Last week I clocked up sixty-six years of living on this planet. I like to deal with the mixed emotions advancing years can bring by imagining each passing year as just another mile. The greatest part of my life’s journey has been travelled together with Jesus. Frankly, I wasn’t in much of a mood to celebrate the conclusion of mile ‘sixty-six’, but not surprisingly the Lord had a more positive spin on my somewhat reluctant milestone. He drew my attention to Psalm 66, in particular verses 9 to 12:
Bless our God, O peoples, And sound His praise abroad,
Who keeps us (me) in life and does not allow our (my) feet to slip.
For You have tried us (me), O God; You have refined us (me) as silver is refined.
You brought us (me) into the net; You laid an oppressive burden upon our (my) loins.
You made men ride over our (my) head/s; We (I) went through fire and through water, Yet You brought us (me) out into a place of abundance. (NASB)
The ancient word-pictures of being caught in a net, aching loins or people riding over our heads can be a little hard to get our twenty-first century minds around. But oppressive life circumstances, dealing with very real life and death scenarios for ourselves or those we love, and enduring false accusation, injustice, heartbreak or soul destroying rejection are things each one of us will taste, some very deeply, on this Christ-following journey.
Sometimes this Christian life can feel like a thousand thunderous riders above us pushing our faces back into the earth we were made from, in case we fix our gaze heavenward and find hope and redemption reaching out to us.
What’s hard to take is the thought that God has actually allowed some of these things to come upon us. “You have tried me, You have refined me as silver is refined.” Silver was refined within a crucible heated by very hot flames. The heat would cause the pure metal and the dross to separate so the dross could rise to the top and be removed by the refiner.
Really? Surely a God Who loves us and died for us would not willingly allow us to suffer hardship, heartbreak or oppression? After all, we now live under a covenant of grace, right?
Ah, but don’t you see it’s grace that bears you up, despite the net that threatens to ensnare you? Do you not perceive the grace that declares victory over that deep-seated fear in your loins? Do you not understand for each rider that pushes your face into the dirt, by grace you will rise again, stronger and more alive than ever, shouting ‘You can’t stop me!’ (Rom. 8:35-39).
Many of us have experienced times and events in our lives when trusted people and man-made religious systems deceived us. When we finally find ourselves walking free from that net of deception it’s natural to ask why God allowed us to walk into it in the first place.
Similarly, we may have endured painful circumstances or devastating loss. We find ourselves under the weight of an ‘oppressive burden’ with no option but to walk it through, clinging shakily to our hope in a God Who has promised never to forsake us.
Where is God, and why does He not always deliver us from such ‘nets’ and ‘burdens’?
Actually, He is right here…..keeping us. The keeping power of God is greater than anything this life can throw at us. If we think we can keep ourselves righteous, strong and committed, we will most certainly be disappointed. It is God’s hand alone that keeps us (Luke 17:33; Jde 1:24; 1 Jn. 5:18; 1 Peter 1:5).
During my journey with Jesus I have failed Him and others many, many times. I have been deceived by the systems and selfishness of men and women; I have known the deepest, darkest fears; I have had my face pushed into the mud more times than I can count. I’m guessing, wherever you are on the journey, you have lived or are living some or all of these things also.
Beloved, we have been through fire and through water.
Fire is a biblical symbol of the testing of God, but it is also a symbol of His Presence (Ex. 3:2, Daniel 7:9,10; 1 Peter 4:12). God’s testing is not an examination to determine our level of righteousness. He has already declared us righteous and holy (Rom. 5:17; Phl. 3:9; Heb. 12:23).
God allows testing to expose hidden areas of our soul to us – things such as fear, unhealthy habits and lying mindsets. God will allow us to experience situations, sometimes several times over, that lay bare these problem areas so that we will let Him touch and heal them. Our natural preference is to hide our weaknesses from Him (and often from ourselves), but His heart is always to reveal and then heal.
Water can symbolize those life-circumstances that threaten to overcome us – to drown and bury us in despair and unbelief; it can also represent bitterness (Ex. 15:23; Rev. 8:11). Such waters can come at us like a flood, leaving us feeling overwhelmed, buried beneath their weight and lost in their darkness.
But many waters cannot match His love for us (Sng. 8:7). We are children of the resurrection. God will never leave us buried beneath such a flood. The waters cannot overcome us, for just as He has set their physical boundaries, so He has set the boundaries of these waters of despair and bitterness that seek to bury us and make our testimony ineffective (Pro. 8:29; Jer. 5:22).
There is another Psalm that celebrates this ‘keeping power’ of God. It is one of fifteen Psalms that are called the Songs of Ascent, because the Israelites would sing them on the uphill ascent into Jerusalem as they came to worship during the festivals.
Had it not been the LORD who was on our side, let Israel now say,
Had it not been the LORD who was on our side
When men rose up against us,
Then they would have swallowed us alive,
When their anger was kindled against us;
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
The stream would have swept over our soul;
Then the raging waters would have swept over our soul.
Blessed be the Lord, Who has not given us to be torn by their teeth.
Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper;
The snare is broken and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth. (Ps. 124)
However the view may appear from where we are right now, you and I, if we are in Christ, are on the ascent. Our destination is the Kingdom of God in fullness. Our calling is to take our place within the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21).
Psalm 66 concludes like this:
Come and hear, all who fear God,
And I will tell of what He has done for my soul.
I cried to Him with my mouth,
And He was extolled with my tongue.
If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear;
But certainly God has heard;
He has given heed to the voice of my prayer.
Blessed be God,
Who has not turned away my prayer
Nor His lovingkindness from me.
God allows the fire and water that we may be a living testimony to Him. He has never promised otherwise (John 16:33). We don’t undergo painful times apart from Him. He walks with us and keeps us by His enduring grace. He is in the business of transforming us from victims to overcomers. His intention, if we will trust Him, is to bring us through the fire and the water forever changed, with a testimony of His faithfulness, His goodness and His incomparable Love.
As I enter my sixty-seventh year this is my testimony: that He has kept me through the fire, and through the water. Seldom do I share about these things but He has kept me through childhood abuse, despair, betrayal and deceit at the hands of fellow Christians, spiritual abuse, intense spiritual battles over the lives of my children, dangers and isolation while ministering in remote places, false accusation and impending imprisonment in a war-torn country, serious illness, and being disowned by members of my own family. God has allowed refining fires and deep dark waters in my life, but His grace has kept me and His Love continues to enable me.
I share this for one reason: I am a living testimony of God’s keeping power. So are you. You are the bearer of testimony. You are the evidence of Christ’s resurrection. Your testimony has been, and continues to be, wrought in the fires of affliction and the waters of oppression. But the fire and the water cannot stop us because we are held in the arms of Christ Himself. We are on the ascent, we are born to rise. No grave can hold us and no devil destroy us.
Though our flesh be destroyed, yet with our eyes we shall see God. This is not a pep-talk; this is reality for every true Christ-follower. May the truth of who we are and Who we belong to penetrate and transform us as this great journey continues.
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell of what He has done for my soul. Blessed be God who has not turned away my prayer, nor His lovingkindness from me!
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2016 Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.