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Through fire and through water.
No matter what measure of suffering we face, God is right there next to us.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
There are few psalms that rival the opening invitation to worship the Lord of all like that of Psalm 66:
Shout for joy to God, all the earth;
sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise!
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.
All the earth worships you
and sings praises to you;
they sing praises to your name.”
The anonymous psalmist appeals to all who can hear him to “sing” and “shout” and “say” how great the Lord is, to resound with acclaim the “awesome deeds” of the Almighty God, which leaves the whole world trembling with wonder. “All the earth,” then, is summoned to praise the Lord because how awesome he is: “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Ps. 66:5). We are, perhaps, quick to label ordinary items or events as “awesome,” without pausing to consider what that descriptor actually means. The overuse of the word “awesome” diminishes its meaning. In the King James, this word is translated as “terrible,” and is suggestive of that which leaves one standing in awe and reverence. (The speechless wonder of the Grand Canyon comes to mind.)
The point is, God himself is the only truly awesome thing there is in all creation. The awesomeness of the universe is but the echo of the awesomeness of its Creator. Accordingly, he is worthy of all the worship and praise we can muster (Ps. 66:4–5). Such is what happens when we go to church. The invitation to worship and to “come and see what God has done” is extended to each-and-every congregant every single time the sanctuary doors are open. The summons is to gather with the family of God and revel in his “awesome deeds.” What makes this particular anthem of praise so poignant, though, are the circumstances which surround it:
Bless our God, O peoples;
let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept our soul among the living
and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water . . .
We’re not told who wrote this psalm nor what was going on historically at the time of writing. What’s obvious, though, is that this was an especially grievous season for all involved. Those who sang these lines were those who knew first-hand what was to be laden with hardship and heaviness. Everyone’s collective experience made it seem as though they all were carrying around “a crushing burden” on their backs (Ps. 66:11). Apparently, they had been cursed to bear an “anvil of grief” everywhere they went. They felt trapped, as though they had been caught in a net. What’s more, it felt as though they had been trampled underfoot by their enemies (Ps. 66:12). Every new gut-punch of grief hit like a fresh horse-hoof to the face.
All in all, this season of duress was more akin to a season of prolonged agony and crushing defeat. To make matters worse, it appeared as though all of it was coming from God’s hands. “You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us . . . you brought us . . . you laid . . . you let” (Ps. 66:10–12). God was the culprit behind the calamity. Every miserable bend in the road seemed to have the Lord’s fingerprints all over it, which, as you might imagine, left these folks more than a little disheartened and disillusioned. “What are you doing, God? Where are you leading us? Why are you letting this happen?!” You, no doubt, have bellowed similar questions in the night hours at some point in your life, maybe even recently.
Seasons of sustained suffering can oftentimes feel as though God has gone cruel. It’s as if God has taken us by the hand and led us straight over blazing hot coals. Or, to change the metaphor, it’s as if we’re standing on the banks of a yawning river, with God on the far side motioning for us to follow him — not over it or around it, but through it. And that’s precisely when we are apt to shout, “It’s too deep, it’s impossible to cross! There’s gotta be another way, some other route we can take!” The sufferers in Psalm 66 had reached their limit. They couldn’t bear to endure any more suffering, loss, or sorrow. “Okay, God, that’s enough. Just go ahead and show me what you want me to learn!”
We’ve all been there, at some time or another, and if all we had to go on was the first half of verse 12, we might well assume that this was it and that these folks had given up entirely. Maybe they were still there at the river’s edge, without any hope or direction. Or, perhaps, they had gotten into the water but stopped midway through, resigning themselves to wherever the current might take them. But the remarkable truth of this psalm is that their story didn’t end there. Adversaries trampling them to dust and pathways full of hot water was merely part one. Part two tells the rest of the story: “. . . yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance” (Ps. 66:12, emphasis mine).
Suffering and sorrow was not all that God had in store for them. His plan wasn’t to lead them to a place of pain and confusion, only to abandon them. Although, I must admit, it does feel that way sometimes. There are times when it feels as though God’s hand is holding onto us right up until those instances of excruciating heartache and perplexity. Then, suddenly, it’s as if we’re sailing on our own. This isn’t what’s true or what’s real, to be sure, but suffering can certainly make it seem that way. God harvests no thrill out of seeing his children suffer. He’s no cruel tyrant who merely likes to see his people drown under the weight of the “crushing burdens” he lays on them. Rather, he is a tender, loving, caring Father whose most earnest desire is that his people would be in the “place of abundance,” that is, his abundance.
The road to that “place of abundance,” though, is very often a direct route through the “valley of the shadow of death” — that is, through affliction, through pain, through adversity, and into a verdant glade. “Over the hills faith sees the daybreak,” runs Charles Spurgeon’s eloquent encouragement, “in whose light we shall enter into the wealthy place” (2:1.112). When things seem disordered and directionless, God is leading us through. Even still, we are never promised lives without suffering or difficulty. In fact, the bevy of biblical revelation says just the opposite is true. “In the world you will have tribulation,” the Lord says. “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” the apostle declares (Acts 14:22). Elsewhere, he states that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17, emphasis mine). “Through fire and water,” then, is vernacular for living by faith and not by sight. After all, who promises to be with us through all of those seasons? The God who is “with us” makes that promise:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isa. 43:1–3)
The everlasting promise of God to you and to me is that no matter what measure of suffering we face, he is right there next to us, going through it all with us, alongside of us. That’s who he is. He is Immanuel, he is “God with us,” which means “with us” through cancer, through death, through a breakup, through a layoff, through a car wreck, through changed plans, through it all. This is the promised presence we’ve been afforded through the Word and Spirit of Christ. The unwavering, changeless promise of the gospel assures us of God’s presence “through fire and through water.” “Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age,” the Lord assures his disciples (Matt. 28:20). We who belong to God are never in a place where God is not (Ps. 139:7–12). Furthermore, your current predicament is not a sign that God’s love for you has evaporated. The psalm concludes with this assuring word:
But truly God has listened;
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
Blessed be God,
because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me!
It’s hard to fathom that as something that’s real. The “heat of the moment” rarely leaves us feeling loved, heard, or remembered. But, as the psalmist has said, it is through testing and trial that “silver is tried” (Ps. 66:10). This offers us the best way to make sense of those troublesome moments when life feels thin and long, as if we are being weighted down by “a crushing burden.” Those times are not specimens of God’s anger and frustration towards us. Actually, the opposite is true. Scripture informs us that those are times which reveal his love.
The image that’s conjured by verse 10 is a familiar one within biblical literature (Mal. 3:2–3; 1 Pet. 1:6–7; James 1:2–3). The word “tried” literally means “to smelt” or “to refine,” referring to the purification process for a hunk of silver or other precious ore. This is a process of sweat and fire and grit, often involving repeated trips into a blazing hot furnace. To refine a brick of silver or gold, you put it through intense temperatures, with each pass through the flames melting away the slag, that is, the base metals in the ore that burnt off. The point is, the metallurgist harbors no ill-will for the metal he places into the furnace. Rather, it’s because of his fondness for the silver and his vision for what that silver can become that he puts that piece of ore into the flames. Seventeenth century English clergyman Tobias Crisp offers this insightful perspective on how to understand this paradigm of suffering:
When you see the refiner cast his gold into the furnace, do you think he is angry with the gold, and means to cast it away? No, he sits as a refiner; that is, he stands warily over the fire, and over the gold, and looks unto it, that not one grain be lost; and when the dross is severed, he will out with it presently, it shall be no longer there. Even so Christ sits as a refiner; when once his gold shall have its dross severed, then he takes out his gold, and it becomes as gold seven times purified in the fire. (1:19–20)
Your present circumstances may be nothing but “fire and water,” but that does not mean God is mad at you. Actually, it means that he loves you too much to leave you where you, as you are. His purpose isn’t to make you suffer, but to, through suffering, make us into what he has already said that we are: his children. We may wish for a different, less painful route, one that doesn’t include so much “fire and water” and suffering. But who knows the way better than us? God does. “He knows the way that I take,” Job exclaims, “when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:10). And just as this was testimony of Job the penultimate sufferer, the psalmist is sure of the same: “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul” (Ps. 66:16). The testimony of every son and every daughter of God is: God has brought us through.
Tobias Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted: In the Perfection and Encouragement of the Saints, Notwithstanding Sins and Trials, edited by John Gill, Vols. 1–2 (London: John Bennett, 1832).
Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Vols. 1–3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988).