Dear church,

This isn’t the daily post about our Scripture readings. Scroll down or up on the homepage to find that. This is just a little extra for you to think about for the weekend.

On Sunday, a member of our church said she was reading Luke 22:31-34, where Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times. Here’s the first part of that passage:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

The member of our church who read this said she sensed our church was going to be “sifted” in the near future. 

And so here is something that one of our members believes she heard from the Holy Spirit. And, importantly, it is something that pertains to our entire church. We should listen whenever we hear one of our members has had an experience like this. God can use any of us to speak to all of us. And God may be trying to tell us something if we only would listen. 

With that said, let’s consider what it means to be “sifted.”

If we sift something, we are separating the good from the bad, the usable parts from the unusable parts. We want the unusable stuff to disappear, leaving the good stuff for our use.

One of our kids once asked where we put the “spiffer” in the kitchen. Mary and I didn’t know what a “spiffer” was. After we got the description of this strange “spiffer,” we realized this dear child was looking for the “strainer.” We got a good laugh out of it as a family.

A strainer, of course, allows us to separate water or oil from some other cooking ingredient. I can’t say I’m familiar with all of its many uses, but I have strained water from spaghetti noodles on a number of occasions. 

You get the point. And this is the same principle that’s involved in sifting. Biblically (and agriculturally) speaking, we might think about separating wheat from the chaff. The wheat remains. The chaff blows away.

If we want to boil the idea of sifting down to its fundamental idea, we get down to the concept of the test. To sift something means to test it – to see what it’s made of. If put under pressure, what will remain. 

This helps us understand what was going on with the disciples. They were about to be tested. 

It is somewhat important to note here that it was not just Peter who was about to be sifted, or tested. The “you” in the first phrase of Jesus’ prediction is plural: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to have you (all), that he might sift you (all) like wheat.” 

So all of the disciples were going to be tested. Their faith was going to be “strained.” In the end, Satan would be able to see what remained of these hardy disciples who had been following Jesus around for three years. 

When we read this, we remember how the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested. They were tested and they seemed very much to fail the test. 

A few of things, however, should remain in our minds. 

First, Satan asked Jesus whether he could sift the disciples. It was awfully polite of Satan to ask first! But the reality is Satan had to ask first because God is in complete control of his creation. Satan wanted to send the disciples through the ringer – another picture of sifting – and he asked God if he could do it. So in this sifting, God ultimately was in control. Jesus, who is the divine Son of God, ultimately was in control.

Second, we are reminded of the book of Job, where Satan also asked God about one of his faithful children. Read Job 1 when you have an opportunity. God permitted Satan to test Job. This raises a lot of interesting questions about God and his willingness to permit evil to occur in the world, but suffice it to say here that God had his purposes in allowing evil to occur in the life of Job. 

This is important for us as we think about the sifting of our church. God ultimately is in control. God allows such testing to occur in the lives of his children. And God has a purpose for it.

So when one of our church members says she feels as if our church is about to be sifted, we may initially feel some anxiety. We think about what form that sifting may take. Persecution was mentioned during our church service in relation to this sifting. And so we can begin to speculate.

Perhaps the federal or county government will hand down some difficult and ungodly restrictions on our church. And we will have to decide whether to obey God or the government, regardless of the cost that might be imposed on us. “That’s a pretty easy decision,” you might say. 

But not all Christians agree when it is best to disobey the government. Scripture urges us to respect our governing authorities but not at the expense of obedience to God (Romans 13:1-7; Acts 5:27-32). And Christians can disagree about where the line is. This certainly has happened with all of the COVID-19 restrictions that have been handed down by the government. We can reason our way into obeying the government and disobeying God, or vice versa. And feelings can get hurt in the process

Do you see how sifting can get a little complicated?

I don’t know about you, but when I think about sifting, I think about how some things simply are going to be lost from our church. When wheat and chaff go through a sifting, only the wheat is left. When spaghetti and water are run through a strainer, only the spaghetti is left. 

And so what might we lose as we are sifted? We could lose people. The faith of some of our members may prove to be weak in the face of our testing, and they may disappear from our church family. 

We could lose things that aren’t all that important to our walk of faith as a church. Perhaps, we will lose things that we’ve used as spiritual crutches – things we think we need to worship God but that are not really necessary to our worship of God. I think here of our church building or maybe some of our regular church practices. What do we really need in order to worship God?

We also could lose our status in the community. Perhaps the test is whether to follow God in full obedience at the risk of losing the respect of our nonbelieving neighbors. Churches struggle with this all the time. We want to be a good “witness” in our neighborhood. But what comes first – worship or witness? Churches can be tested on these issues.  

Then again, we may not lose people, material things, or our reputation in the community. In our sifting, it may just be that the focus of our church is forced to be purified. Maybe we are thinking some things are important when they really are not. Maybe we are spending too much time on some activities and not enough time on the activities God really things are important. We may recognize this after a period of sifting. 

I guess the primary point for me is that a season of sifting ought to be viewed as a blessing rather than some sort of curse. Yes, Satan may be involved – as he was with the disciples and with Job. But we must keep in mind that God actually is in control. It is God who wants to see what our faith is made of.

God always is working to build our faith, to grow us to walk closer to him, to trust him more. And I think sifting – or testing – is his most valuable tool. Think of all the people from the Bible who went through a serious time of testing and who emerged from that testing walking closely with God.

We just read about one of them in our Bible-reading plan. “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him …” (Genesis 22:1-19). Read that passage again. Talk about sifting. Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. 

Think about the clarity that situation must have forced up on Abraham. As he walked up that mountain with his son, some hot coals, and some wood, he must have had to ask himself, “What do I really believe? Do I really trust God to do what God has said he would do? Do I really trust God is fully good, even as he’s asked me to do this terrible thing? Do I believe God can bring good out of evil?”

In those moments of sacrifice and sifting, Abraham probably felt old attachments fall away. The things of the flesh that Abraham likely found to be very important most of the time likely lost their importance to him. All that mattered was God. And God did, in fact, prove to be good.

We know of others from the Bible who were sifted. I think also about Noah, who spent decades building an ark. I think about Jacob, who labored for 20 years under Laban. I think about David, who hid in a cave from King Saul. I think about Daniel in Babylon. 

In every case, evil seemed to prevail for a time. In some cases, it was a long period of time. Israel’s decades-long exile from the Promised Land was an extended national sifting, leaving only a remnant of the nation in existence. 

And yet, these men and women proved faithful to God in their circumstances. They hung on to Him. And good emerged. God’s plan went forward. 

This is sifting.

And so if our church is going to face a season of sifting, we ought to welcome it in faith. We know God ultimately is in control, and he will sift us only if he loves us. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6).

Remember, God doesn’t want us to remain as we are. Through the testing, we emerge stronger in faith and obedience. God then can use us for his purposes in bringing more people into the kingdom of God. Just as he was able to use Noah, Abraham, Jacob, David, Daniel and so many others, he can use us. 

Jesus prayed for Peter. After Peter was sifted, Jesus wanted him to return to the disciples and encourage them (Luke 22:32). Peter would be more useful to the cause of the kingdom after his sifting. 

God is not done with humanity. And if he sifts us as his disciples, I would venture to say it is because he desires to use us for a greater purpose. 

So what should we do as a church? Let’s cling to God. 

Do you remember the wrestling match Jacob had with that mysterious man in the middle of the night? You can read about it in Genesis 32:22-32. I think Jacob gives us a classic picture of the life of a believer. We struggle with God much too often in our lives. We fight against what God would do in us and with us. We push back against God’s efforts to grow us into Christlikeness. We see God as an enemy to our own purposes, or to what we think God’s purposes should be in our lives. Jacob wrestled with God. 

God’s testing of Jacob resulted in Jacob prevailing. Jacob got his way. Jacob was a fraud and a cheat. And so God prepared to depart. It was morning. The test is over. Jacob failed. 

And then Jacob really prevailed. He prevailed upon God to bless him. Jacob clung to God and would not let him go. And Jacob got that blessing.

Our lives often are a mixed-up picture of a struggle against and a submission to God. Our old ways and habits die hard. We want to cling to our own sinfulness even as God is ruthlessly working to cut it out of our lives, to circumcise our lives. We resent, for a time, God’s demands for holiness. 

But at some point, we grab hold of God and refuse to let him go. We don’t want him to leave! Hosea gives us a good picture of Jacob (and us): “He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor” (Hosea 12:4).

Sifting is a moment when we might be tempted to wrestle with God. We might fight against what he is doing in our lives. Instead, we should patiently endure, knowing God has good plans for us (Romans 8:28).

I am curious what you all think. Feel free to make a comment or send me an email.

Chris

One thought on “The blessing in the sifting

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