Why I wrote The Refiner’s Fire and Sabbath School Bible Study Guides: the story behind the story
How I became the principal contributor to the Sabbath School lessons and why I wrote the accompanying book, The Refiner’s Fire, is as important to me as the material itself. Every time I think about it, I am amazed at the unfolding of God’s loving Providence.
Part of the story is written in the introduction to the book, so let me expand this to include the writing of the Sabbath School study guides.
To be honest, the book was “an accident”. I never set out to study the role of suffering in our lives, but as I began to enter into some of life’s crucibles myself, I started to take notes.
The book began as a series of apparently unconnected prayers. I had been going through a long stressful period where I was changing jobs and moving to a new country. This resulted in my prayer life becoming quite barren for I had been unconsciously trading busyness for communion with God. Eventually, a longing began to well up from within to recover some of my lost passion for prayer.
To help rekindle this desire, I bought a book on prayer by Evelyn Christensen, whose best selling book, What Happens When Women Pray, taught me to pray as a fifteen year old. As I began to read a chapter on God’s glory being supreme, I began to feel a new hunger for this to be renewed in my own experience. I later wrote in my spiritual journal how I really wanted to serve God with everything I was and how I realised like never before that at the heart of glorifying God is sacrifice. “Total devotion”, I promised God rather naively, “no matter the cost.”
Four days later I received an email to present a seminar at the 2001 European Minister’s Council entitled, “Prayer in the life of the pastor: how to survive spiritually”. I then prayed my second wildly naive prayer asking God to teach me during the next ten months what he wanted me to pass on to the pastors. I concluded, “Be glorified in my life, whatever the cost.”
I prayed with sincerity but felt a pang of caution. If I was to teach others about “surviving”, perhaps I was going to feel the strains of what it might feel like to only just survive myself? My fears came true. Within days everything seemed to start falling apart. When it came down to it, this certainly wasn’t my idea of how to glorify God. However, as the months rolled by, I would be wrestling daily with issues that I found extremely difficult to handle, but then I would pick up my Bible or another book, and there would be the exact answer to my questions. It happened so regularly that I knew that God was intimately involved. It was only after some time that I realised that God was teaching me exactly what I needed to teach others at the seminar.
The day of the seminar came and I felt more than prepared. I was excited to share what God had been opening up to me, but as I walked into the seminar room, something felt strange. Although there were up to 1000 people in attendance at the conference, my seminar room was very small. In fact, just eight people arrived for the session. I suppose you could say I was very confused. I knew that God have been directing events in my life in very specific ways, but for just eight people? Or rather, my thinking probably went more along the lines of, “God, did I really have to go through all of that pain and stress just to teach eight people?!” I am not sure that it was the noblest response, but that was how I felt.
After a few days, I began wonder if perhaps I had enough material for a book. God had been so clearly involved, and I felt so thankful for what he had been teaching me, that I finally began to write. I sent a few sample chapters to the Review and received positive feedback. So I kept writing. I remember completing the manuscript. It was an exhilarating moment as I realised I was finally finished. But as I began to search for the editor’s email address to attach the document, an alarming thing happened. All of a sudden, the hairs all over my body stood up on end as the room was filled by an evil presence. It is hard to describe, but my mind suddenly went very hazy and it was as though all the energy in my body was being sucked out. From previous experiences, I knew what was happening. All I could do was slam my laptop shut, and find a phone to ask someone to pray for me. However, as I stood up, my knees buckled because I had already become so weak.
In a strange way, I was almost glad for that experience. If what I had been writing was important to Satan, it was evidently important to God. The next day I emailed off the manuscript, confident of God’s hand in my life. And then, with baited breath, I waited.
Actually, I wasn’t so bothered about the committee’s response to the manuscript because I had been so sure of God’s leading. So the rejection letter did take me by complete surprise. For three days I walked around like a zombie. I knew God had been at work. I was sure that God had been working in my life to prepare this book. I had received many positive responses to my manuscript. Even Satan had revealed his intentions. But suddenly it was all over.
After spending a lot of time in prayer, I began to wonder if perhaps God had another purpose for the material. We had recently been discussing Sabbath Schoollessons at Division meetings, and I began to wonder if it would be possible to extract the theological guts out of the book, and use it for Sabbath School lessons. I wrote a proposal, and sent it off to the General Conference.
I received a positive response and was asked to write the first lesson. And then the next lesson, and then the next. Normally, people are asked to write the Bible guides but I was a volunteer. But finally all 13 lessons were finished. They then went through all of the committees, and I became the principal contributor for The Refiner’s Fire.
And the book?
A few weeks after the General Conference had approved the lessons, I received an email from the same person who had sent me the rejection letter. Would I be so kind as to consider writing the book to accompany the Sabbath School lessons? I couldn’t help smiling. God knew exactly what he was doing.
On reflection, I would have had it no other way. From purely a personal perspective, I was now able to write a better manuscript compared to the first. Time had passed, and there was opportunity for personal growth, which hopefully meant better writing. As I was discovering, God has dreams for our lives, but they are best lived inside his timing.
Actually, I think in God’s mind the book began many years before. While working through the second draft, I suddenly remembered a prayer from more than ten years before. I had been working in Albania just after communism had fallen. I listened hour after hour as people related their pain and anguish of living under one of the most tyrannical dictators in Europe, a dictator whom even Stalin is said to have urged to ease up on his people. After one visit where the “why” question was asked with many tears, I left frustrated. As I walked through the doorway to leave, I breathed a quick request. “O Lord, one day I would like to write a book to help people understand all this.” I immediately forgot my prayer. But God it seems, had not.
As I said, I never intended to write such a book or lessons. In one sense perhaps, studying suffering is not possible anyway. Life has to be lived, and it is very hard to meaningfully share with others what you have never experienced yourself. Otherwise we are apt to make truth sound tedious, boring, or even untrue. So my writing has been the consequence of a journey. Almost every text and quotation used has been discovered seemingly accidentally along the path of real life.
As I wrote the book, I consciously tried to be as open and honest as possible. As Christians, and particularly as Christian leaders, we may inadvertently give the impression that we have somehow mastered Christianity, or have “arrived”. But we are all on a journey, and this journey is best done together. It’s not about winning, or getting there first, but making sure that we all eventually cross the line. This was the lesson that I had recently had memorably impressed on me as I had begun my MA in Leadership with Andrews University.
I remember a friend sharing a problem he was struggling with and I responded by sharing how I struggled with the same issue. He instantly blurted out in astonishment, “What? But you’re a pastor! I thought you had it all figured out!
It’s easy to sit discussing deep theological issues and coming up with all sorts of good answers, but it is quite another thing to apply what we learn. Sometimes we succeed, but many times we are cycling through the process of failure and starting out again. Like my friend, I may watch Christian leaders or others at church from a distance and think that as they appear so close to God, they probably don’t have any problems like I do. The temptation is to conclude that I struggle alone. But that is not true. We are all struggling in one way or another because all of us will walk through– it’s just that some of us are better at hiding the pain than others. Perhaps if we were a little more honest about the pain we experience and our struggles with applying God’s teachings to our lives, we would be all be stronger for it.
What I have written is not intended to be the final word on the purpose of suffering. Certainly not, for there are many great Christians who have written more exquisitely and with deeper insight than I have. However, as I noted at the beginning, what I wanted to try and offer to others are the insights and lessons that God has taught me. These have been very helpful in providing a way to interpret life and the difficult things I face. Along the way, I have been greatly encouraged. What matters most to me now is to pass on any encouragement I may have found.
So I feel very much like Paul when he wrote, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
My hope is that all of us may become reservoirs of God’s comfort. So when those around us begin to stumble and consider giving up, encouragement will never be far away.