World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


The Refining Fire

The presence of suffering and hardship in life cannot always be explained on the basis of divine justice. Why, if God is just and gracious, and the true teaching brings forth love and peace, do the righteous seem to suffer about as much as the wicked? The problem of theodicy, particularly when it concerns the problem of the righteous sufferer, has occupied the minds of some of the greatest religious thinkers. Passages relevant to the problem of theodicy are found scattered throughout this anthology according to the various solutions which are posited in scripture: e.g., the human condition is inevitably Ill, pp. 379-85; people are deluded by Ignorance, pp. 395-402; infected by Original Sin from a primordial Human Fall, pp. 422-34; fated to work out accumulated Karma or Inherited Sin, pp. 694-702; or influenced by Demonic Powers, pp. 435-44. One may have an Argument with God, pp. 782-86 that such suffering is unjust, or empathize with God's own Grief, pp. 457-62.

Another way in which the suffering of the righteous is frequently under- stood is as a means to spiritual advancement and hence a manifestation of God's grace. Suffering tries and tests people, purifies their faith, corrects their flaws, and refines their character. This suffering is an expression of grace and love because once people have come out of the refining fire and accepted correction, they will shine with a tested and confirmed faith and a splendid character. Especially those whom God wishes to entrust with a special responsibility, or who are desirous of reaching the highest goal, will be most severely tested and most thoroughly refined. The passages gathered below treat this gracious side of suffering: the refining fire.

Welcome to Thy wrath and to Thy glow! Our welcome be to Thy flame! Let Thy missiles burn our enemies, Be our purifier, be gracious to us!

Hinduism. Yajur Veda 36.20

Just as a great conflagration Can burn up all things, So does Buddha's field of blessings Burn up all fabrication.

Buddhism. Garland Sutra 10

As the heat of a fire reduces wood to ashes, the fire of knowledge burns to ashes all karma. Nothing in this world purifies like spiritual wisdom.

Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 4.37

Just as a fire quickly reduces decayed wood to ashes, so does an aspirant who is totally absorbed in the inner self and completely unattached to all external objects shake to the roots, attenuate, and wither away his karma-body.

Jainism. Samantabadhra, Aptamimamsa 24-27

"From His right hand went forth a fiery law for them" (Deuteronomy 33.2). The words of Torah are compared to fire, for both were given from heaven, both are eternal. If a man draws near the fire, he derives benefit; if he keeps afar, he is frozen, so with the words of the Torah: if a man toils in them, they are life to him; if he separates from him, they kill him.

Judaism. Midrash, Sifre Deuteronomy

I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.

Judaism and Christianity. Bible, Zechariah 13.9

Ambrosia can be extracted even from poison; elegant speech even from a child; good conduct even from an enemy, gold even from impurity.

Hinduism. Laws of Manu 2.239

Garland Sutra 10: Cf. Dhammapada 239, p. 713; Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda 118-20, pp. 783f. Zechariah 13.9: Cf. Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah, Arabic 54, p. 937.

Make chastity your furnace, patience your smithy, The Master's word your anvil, and true knowledge your hammer. Make awe of God your bellows, and with it kindle the fire of austerity. And in the crucible of love, melt the nectar Divine. Only in such a mint, can man be cast into the Word.

Sikhism. Adi Granth, Japuji 38, M.1, p. 8

Devotion to God's Name is my lamp; In this lamp is poured the oil of suffering. The light of realization burns away this oil, Lifted is the encounter with Death. Let not the world ridicule this as an idle boast: Vast loads of firewood are reduced to ashes by a tiny spark of fire.

Sikhism. Adi Granth, Asa, M.1, p. 358

Every soul must taste of death, and We try you with evil and with good, for ordeal. And unto Us you will be returned.

Islam. Qur'an 21.35

Rabbi Johanan said, "The Israelites are compared to an olive tree, because as the olive yields its oil only by hard pressure, so the Israelites do not return to righteousness except through suffering."

Judaism. Talmud, Menahot 53b

We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts.

Christianity. Bible, Romans 5.3-5

In the whole world it is said that some part of the body is afflicted and painful. It is truly a signpost or guidance from God, though you are ignorant of it.

Tenrikyo. Ofudesaki 2.22

My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

Judaism and Christianity. Bible, Proverbs 3.11-12

I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Correct me, O Lord, but in just measure; not in thy anger, lest thou bring me to nothing.

Judaism and Christianity. Bible, Jeremiah 10.23-24

Japuji 38, M.1: Cf. Book of Certitude, 68-69, p. 805. Menahot 53b: Cf. Canticles Rabbah 2.5, p. 764. Proverbs 3.11-12: Quoted in Hebrews 12.5-11. Cf. Job 1.6-12, p. 442; Deuteronomy 6.20-8.20, p. 1084; Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3.19, p. 912.

Yet the suffering Involved in my awakening will have a limit; It is like the suffering of having an incision made In order to remove and destroy greater pain.

Even doctors eliminate illness With unpleasant medical treatments, So in order to overcome manifold sufferings I should be able to put up with some discomfort.

But the Supreme Physician does not employ Common medical treatments such as these, With an extremely gentle technique He remedies all the greatest sins.

Buddhism. Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life 7.22-24

Do men imagine that they will be left [at ease] because they say, "We believe," and will not be tested with affliction? Lo! We tested those who were before you. Thus God knows those who are sincere, and knows those who feign.

Islam. Qur'an 29.2-3

Mencius said, "Shun rose from the fields; Fu Yeh was raised to office from among the builders; Chiao Ke from amid the fish and salt; Kuan Chung from the hands of the prison officer; Sun Shu-ao from the sea and Po-li Hsi from the market. That is why Heaven, when it is about to place a great burden on a man, always first tests his resolution, exhausts his frame and makes him suffer starvation and hardship, frustrates his efforts so as to shake him from his mental lassitude, toughen his nature, and make good his deficiencies."

Confucianism. Mencius VI.B.15

If the Holy One is pleased with a man, he crushes him with painful sufferings. For it is said, "And the Lord was pleased with him, hence he crushed him by disease" (Isaiah 53.10). Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love. Therefore it is said, "To see if his soul would offer itself in restitution." Even as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent, so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. And if he did accept them, what is his reward? "He will see his seed, prolong his days." And more than that, his knowledge [of Torah] will endure with him. For it is said, "The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand."

Judaism. Talmud, Berakot 5a

Qur'an 29.2-3: Cf. Qur'an 2.153-57, p. 745; 6.165, p. 707; 47.31, p. 468; Majjhima Nikaya iii.21, p. 469; Job 1.6-12, p. 442; Sirach 6.7-17, p. 267; Dahomey Song, p. 745. Mencius VI.B.15: Cf. Luke 12.48, p. 707. Berakot 5a: The Talmud is explicating on Isaiah 53.10, pp. 639f., a verse from Isaiah's portrayal of God's suffering servant. Cf. Job 23.3-10, p. 783.

And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I [Paul] besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Christianity. Bible, 2 Corinthians 12.7-10

2 Corinthians 12.7-10: Paul never specifies the nature of his 'thorn'; it was most likely a physical ailment. When he petitioned God for relief, instead he received the response 'My grace is enough for you...' which he takes to be a manifestation in his person of the message of the cross.


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