Gold is one of the most precious metals in the world. There’s nothing more alluring than a 24-karat gold ring or set of earrings. That’s because 24 karats means that the ring is made of pure gold.
There are no other alloys present, as there are with 18-karat gold (75% pure) and 10-karat gold (42% pure). To get to 24 karats, refiners have to subject the metal to intense heat repeatedly. Eventually, all of the impurities rise to the top of the molten metal and are skimmed away, leaving nothing but pure gold.
This is a good way to think about our own growth in holiness. We know that we are not 24-karat gold yet, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t making progress. Just as pure gold goes through numerous refinements, we, too, are on our way. Every day gives us another opportunity to let God refine us a bit more. Every day gives us another opportunity to let God remove a few more of our impurities.
This process of melting and molding can be difficult at times, but it is worth it. That’s because, not only are we being cleansed, but we are also being drawn closer to Jesus. Not only are we emptying ourselves of sin, but we are being filled with God’s own life and love. Not only are we getting rid of our impurities, but we are becoming more pure.
This is why Jesus urges us to “be perfect” as his Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). His love for us is so strong that he wants to set us free from everything that divides us from him—everything that keeps us in darkness and bondage. So let’s look into this refining fire of God.
Tested by Fire. Some of Israel’s prophets refer to God as a refining fire. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet says that God has refined Israel “in the furnace of affliction” by sending the people into exile (48:10). The prophet Zechariah promised that God would “test” the people “as one tests gold” and “as one refines silver” (13:9). But one of the most dramatic prophecies comes from the Book of Malachi.
Malachi prophesied in the middle of the fifth century BC, as the Israelites were returning from exile in Babylon and faced the daunting task of rebuilding Jerusalem. They had been immersed in a pagan land for decades, and some of the Babylonians’ philosophies had rubbed off on them. And so Malachi reproaches them: “You have wearied the Lord . . . by saying, ‘All evildoers are good in the sight of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” (Malachi 2:17).
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Just as back then, many people today believe that they can do whatever they want—good or bad—and it won’t make a difference. “God will still be pleased with us,” they tell themselves. But this kind of thinking is not only confusing; it’s dangerous. Sin has eternal consequences, and we need to be aware of them.
For all the confusion we see today, it really is nothing new. People were just as confused about sin as far back as the time of Malachi—and even further back, right to the fall of our first parents. For thousands of years, our sins have wounded our relationships with each other. They have wounded our relationship with the Lord. And they continue to weary him.
To Purify, Not Destroy. But Malachi didn’t conclude his prophecy with complaints about the Israelites. He went on to talk about how God intended to purify them—and us:
“I am sending my messenger—he will prepare the way before me,” he said, speaking in the voice of the Lord (Malachi 3:1). “And the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; the messenger of the covenant whom you desire—see, he is coming! says the Lord of hosts. . . . For he will be like a refiner’s fire. . . . And he will purify the Levites, refining them like gold or silver that they may bring offerings to the Lord. . . . Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord” (3:1-4).
If we were to look back on these words through the lens of the gospels, we might come to some helpful conclusions. We might see John the Baptist as the “messenger” whom God would send to prepare his way. We might also see “the Lord” whom we “seek” as Jesus himself. We might think of how Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem and how he cleansed the Temple by driving out the money changers. We might also think of how he purified the people as well, by “teaching in the temple area” every day afterward (Luke 19:47).
Of course, it’s not that Malachi had direct knowledge about John the Baptist or Jesus. As far as he was concerned, he was speaking about the Levites who ministered in the Temple during his time, 450 years before Jesus was born. But from the time of the apostles onward, the Church has seen these prophetic words about a refining fire as pointing to God’s desire to purify us from our sins.
While the idea of being purified like this can sound frightening, it’s helpful to remember that a refiner’s fire does not destroy. It’s not an incinerator. The only thing it melts away is the impurities in our lives so that only that which is pure remains. This is why the image of a refining fire is very hopeful. It tells us that God hasn’t given up on us. It tells us that he is still committed to purifying us—even after all the sins we have committed. It tells us that his love for us is so strong that he will never give up helping us become holy.
A Witness to God’s Refining Fire. Bill and MaryAnn can attest to the challenge and the hope contained in the message of God’s refining fire. They love each other, but over the course of their marriage, they had fallen into the habit of snapping at each other on a regular basis. It had gotten so bad that a day could not go by without one of them saying something sarcastic or critical about the other. Then one Sunday, they heard a homily at Mass that ignited the refiner’s fire in their hearts. The homily was about the power of words and how repeated negative statements can weaken and even break down a family.
The priest talked about “negativity bias,” as it is called by professionals. Negativity bias explains how we tend to remember negative and hurtful experiences more vividly than we recall positive experiences. For example, experiencing a financial setback, being abandoned by friends, and receiving harsh criticism all have a greater impact than a financial windfall, making a new friend, or receiving praise. Then he asked the congregation to spend a moment praying for the grace to be more loving and to put an end to all the negative statements.
In that short moment, Bill and MaryAnn were both cut to the heart. After Mass, they told each other they were sorry for all the negativity, and they promised to try to put an end to it. Knowing it’s not always easy to change a pattern, they committed themselves to praying the Rosary together each morning, specifically asking God to help them focus on their love for each other.
God used a simple Sunday homily to purify Bill and MaryAnn’s marriage. He touched their hearts and invited them to accept his refining fire. It wasn’t always easy. The negativity and complaining didn’t just go away automatically. “We do slip up,” Bill said, “but we’re getting better each day. We have found that in addition to praying together, it’s helpful to try to be as positive toward each other as possible. It’s our way of cooperating with the Lord as he sets us free.”
The Fire of God’s Love. The refiner’s fire that Bill and MaryAnn experienced is available to all of us. It’s the fire of God’s love—a love that is as pure as it is strong. It’s an all-consuming love that burns away all obstacles in its path. It’s a fire that warms our hearts even as it melts our impurities. So let’s decide to enter the Lord’s refining fire, as Bill and MaryAnn did. Let’s ask Jesus to purify us like gold or silver because we are precious to him. All we have to do is come to him in prayer, and he will set us free.