2020: Dumpster Fire or Refining Fire?
The Answer Depends on Your Perspective of God’s Purpose for Your Life
It seems that 2021 couldn’t have arrived soon enough. Many are ready to embrace a new year with the hope and optimism that the turning of the calendar provides. But in order for holistic growth and fruitfulness to be realized in 2021, an alignment of our goals to God’s purposes may be necessary. As we look back on the past year and consider the opportunities of the new year, it’s critical that we evaluate our circumstances from a gospel-centered perspective.
Perhaps more than any other year in our memory, 2020 will be dispatched without the wistful gazing that most annual transitions bring. Most people will be inclined to offer only a terse “Goodbye…and good riddance!”
Credible allegations of election fraud serve as the latest broadside in a year that ushered in a worldwide pandemic, economic chaos, racial discord and rioting, school closings, event cancellations, impeachment proceedings, wildfires, weather anomalies, and relational divisions that have each left their mark on communities, families, and churches.
The Washington Post recently asked readers to describe 2020 in one word or phrase. The results were published December 18 in an online article (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/lifestyle/2020-in-one-word/). A leading response submitted was “dumpster fire.” Considering the challenges and hardships most people endured this past year, this description has merit. While admitting that this year’s events cannot compare to some of the existential threats faced by others throughout history, the circumstances we’ve faced have been annoying, maddening, disappointing, exhausting, divisive, fear-inducing, and faith-shaking. “Dumpster fire” seems about right. Especially if our view of God’s purpose for our lives is that we be comfortable, settled, and secure.
In the midst of our personal quest for peace, certainty, and self-discovery, scripture is clear regarding God’s overarching purpose for our lives:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28–29, emphasis mine).
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” [i.e., a life that reflects Jesus] (Romans 12:2, emphasis mine).
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image [Jesus’] from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, emphasis mine).
At least three New Testament writers understood that the pathway to Christlike transformation inevitably ventured through pain, trial, and discomfort:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1: 2–4).
“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7).
“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” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
The underlying truth guiding God’s purpose of holistic transformation in our lives is that hardships, inconvenience, and even persecution are the crucible by which the impurities of our character are removed in order to present a more pure and perfect reflection of Jesus. What the world may characterize as a “dumpster fire” can instead be the “refining fire” of sanctification for the follower of Christ.
What the world may characterize as a “dumpster fire” can instead be the “refining fire” of sanctification for the follower of Christ.
As I reflect on the refining opportunities of 2020 in my own life, I’m confronted with a sobering list:
- Embarking on a new ministry direction in spite of the many limitations and disruptions brought by COVID—including the cancelling (twice) of a major new event debut.
- Working a second gig as ministry opportunities lagged in the face of economic uncertainty.
- Contracting COVID just as coaching and personal training engagements peaked.
- Facing devastating damage to crops on the family farm when a severe derecho swept through the state.
- Moving family from their home to independent living.
- Assuming eldership duties at my church in a season of leadership challenges.
- Experiencing the death of my mother.
These are a few of the challenges that I’m willing to share in a public forum. There are several other issues in my personal “crucible” that I will keep private.
As I reflect on these experiences, I can clearly see God’s grace and provision in a multitude of ways: extreme generosity of clients and ministry partners, resilient physical health, unprecedented ministry opportunities, financial provision, and a unified church.
The bigger question arising from my personal list of hardships is this: Did these challenges result in Christ’s character and likeness being more completely formed in me, or have they been viewed simply as a gauntlet of personal crises to be endured? Has the refining fire of 2020 produced a life that better reflects Jesus, or a more grim-faced demeanor that looks to 2021 for some kind of respite?
Has the refining fire of 2020 produced a life that better reflects Jesus, or a more grim-faced demeanor that looks to 2021 for some kind of respite?
As one cynical political operative famously said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Personally, I hope that the challenges of the past year will not be wasted because I did not share the overarching goal God has for my life.
How will you let the circumstances of our present day influence your physical, relational, financial, vocational, and spiritual life? Will they refine you or define you?
The truth is, east of Eden, our world has always been a “dumpster fire.” God’s grace and biblical morality have kept that fire under control for much of recent human history. As our culture broadly rejects the moorings that have kept our society from spinning out of control, we should expect more challenges ahead. Our personal perspective and response to these trials will either leave us bitter, fearful, and spent, or cause us to grow in confidence and joy that God’s purpose for our lives is being achieved.
*Credit belongs to Pastor Brett Ricley of The Mission Church for the dumpster fire and refining fire analogy. I appreciate his permission to build on the idea for this blog.