Your Doubts, in the Story of God (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 24)

NOTE: This is part 24 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

Not long after John’s disciples brought Jesus’s riddling answer from Isaiah 61 back to him in prison, John reached the end of his earthly road.

Centuries before, when Elijah complained to God that Jezebel was hunting him down to kill him, God essentially rebuked him for his unbelief. Elijah fled into the wilderness, profoundly encountered God, and lived at least seven more years before his time arrived to go up to God in heaven. He passed out of this world in peace and victory, carried into the heavens in a flaming chariot while his awestruck disciple, Elisha, watched.

It wasn’t anything like that for John.

John had been thrown into prison because he confronted Herod over his immoral relationship with Herodias, Herod’s sister-in-law. But Herod was afraid of John and even somewhat fascinated by him. He threw him in prison, but he didn’t have the guts to kill him. Herodias was different. She was hateful and vindictive. She saw a chance to turn Herod’s insecurities against him, and she baited him into ordering John’s death at a feast in order to save face in front of his guests.

John was beheaded in prison, and his head was put on a platter and presented to Herodias at the party.

His doubts never got an answer in this world beyond the one Jesus sent him. The one that wasn’t completely clear, but gave John reasons to hope and to renew his faith that God was truly acting through his cousin.

We don’t know if that answer brought John peace. If it laid his fears and doubts to rest. We don’t know for certain whether he came through the refiner’s fire with a stronger faith—though I believe that he did.

We do know that in future years, his disciples and Jesus’s disciples essentially merged. The followers of John the Baptist became “Christians,” a word derived from Christ, the Greek word for “Messiah.” Eventually, after Jesus was raised from the dead, they were all convinced it was true. John had been right. Jesus was the Messiah. The new era had come.

But John didn’t see it. Not from this side of the veil, anyway.

Your Doubts, in the Story of God

You started reading this book for a reason. It might be a purely academic one, but chances are good that it isn’t. Chances are good you’re reading this book because you are a follower of Jesus, or you have been one or you want to be one, but you are wrestling with doubt. You fear it may all be a lie. And even if it isn’t, because you wrestle with doubt, because you experience crisis, because you don’t have it all figured out, you are afraid you may be disqualified.

But in the story of God, the story of Jesus, your doubts are not unexpected. They are certainly not unprecedented. Jesus answered John’s disciples and said, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed” (Matthew 11:4–6).

When Jesus comes, he baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Doubt—offense—crisis—the moment when the story goes sideways and you are no longer sure you are standing on solid ground. This is the refiner’s fire.

Can we shortcut this fire or avoid going through it? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not every believer walks the same road. (Certainly not every believer walks the same road.) The author of Hebrews wrote:

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:26–19)

If the very heavens and earth will be shaken, then surely we need to know that we will be too.

Just as John the Baptist, the son of Levi, was called upon to surrender his story—his understanding of the work and will of God—to a greater story, to the hidden work and will of God that were more than he could ever have imagined, so we too are called to release the stories we cling to and let them be purified in the refiner’s fire. We may find ourselves called upon to relinquish beliefs and expectations that have seemed critical for us, to trust in who more than we trust in what.

Also implied by this is the reality that God and his kingdom are capable of withstanding the fire. If we are willing to surrender and if we resist becoming offended and standing on our offense, the end of the crisis will not be the loss of everything.

We will lose only that which can be shaken, that which is dross and can be burned away. What remains will be silver and gold. What remains will be a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Daniel saw the kingdom of God given to the holy ones of the Most High. He saw it grow and become a great mountain and fill the whole earth. If we are to have a faith that remains, if our feet are truly to stand on level ground, then we can’t escape the fire. We can’t simply choose never to struggle, to doubt, or to fear that we are wrong. We can’t spend a lifetime stuffing down our doubts and never letting our beliefs be purified. We have to go through the refiner’s fire.

No matter how terrifying it may, in the moment, seem.

At the end of Matthew 11 are a prayer and a promise.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25–30, ESV)

At the end of the fire is purity. At the end of our story, once we have relinquished it, is the self-revelation of God—the unveiling of the mystery prepared for us, the hidden future that no eye had seen nor ear heard until Jesus himself lived it out. At the end of the struggle is rest.

But the way cannot be avoided. It can’t be dodged or ducked or climbed over. The only way through the fire is through.

To be continued.


This is Part 182 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash




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