Who Started the Refiner’s Fire?

Fig. 1: A refiner’s fire. Do you feel the burn?
After an insightful discussion with two friends over burgers, shakes and fries (what other food sparks deep, theological discussions better than a delicious hamburger?), I felt like the focus of my next post (read: this one, that you are currently reading) should be my view of suffering, specifically what we refer to in Mormondom as ‘trials’. If that conversation weren’t enough, I went with those same two friends to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which could be called a shrine to dealing with trials and suffering because, well, because Jews.
I’m a firm believer in the good that can come from difficult life experiences and generally think that without some sort of challenges in life we wouldn’t learn what we need. However, I do not believe that the difficulties we face and the challenges that we need to overcome are given to us from God.
I believe that God can sanctify anything that happens to us, no matter how evil, wretched or depraved the origins. After all, “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). Yet, I do not believe that those events and pains are divinely ordained or commissioned.
Rather than put the pressure on God for choosing and selecting trials and obstacles for me to overcome that will push me in exactly the right way, so that I develop into the best person I could be, I prefer to move that responsibility to myself and all other individuals. It is up to me to turn to God when I am faced with a dark and difficult time, so that He can teach me and find the good buried within, the silver lining if you will.
I am drawn to this understanding because otherwise, God begins to resemble a Grand Chessmaster moving pieces on a board, setting up my life and the lives of all those around me, to create the perfect test (sort of like Willy Wonka and the everlasting gobstopper to see who deserved the chocolate factory). I can’t accept that. I believe that God created the world and set in motion certain events that brought pain and suffering into it, establishing the general conditions that all of humanity would endure, but knowing that individuals would face varied circumstances outside of His control. That is one reason the Atonement is so important- it levels the inequities of life.
My sense of justice and fairness is also bothered by the possibility that being born as a poor, starving child in Africa, forced into working for blood diamonds and becoming a child soldier is somehow a custom-tailored set of difficulties that give that child of God something that they needed to receive. I can’t believe that.
Plus, I love individuality and the idea that God can take chaos, confusion, disorder, evil or any other negatively connoted idea and refine it into something worthwhile. That is powerful to me. And I need to go to God to get that. I need to work with Him to make sense of the world and find the good that can come from mess that surrounds me known as reality. It’s a collective effort, me working hand in hand with the Creator to transcend the darkness of mortality and reach heavenly heights.
I understand that for some, the idea of God selecting their trials brings a sense of comfort and purpose to life, when it would be easy to feel alone and as though life had lost all meaning. Yet, for me that purpose and comfort is strengthened when God admits that the chaos and disorder isn’t what He wants and that He wants to work with me to find a way to make it work for my good. Together we can overcome.
The distinction I made may not matter to some, but it creates a very different framework that empowers me to find the good in all things and to begin to understand the suffering of those that have done nothing to bring it upon themselves.
Fig. 2: The Piano Man himself, who also didn’t start the fire.
Neither God nor I started my refiner’s fire, but it’s been burning since the world’s been turning. As I work my way through, turning to God for somebody to lean on, I can transcend the fire and flames and carry on, enduring to the end.

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