Sara’s unanswered question hung in the air. “Where do you believe God was when Brianna died?” I asked her. She shook her head in confusion, and told me that she felt herself to be at the mercy of a God who now seemed to be a stranger to her. “Sara”, I began tentatively, “When you are truly ready to confront the question that you are asking, I will ask for your permission to share something of my own experience that I believe might help you find some answers. “ Over the next few weeks she returned to my office several times. Deeply grieving, she ended each session with the same rhetorical question, “Where was God when my little girl died?”
I didn’t see Sara for almost two months. Then, one day she called my office and scheduled an appointment. The moment she entered the room, I sensed a change. She sat down, drew in a deep breath, and then exhaled. “I’m ready now. I guess it’s God, or nothing,” she said. “If I can’t trust Him, then my life has no meaning, no purpose. Please, I’d like to hear your story, now. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, God was inviting Sara to deepen her relationship with Him by experiencing His sovereignty in the midst of her fiery trial.
Please join me in the furnace of your affliction, and participate in the fellowship of my suffering.
What would you do if you were to receive such an invitation from Almighty God? Sara chose to accept it. Would you? God does love each one of his children in a way that is bigger and more incomprehensible than we can ever imagine. God’s love, agape love, is always at work in each of our lives, shaping and defining all of life’s events so that we are able to fulfil God’s purpose for our lives. God was not made for us; rather, we were made for God.
The Bible tells us that we are strangers, travelers, in a world that is not our real home. Since Adam and Eve first made the choice to sin, all of humanity has been born into a fallen world. The world is like a huge field of wheat, spoken of in Matthew 13:24-30, where both wheat and weed grow up together. God tells us that while we are waiting for the final harvest of believers that we may expect both blessing and adversity to fall upon the field in which we are growing. Believers are the wheat, growing up along side the unbelievers, the weeds. While the “rains” of life (Matthew 5:45) will fall upon believers and unbelievers, God has promised grace and strength to those who trust in Him. God has always been, and will always be, “The Great Physician” spoken of in Luke 5:31, but He may not always choose physical healing as a part of His divine purpose for our lives.
The Old Testament of the Bible tells the story of the three Hebrew children who were thrown into a fiery furnace because of their faith in God. (Daniel 3:10-30). Scripture reveals that God did not rescue Shadrack, Meschach, and Abednego, but chose to join them in the fire, instead. When King Nebuchadnezzar saw that the God of Israel was in the fiery furnace with the children, he acknowledged the power of the one, true, living God. So, God chose to allow Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to walk in the fire in order that God might be exalted. Is it possible that God had a bigger plan in mind for the three Hebrew young men than just rescuing them from the furnace? If we accept the fact that God made us for Himself, then we can also accept that he doesn’t need our permission to use us for his divine purposes. We have only to keep in the mind that God is love (I John. 4:8) to be assured that we can trust Him to always be investing in our greater good (Romans 8:28).
Allowing for the weight of silence to give Sara opportunity to ponder just what God’s plan might be for her life, I remained silent for a few moments. Then I asked, “Have you ever considered that perhaps trials and suffering might become an avenue of God’s blessing ?” I turned in my Bible to Philippians 3:10 and read aloud God’s invitation to enter into the fellowship of His suffering. I shared other portions of scripture that reveal that believers in Jesus Christ may experience spiritual joy, even in the midst of heartache. (Romans 5:3, I Peter 1:6-7, James 1:2) We do this by being assured that as we place our faith in God’s plan for our lives, that He uses every crisis, loss, and situation, to produce growth and to fulfil His purpose for our lives. “Sara, faith is not about believing that God will always give us what we ask, but about believing that God will always answer prayer, in keeping with His eternal plan. I invited her to place her faith in God’s plan, and in doing so, to enter into a deeper intimacy with Him by letting God walk with her through the furnace of her trial.
Like Sara, many Christians are confused about what pain and suffering may mean in the life of a believer. Erroneous teaching has led many into dark places filled with guilt, confusion, and anger. Such teachings frequently suggest that God is like a cosmic Matre’ D, waiting for us to snap our fingers so that He can instantly provide us with the best seat in the house. God is not a prosperity icon who responds to a misguided understanding of the imputation of faith and its relationship to the sovereignty of God. It isn’t easy to accept the sovereignty of God (understand that God is in charge), but it makes so much more sense, in light of scripture. We would often rather believe that faith is the magic lamp that fulfills all our desires and that every believer can access heaven, on earth. Sickness, death, and loss are all a part of living in a fallen world, the wheat field of all humanity, if you please. Matthew 13 teaches that tares, or weeds, are unbelievers who face unending consequences as a result of God’s curse upon sinful, unregenerate, humanity. While Christians will experience sickness, painful loss, and even death, as a part of living this life, we are promised that God’s grace and work in our lives is unending, even in the midst of pain and tribulation. Perhaps some of the greatest blessings that may be experienced by believers in Jesus Christ will only come as we invite God to come into the midst of the fiery furnace. God provided supernatural preservation and phenomenal intimacy to three Hebrew children. He extends the same offer to the rest of His children, who are joint heirs with Jesus Christ. Let us not be so quick, perhaps to seek deliverance, but be willing to submit ourselves to God’s refining fire, spoken of in Malachi 3:3).
When I reflect upon my own furnace experience, I see three great truths.
* The time surrounding my daughter’s death provided me one of the greatest opportunities for intimacy with God that I have ever experienced.
* Coming to terms with God’s sovereignty and accepting His purposes for my life, even in the midst of adversity, became a defining a moment in my life.
* There is truly a spiritual joy that awaits believers who invite God to walk with them in the midst of the fiery furnace.
Adversity, loss, the pain of sadness; we are not strangers to these experiences in our lives. I have felt them, and you will too. As I invited Sara, so I invite you. Believe that God can, and will join you in the midst of your furnace of affliction. Pour out your heart’s desires and ask what you will, but place your faith in God’s plans and purposes for your life. Trust that God will allow you to experience the supernatural phenomenon of entering into the fellowship of His suffering, as He walks in the furnace with you. Sara did, and you can too.
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I too wanted to hear your story. I missed it. Great title, good beginning, helpful ending; These R not meant to be Criticisms, just a longing to hear your story. I found your work on most read articles, not by chance but by grace. I enjoyed the poem, "Hospitable" I saw listed there. 4 fun and as the Spirit leads see my two poems intitled "Why?" and "Why Lord." Thanks 4 sharing