I recently read an article about Nelson Mandela, chronicling the events of his life and what made him the undeterred, focused leader and freedom fighter he was. I read about his childhood, his education and his passion for justice. Somewhere in the middle of the article, I read something very fascinating. Suddenly the words ceased to be about Mandela, but about me, and all of us.
Mandela, for all his redemptive achievements and proclamations of peace, had begun as nothing more than a fierce and rowdy revolutionary. But his time in prison transformed him into the man we honor and memorialize today. “Prison was the crucible that formed the Mandela we know. The man who went into prison in 1962 was hotheaded and easily stung. The man who walked into the sunshine of the mall in Cape Town 27 years later was measured, even serene. It was a hard-won moderation… After I asked him many times during our weeks and months of conversation what was different about the man who came out of prison compared with the man who went in, he finally sighed and then said simply, “I came out mature.” 1
I don’t know that I read another word of his life’s account. I paused there, thinking “Yes… that is how it is.” We all have our crucibles, the fires we walk through that purify and hone the character that is latent and embryonic inside us. Not one of us wants to walk through them, or would choose them. Thankfully, we usually have no choice. If we pursue life, then we must endure the flames that threaten to take it from us.
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Paradoxically, instead of consuming our lives, the fire refines us, burning away the impurities, leaving something of greater beauty and worth.
I think we all have a vision of our lives that is noble and pure, but we are incapable of executing it on our own. Maybe that is just our human frailty, or maybe it is our fallen nature. We all have something inside us – our best self- that is waiting to be born, or released. Suffering and our willing endurance of it, seem to be the instrument God uses to bring forth that person – the one He has known in us, and designed for us to be before the creation of the world.
No, we wouldn’t choose our crucibles. We are still not that noble. But it is a help to know that we do not traverse them alone. The God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29) is the one who also walks through
the fire with us, protecting us, until we emerge complete and mature. (James 1:2)
As I reflect on my life, I am thankful for the trials that have been appointed to me. They have not been easy, but they have ushered me into God’s holy presence, where I have experienced his unsurpassable love and power. Make no mistake, our fiery trials have a holy purpose, for when we shall have endured the test, we shall come forth as gold… pure gold. (Job 23:10)
So let us hold on together, a little while longer, until we see the beauty God has in store for us.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Psalm 23:4
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:2
1 Richard Stengel, “The Long Walk”; Time Magazine, December 23,2013, page 149