The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple… But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…(Malachi 3:1, 2)
I don’t remember the first time I encountered the aspect of the Light which early Quakers often referred to as the Refiner’s Fire. I do know that sometimes I am kept awake at night, inwardly being shown ways that I have acted in my own will, out of fear or other negative motivations, and contrary to God’s desires for me. Sometimes this review of things I have thought and done is accompanied by a feeling of inner heat and brightness. It’s an uncomfortable process, but I know that being shown my failings and hidden motivations has often helped me choose a better course.
When the first Quakers introduced their faith to others, the Refiner’s Fire was often the first element of the spiritual journey they described. They were quick to tell people how to discover the Light of Christ within. Look into your conscience, they counseled. If you pay attention to what makes your conscience uneasy, you will discover that the Light within your conscience illuminates how, inwardly, you resist God. If you persist in looking at what is revealed, you’ll see more and more clearly–possibly to your surprise–how thoroughly you have been under the sway of fear, uncontrolled desires, negative emotions, distracting mental processes, deceitful manners, unjust social practices, greed, and pride. These are contemporary ways of describing what early Friends more often spoke of as temptations, “the pollutions of the world” or “the wiles of Satan.” When traveling Quaker ministers Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers were imprisoned for three years in Malta, they told the Inquisition, “we were children of wrath once as well as others” (Evans & Chevers,197).
Even one’s religious conversation and spiritual practices may be primarily under the control of the human will, not God’s will. Conforming to the ways of society often involves colluding with the spiritual oppression of oneself and others, and even the people who have avoided most forms of sinful behavior may nonetheless find that they have been inwardly bound in ways they barely suspected.
The Light reveals these things not in order to condemn people but to bring about change. Nonetheless, this kind of revelation is a difficult experience, as suggested in the prophet Malachi’s description of God’s return, Who can endure the day of His coming? The God who appears among the people (or in this case, within the people) is intent upon purification, like a fuller or a refiner. A fuller scrubs the dirty, rough wool of a sheep until it is clean and soft, ready to be spun and then woven into cloth. A refiner purifies a lump of silver or gold by putting it into a hot fire to melt away all the base metals within it, repeatedly thrusting it into the fire until it becomes pure. The more precious the metal, the hotter the fire needed for this refining process. In an epistle to Friends at large, Margaret Fell wrote, “let the living Principle of God in you all, examine what ye enjoy and possess of him, who is Eternal; and what is of him, will stand in his Presence, which is a Consuming Fire to all that is not of him… (“An Epistle,” 1654, 457-459). Although the process can be painful, Sarah Blackborrow urged people to accept what the Light reveals: “Oh! love truth and its Testimony, whether its Witness be to you, or against you, love it…” (“A Visit,” p.10).
Early Quakers used many names and images for this purification. In addition to the Refiner’s Fire, they spoke of a hammer, an axe laid to the root of an unfruitful tree, and the sword of the Lord. Some described undergoing many baptisms. Sometimes the revelation and then purification of sin was called the “ministration of condemnation.” Seekers became Quakers only after being shown the errors of their ways and surrendering to divine judgment. God is merciful and loving. The purpose of the process is cleansing and purification, which restores people to the original pristine divine nature in which human beings were created, in the image of God. Early Quaker tract writer William Smith wrote that this refining process brings about spiritual rebirth, the birth of Christ within. “[I]n the Refining Fire,” he wrote, every form of corruption, “is purged and consumed; and as Man abides the Fire, and waits in the Judgment, he puts off the Old in which he hath lived, and he puts on the New and is translated; and here man truly dies to himself, and receives Christ the Seed of Life, and putteth him on… (“New Creation,” 47).”
After he first began attending Quaker meetings, seventeenth-century journal writer John Banks became aware of this inward purification, a slow and sometimes painful process: “I [came] to be convinced by the living appearance of the Lord Jesus of the evil and vanity, sin and wickedness that the world lies in (and that I was so much a partaker thereof.) … But by taking true heed thereunto, through watchfulness and fear, I came by one little after another to be sensible of the work thereof in my heart and soul, in order to subdue and bring down, tame and subject the wild nature in me, and to wash, purge, and cleanse me inwardly from sin and corruption; for that end that I might be changed and converted” (“Journal,” 183-184).
In 1668, after she had been a Quaker for about a decade, Mary Penington wrote of her ongoing experience of this. Her words indicate God’s loving intention in revealing, day by day, her weaknesses and temptations: “[T]hough various infirmities and temptations beset me, yet my heart cleaveth unto the Lord, in the everlasting bonds that can never be broken. In his light do I see those temptations and infirmities: there do I bemoan myself unto him, and feel faith and strength, which give the victory. Though it keeps me low in the sense of my own weakness, yet it quickens in me a lively hope of seeing Satan trodden down under foot by his all-sufficient grace. I feel and know when I have slipped in word, deed, or thought; and also know where my help lieth, who is my advocate, and have recourse to him who pardons and heals, and gives me to overcome, setting me on my watch-tower. … Oh! that I may, by discovering my own weakness, ever be tender of the tempted; watching and praying, lest I also be tempted. Sweet is this state, though low; for in it I receive my daily bread, and enjoy that which he handeth forth continually; and live not, but as he breatheth the breath of life upon me every moment.” (“Some Account,” 223.)
* * * * * This was Part Eight in a series about The Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. Click here to see the bibliography page.
The next post will describe how Friends today have been experiencing the Refiner’s Fire. Please share your experiences!
The Refiner’s Fire: How have you experienced the Light showing things within that are contrary to the ways of God? Has this brought about any sense of change or purification, within you or in the way you live your life?
For information about workshops in Indiana and Wisconsin related to the Quaker Spiritual Journey, see the Teaching and Upcoming Workshops page.
(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin
My experience of the refiner’s fire has not been as visceral is at least some early Friends, and Marcelle, have experienced. But it has been an ongoing process since my childhood and it seems to be far from over. Experience, groundedness in the teachings of Christ and Christ’s followers, and knowledge of what fears, assumptions, and unacknowledged woundednesses motivate me have been the means of the purifying process. Sometimes I am blessed to recognize in advance when I am about to speak, or act, or respond inwardly out of the Light, so to speak, but more often it has been after the fact. Either way I learn, or hope to learn, to be more alert, more sensitive and more responsive to the movement of the true Light within.
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Where I must part company with early Friends, and their uncritical admirers:
One does not send a child through the fire to God, but to Moloch.
I’m not saying I haven’t needed a glop of Suffering Sauce dumped on me from time to time. It is an extremely effective means of learning, but far from preferable. As Mark Twain observed, the burnt cat learns not to sleep on the hot stove — but also learns to avoid the cold stove.
Pain, physical or emotional, teaches more than one lesson, more than one of them wrong.
Does God teach us by violent means? Clearly it happens. Obviously we are not supposed to learn to teach that way ourselves. Not only would that violate what Jesus says about the way we are to treat each other, it also works to contradict what he says about the nature of God. This is a way people have learned to teach; and we desperately need to unlearn it!
One of Anne [Curo]’s favorite movie quotes:
“Honey, Jesus loves you.”
“He loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
So there are worse things than the suffering that people sometimes need to endure; and one of them would be remaining stuck in certain ideas, attitudes, or ways of behaving.
But shame is likely to be a side effect, and shame tends to be a powerful force locking people into
What we think is our true self may sometimes be an ugly surface needing to be cleaned. But what we truly are is something God is creating. God isn’t done, but the work so far hasn’t been a mistake.