The other day my son was going on about bricks. He had seen a documentary and was eager to report that firing bricks in a kiln made a stronger product than merely drying them in the sun.
My mind jumped to a stretch I spent in Uganda. Megan and I saw giant stacks of bricks along the roadside most everywhere we drove. To make them locals molded sloppy wet clay and set the shapes out to dry. Next they arranged a large makeshift kiln from the dry bricks, crammed it with wood, and set the fuel on fire. Once the bricks had cooled, the kiln was dismantled and the bricks were ready for use.
I heard someone say you don’t save up money for a house, you save up bricks. The kilning process is important for anyone living in that house because, as Fionn now knows, the fire hardens the clay and makes the brick more durable. Unfired clay makes weaker bricks.
It’s the same with us.
In his first letter, Peter speaks of faith tested by fire (1.6). To that we could add love, the quality of which is proved by its ability to endure all things, as Paul says in his first letter to the church at Corinth (13.7). There are several examples of this in the Scripture, not least of whom are the two apostles themselves. Job is another. And then, of course, there’s Abraham.
The twenty-second chapter of Genesis relates the trial of Abraham, when God commanded him to sacrifice his long-promised son, Isaac. It’s a startling story, but the upshot is that Abraham obeyed — or attempted to, the deadly deed stopped at the final moment by an angel who told Abraham, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (v. 12).
The angel stood in God’s stead, so a curious question follows from the statement: Was the test for God or Abraham?
The scripture says that the angel knew when Abraham raised the knife — “now I know.” But isn’t that a condescension for Abraham’s sake? If the Lord knows all things, then God was not anxiously awaiting the test results, hopeful that Abraham would somehow prevail. He already knew the outcome.
How trials work on us
Ancient commentators on this story stress the difficulty of the trial: the excruciating choice to follow the command, the challenging uphill trek to the sacrificial site, the repeated mention that this was Abraham’s cherished child. The biblical writer makes sure to stack the obstacles against Abraham’s obedience. But he did obey.
Like the heat of the kiln, the trial proved Abraham’s devotion — but not for God’s benefit. It was Abraham whose consciousness was expanded by the revelation. Do we ever know of what we are capable until we act? Faith without works is dead. Abraham acted, and his faith lived.
A brick is still a brick if left unfired, but it is a lesser brick. We are no different. “[T]he testing of your faith produces patience,” says James about the challenges we face. “But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (1.3-4). Without tests, our faith is still faith, but it is somehow less substantial. Trials purify and refine us (Prov 17.3). They bring us to spiritual maturity.
“Suffering,” says John Chrysostom, “is . . . an encouragement to greater love, and a basis of spiritual perfection and godliness.”
Chrysostom uses another analogy to make his point, one Paul used as well: sports and training. Trials are “necessary for us,” he says. “For in the world there is no one who wins a trophy without suffering, who has not strengthened himself with labors and dieting and exercise and vigils and many other things like that” (Ancient Christian Commentary, NT 11.5).Ambrose of Milan marshals the same image, calling the world an “arena of continual strife.” God, he says, “institutes this combat” and readies crowns for the victors (Ambrose to Horontianus, Letter 43.4).
Any athlete knows the power here. We run better for the stopwatch and play harder for the opponent. Something greater comes from the competition, from the pursuit of the prize. In a sense, it was there all along, but only the trial could bring it out.
Suddenly and fully conscious
The Letter to the Hebrews says that when Abraham was tested, “he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son . . . concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead. . .” (11.17, 19).
This is what James is getting at. Abraham endured — was patient in James’s language — because his hope was in God and his promise. God said Abraham would be the father of nations and that Isaac was the son through whom the promise would come. In the agonizing journey up the slope of Moriah, Abraham had to wrestle with that promise.
Did Abraham really believe it? Only the trial would show him. It forced him to a conclusion, as Hebrews says, an understanding.
Our faith and love are tried not to prove something to God, but because like the bricks they remain unfinished and imperfect until tested. We, not God, emerge proven from the fire. And the proof brings a profound change in our awareness: what was unknown or hidden in the shadows of the soul is suddenly and fully clear to us. That awakened consciousness opens new vistas in our apprehension of God, our fellowship with him, and our worship.
We are not playacting. God allows difficulties to prompt faith and love in ways we are otherwise unable to summon. This is James’s perfect work of patience, of endurance.
Expecting the fire
Because only trials can produce this effect within us, we should expect them. “My son,” says Sirach, “if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation. . . . For gold is tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation” (2.1, 5).
The reference to gold should take the reader back to Job’s declaration: “When [God] has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (23.10). This was something Sirach likely intended, as he next points to “the ancient generations” as reason for hope. Those who trusted, persevered, and called upon God, he says, were never put to shame, forsaken, or overlooked, no matter what they endured (v. 10).
Not so for the timid and faint, those with “slack hands,” those who have given up and in whom patience has not had its perfect work (vv. 12-14).
The Letter to the Hebrews gives a subtle nod to Sirach on this point. “[L]ift your drooping hands,” the writer implores (12.12). The context illumines our struggles. Whether the opposition we experience is from the world or the result of our own failings, we are invited to see the fires we face as the chastening of God. Not that God brings evil upon us, but that he uses all things — including evil — for our salvation (Rom 8.28).
Trials refine and strengthen us. They show us what we are made of — or, more accurately, what new thing God has made in us.