Intimacy and Eternity

The Ascent of Toil


Part Two, Chapter Six

My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for testing.
(Ecclesiasticus 2:1)

The Ascent of Toil

HOW WILL THE LORD reveal Himself to me? How best can He show His love? If I were still living in Old Testament days, or were unduly influenced by the world’s ways of measuring success, then I might be tempted to suppose that it would be by showering me with riches, fame and honour. Unless, that is, I were a real Old Testament scholar, in which case I might notice how deeply the Lord ‘forged’ the character of His greatest saints.

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word . . .
It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn Your decrees.
(Psalm 119:67,71)

God reveals Himself to eager young Christians as the God of Challenge and Vision, but just as He comes to battle-weary ones as the God of all Comfort, so He plunges more seasoned warriors into the Refiner’s Fire. Although we love those times when we are strongly aware of His presence, hindsight reveals that it is often the difficult times which make us more single-minded in seeking the Kingdom of God.

After the honeymoon period by the River of Delights when we first come to know the Lord, we may well find that our path is now heading up a steep and arduous Ascent of Toil. It is easy to suppose the apparent withdrawal of God’s grace must have come as the result of our sin. In part this may be true. When our minds are filled with self-conceit, God allows humbling experiences to come our way – even times when He puts us, like Nebuchadnezzar, out to ‘eat grass’ for a season – in order to straighten out our priorities. There are many other reasons, however, why we experience dryness and confusion.
When the Lord has a work of maturing to do in our lives, He may sometimes lead us away from the River of Delights, just as the path we were following turned away from the water’s edge. It was narrow, rugged, and alarmingly steep. We suddenly found ourselves on The Ascent of Toil!

Spiritually, this is a time when we lose much of the pleasure we have been accustomed to enjoy in our relationship with the Lord. Our previously unshakeable awareness of eternity dips underground, leaving a mass of tangled emotions to sort out.

Listening to some preachers might lead us to suppose that constant intimacy with God is available to anyone who is prepared to receive it, any place, any time. Attractive though it may sound, such teaching is often a recipe for frustration, and little comfort at those times when our minds are overwrought and our thoughts and actions unpredictable. Genuine intimacy with God is perfectly possible, but we may need a radical rethink of what it will mean in practice. The ways by which the Lord fulfils His promises to us are very different from our original expectations.

This is not easy for the flesh. Like Gideon’s army, we are often too strong in ourselves. The Lord sometimes has to expose our weaknesses in order to keep us from taking undue pride in our strengths and achievements. Great souls become great through being fashioned in God’s forge.

The Ascent of Toil is the proving point beyond which the half-hearted cannot proceed; a necessary preparation for the Broad Open Spaces. Just as ships do not set sail without first undergoing extensive tests, so the Lord tests us to find out what is in our hearts. The Lord is looking to see whether we are willing to seek Him even when there appears to be little benefit in doing so.

If you are currently experiencing such severe shakings that it feels as though your original calling has been shattered into a thousand pieces, then do not take offence, no matter how strange the path by which you are being led. The Lord will not fail you. Even in the midst of great confusion and loss there will be many ‘treasures of darkness.’

In this second part we shall explore some of the ways by which the Lord deepens and refines us. We shall ponder why He allows us to go through times of wilderness and suffering, and look at how we can overcome two of the greatest enemies of intimacy with God – condemnation and striving.

The Ascent of Toil draws to a simple conclusion: the more yielded we are to the Lord, the more easily He can lead us.

The Parable of the Forge

See, it is I who created the blacksmith who fans the coals into flame and forges a weapon fit for its work —
You are My servant . . . In whom I will display My splendour.
(Isaiah 54:16; 49:3)

SOME YEARS AGO, Rosalind and I watched a blacksmith place a length of metal into a fire until it was glowing red-hot. Then he hit it hard and plunged the metal into a bucket of cold water before putting it back in the fire again. A short stubby point soon emerged, which became more pronounced with each successive stage of the hammering process.

When the blacksmith judged the point to be long enough, he bent it in two over the edge of his anvil and clamped it in a vice. Taking a pair of pliers, he shaped it with a few deft twists, tapped it with a soft wooden hammer and, barely twenty minutes later, had produced a beautiful latch for a gate!

We found it intriguing to watch something so intricate being fashioned out of a solid lump of metal. The blacksmith knew exactly what he wanted to create, but success depended on applying the right amount of heat and pressure. Too much and the point would sheer off, too little and the metal would be insufficiently malleable to work. Incidentally, the word ‘malleable’ comes from the Latin ‘to hammer’. It is not hard to see the spiritual parallels.

John the Baptist prophesied that the Lord Jesus would baptize not only with the Spirit but also with fire.1 The fire of God burns up impurity, not in white-hot anger but in white-hot love, separating the dross in our hearts from the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

It is written:
Anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean —
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.
Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.2

During a time of intense refining in my life, the Lord once spoke these words to me: ‘Souls are tried in the crucible!’3

There come times in our lives when the Holy Spirit begins to expose our heart’s true motivations. It is a most uncomfortable experience. At an earlier stage of our pilgrimage we may have been eager to reform and improve others, but now we begin to see just how far we ourselves are from living in the spirit of trust and repentance. Where once we had thought we were strong, we realize now that we were simply untested.

It is the Lord who initiates such soul-scouring but it is a delicate and a dangerous time. The enemy tries to hijack the process by making us mistake this work of refining for a sense of being rejected by God. When friends let us down, ministries fail to develop as we had expected, and unforeseen setbacks happen to and around us, roots of disillusionment can easily spread their bitter poison.4

There is a fine balance between healthy confession and unhealthy introspection. If we focus too much on minor faults we will merely end up feeling permanently guilty. Since sin is all about getting things out of proportion, even our confession can become all-absorbingly self-centred. If we begin with confession we may never progress beyond it.

Certainly, we need not only to confess our sins but to receive His cleansing and forgiveness. For this reason we may find it helpful to approach the Lord in a spirit of adoration. That is why young Christians used to be taught the principles of A.C.T.S: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.

How gracious the Lord is! Although He may occasionally have to take drastic action, more often than not He waits for us to become sufficiently disgusted with some habit or failing before He intervenes to challenge and deliver us. The Ascent of Toil develops our love for the Lord to the point where we are willing to do anything rather than miss God’s best for us.

There is a vital principle to understand here. Neither people nor situations can crush God’s purposes for our life – but our wrong response can. There are many circumstances that we cannot change, but we are still responsible for our reaction to them. In other words, God is as interested in our response as He is in our original dilemma. As Paul and Gretel Haglin put it: ‘The Lord wants our hearts to become stronger, not harder, through the things that happen to us.’

The Parable of the Forge is a poignant reminder that the Lord is unflinchingly determined to fit us for effective service, both now and for all eternity. If that means challenging our complacency and weaning us from feelings of superiority (or the love of ease) then the Lord will not hesitate to do so. He is thinking of eternal fruit, and He is quite prepared to prune us radically – even to the point where He may remove the strongest and most dominant ‘branches’ of our life. Our Heavenly Father thinks less of the pain such pruning causes in the short term than of the healthy growth that will come in the future.

As we advance beyond this period of inner testing (and always remember that these times are cyclical rather than once-for-all) the Lord develops in us a more rounded faith. He will not allow this process of refining to continue one moment longer than is really necessary. Provided that we respond to His challenges with faith and repentance we will emerge from such times better equipped to abide in the fear of the Lord.

The wilderness experiences we shall be examining in the following chapters do make the Ascent of Toil feel at times overwhelmingly steep, but the Lord provides respites on the way. We must continue to climb in the shadow through the ravines until we reach the sunlit Broad Open Spaces at the top. What joy there is when a particular season of testing is complete, and we begin to glimpse the treasures the Lord has unearthed in and for us through the darkness!

For Reflection

In what ways have you seen the Parable of the Forge in action in your own life? It would be a humbling but useful idea to keep a record of the Lord’s chastisements as well as of His more obvious blessings! Ponder the following ways by which the Lord ‘forges’ our character:

Place a nail on a board. Will it ever go through the wood on its own, no matter how sharp it is? No, indeed. You will only sink it into the board by hitting it with a hammer. We are just the same; it is only by hammer blows that God manages to humble us, no matter how good our native disposition might be.
(Anthony Claret)

I pray God may open your eyes and let you see what hidden treasures He bestows on us in the trials from which the world thinks only to flee.
(John of Avila)

Is not the life of man upon earth a trial?
Who would want troubles and difficulties?
You command us to endure them, not to love them.
No person loves what He endures, though he may love the act of enduring.
Love makes it easy to carry out whatever is difficult in His command.


Lord God, I cry to You, forge within My heart all that is most pleasing to You. Do whatever it takes to set me free from the selfish passions and fixations that war against my soul, so that my words and my attitudes may more nearly reflect Your heart.

Help me to cope with the uncertainties of not understanding what You are doing, and to welcome Your hidden dealings with me. May my trust match my calling, and Your power be granted for each task that You call me to embrace. In Jesus’ name, Amen

1. Luke 3:16, cf Mark 9:49.
2. Numbers 31:23; Hebrews 4:13; ‘Laid bare’ (gumnos in the Greek) literally means ‘naked.’
3. To develop this theme, study the word ‘try’ in a concordance.
4. Hebrews 12:15.
5. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P.).