The Lord Tests the Heart
These times in which we live seem so uncertain. What will tomorrow bring? What will the social, spiritual, financial and global impact look like a month from now? Six months from now? Although this crisis may appear unprecedented, if we study world history, we know that there have been countless forms of “unprecedented” calamity and insecurity from man-made and natural causes in every generation. We can fear and mourn these life-changing events, or we can see in them an opportunity to sincerely discern what is essential and eternal in life. Will we allow these circumstances to challenge us to look at ourselves and our own lives in a new way, and to use this opportunity to draw closer to the Source of Life, God Himself.
We read the Proverbs throughout Great Lent, and in them we hear, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” (Proverbs 17:3) The crucible is a container in which very high temperatures melt silver into a new form. We can also define the crucible as a situation of severe trial, in which “different elements interact and lead to the creation of something new.”
Think about that for a moment. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” The crucible and the furnace melt and form silver and gold into something new. In like manner, the Lord uses crises and times of trial such as the one we face today as a means to test the hearts of humanity, to test what is in our own hearts, and to hopefully lead us to something new!
Can we see the coronavirus and all the drastic consequences of this crisis as maybe one of the greatest tests of our lives? Will the temporary discomfort of “social distancing” lead us to sincerely evaluate what life is all about? What do we truly value and cherish in our own lives? Fear and uncertainty surely tempt all of us, but will these emotions challenge us to carefully look at the foundations of our lives, and ask ourselves in whom do we put our ultimate trust?
Moments like these should help us understand how brief and fragile life is. Too often, we fool ourselves into thinking we’re immortal, that we’re invincible, that we control our own lives and destiny. We embrace the egocentric deception that life is just about the here and now, and it all centered around me.
Such crises as the coronavirus can give us a glimpse of our naked self, if we are courageous enough to look, and reveal clearly who we are, what character we possess, and what values we cherish. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.”
These moments may also offer us an opportunity for sincere reflection that leads to deep repentance. Repentance means turning away from all that is false and meaningless, turning away from all that is superficial and empty in our lives. Repentance also implies turning toward the Source of Ultimate Meaning and Holy Wisdom, turning toward the Well-Spring of Eternal Life and Divine Love, turning toward our Creator.
The Lord is “testing our hearts.” What does He see in us? What do we see in ourselves? And how will we react?
The Psalmist proclaimed “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.” (Psalm 46:1) Can we embrace these words and repeat them throughout these days of uncertainty and concern, trusting in God and not allowing fear to reign in our hearts? Can we break away from the endless hours of news and social media, which fill us with dread and anxiety, and carve out time to focus on the Good News that God is with us and that all things are under His control. Will we take time every day to “be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10) dwelling in His presence and never forgetting that our Lord proclaimed, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty who is and who was and who is to come.” (Revelation 1:8) Nothing in past history, present history, or future history is outside the Almighty One. Our lives find definitive meaning, comfort and hope in Him, and in Him alone. Is this what our hearts reveal when they face the test?
Everyone will react to stress, concern, and fear in different ways. Do our hearts compel us to act as instruments of God’s loving and comforting presence in the world around us? When family, friends or even strangers panic and express anxiety or worry, do we radiate Christ’s “peace that transcends all understanding?” (Philippians 4:7) Will we offer words that “impart grace to the hearers,” (Ephesians 4:29) gentle words of comfort, encouragement and hope? What is in our hearts that we will share with others?
As we reflect on this theme of God “testing our hearts,” it seems most appropriate that we remember today, on the third Sunday of Lent, the Holy Cross. The Church turns our attention to the symbol of life – the love of Jesus Christ and the path He calls each of us to follow. The Cross is the ultimate symbol of sacrificial love. The supreme meaning of life is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Such agape love, divine love implies offering oneself for the other, even offering oneself in love for our enemy. Love demands sacrifice, placing the other before oneself. As our Lord shared with His disciples on the night He offered His own life up for the entire world, he told them “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” (John 15:13) This followed Christ’s teaching, “If anyone wants to follow me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross.” (Mt 16:24)
Again, we hear the fundamental meaning of life – to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses, and to follow Christ by loving one another even to the point of laying down our lives for the other. By living in this way, we live lives of the deepest meaning and purpose, and no global crisis or uncertainty will faze us. Such faith and life in the Cross gives us eternal hope.
Let me conclude with one of my favorite stories that reflects the meaning and hope of the Cross:
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who spent eight years in the gulag of Siberia during the Soviet period, shared his experience in the power of the Cross. After suffering in the death camp of that frozen wasteland, one day he fell into utter despair. Like other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in snow, rain or sun, throughout the summer and winter. Backbreaking labor and slow starvation filled his days. On one particular day, the hopelessness and meaninglessness of his situation became too much. He saw no reason to continue living. He thought that life had no purpose since he would most likely die a miserable death in this Siberian prison. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.
Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude work-site bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to many other prisoners.
As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly, he lifted his eyes and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick through the ground at Solzhenitsyn's feet, tracing the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.
As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the Cross, his entire perspective changed. He knew that he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet in that moment, he realized that there was something greater than the evil he saw in prison, something greater than the totalitarian atheistic state. He knew that the Cross represented hope and meaning for all humankind. And through the love and power of the Cross, anything was possible.
Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Nothing outward changed, but inside, he received hope and rediscovered the meaning of life.
Years later, Solzhenitsyn's prophetic writings and life would enlighten the entire world, telling us not only about the horrors of the Soviet system, but also witnessing to the love and power of God, the hope that comes through living the Life of the Cross.
“The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” As we get tested by the crucible we all face today, let us take an honest look at ourselves and repent, turning away from all that we have embraced that is superficial and meaningless, and turning toward the Way of the Cross, the Path of Sacrificial Love which leads us to Holy Wisdom.
True Greatness: Sacrificial Love and Selfless Service to Others
Our Orthodox Faith