When God prepares a person to serve him in a leadership or other significant ministry role, he often chooses to use crucibles. Crucibles are small pots used in chemistry labs in which metals or other substances are heated to a very high temperature. In the middle ages, alchemists used crucibles in their various attempts to forge gold out of base metals and various strange ingredients. But Webster also defines a crucible as a difficult test or challenge or a place or situation that forces people to change or make difficult decisions.

The Scriptures speak of the crucible as an instrument for purifying silver, but always in the context of some type of testing for the purpose of refining.

Proverbs 17:3 (NIV) — The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.

Jeremiah 9:7 (NLT) — Therefore, this is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: “See, I will melt them down in a crucible and test them like metal. What else can I do with my people?

Whereas the NLT in Jer 9:7 speaks of the Lord as the One who will “melt them down in a crucible”, the NIV translates this as “I will refine and test them”.   The Hebrew word for “melting down in a crucible” or “refining” is also found in Ps 66.

Psalm 66:8–12 (NIV) — Praise our God, all peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard; he has preserved our lives and kept our feet from slipping. For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver.  You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.  You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.

These difficult tests resulting in refining can regularly be found in the stories and biographies of great men and women of God. Abraham felt the heat in his conflict with Lot, Joseph in his betrayal by his own brothers, Nehemiah through the threats and schemes from Sanballat and Tobiah, and Daniel in his lion’s den. Jesus went through his wilderness experience, Peter was tested in the high priest’s court, and Paul experienced his crucible on the road to Damascus. For each of these people, these crucible experiences were never singular tests, but one in a series of different challenges that God used to transform them into the people and leaders they became.

Crucibles are not unique to believers.  Robert J. Thomas, writing for business leaders in Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader says:

In a leadership context, then, we can think of a crucible as a transformative experience from which a person extracts his or her “gold”: a new or an altered sense of identity. A crucible is not the same as a life stage or transition, like moving from adolescence to adulthood or from midlife to retirement. Life stages can be stressful, even tumultuous; but, unlike crucibles, they tend to be gradual, reasonably predictable, and patterned. Crucibles are more like trials or tests that corner individuals and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them. (Kindle Locations 207-212)

But obviously, believers who believe that all the events of their lives are orchestrated by God and designed to make them more like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29), should best understand the refining and transforming nature of life trials (Hebrews 12:5-12).

Crucibles can be of various kinds. Thomas describes three – entering new territory (encountering something new or unknown), experiencing a reversal (a loss of some kind) or going through a period of suspension (when life and work are unexpectedly disrupted by some external force for a period of time).

Bobby Clinton, in his well-known work, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development, talks about three different tests that leaders go through in the “Life Maturing” – isolation, conflict, and life crises (time of intense stress in our lives).   Thomas’ crucible of “suspension” and even more so Clinton’s process of “isolation” reminds me of a study I did a couple of years ago on the wilderness as God’s classroom.

But, and this is very important to note, difficult life experiences in themselves do not refine us.   Our response to the crucible experiences of life and ministry is what allows the crucible to become transformative.

I remember John Piper saying that he did not want to waste his cancer. He believed that if he did not recognize God’s purposes in the cancer, he was wasting it.   If we go through difficult times and do not learn anything about ourselves, about life and about God from it, we have wasted a great opportunity to be refined. But Proverbs warns us that fools do not benefit from crucible-like experiences (Prov 27:21-22).

Thomas in “Crucibles of Leadership” says,

While experience matters, what matters more is what one makes of experience: how a person comes to recognize in a crucible experience that something new or important is happening, to see beyond the discomfort, perhaps even the pain, of new and unexpected information and to incorporate that information as useful knowledge, not just about the world but, as likely, about oneself.  (Kindle location 222)

Thomas actually reserves the term “crucible” for those experiences that are transformative.

We came to call the experiences that shape leaders “crucibles,” and for the leaders we interviewed, the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that challenged them to step up and be someone or do something they’d never been or done before. (kindle location 285)

Thomas argues that crucibles must be mined.  The metaphor is mixed, but I think you understand what he is saying. A crucible is only valuable as a refining tool if you can extract something from the experience, that is if you can learn from it.   Thomas also says that his research shows that the skill of “mining” crucible experiences is a skill that can be learned.

So if we are in a crucible, or we see others in a crucible, how should we respond so that it becomes in some sense transformative?   This will have to be the subject of another blog post.   But meanwhile, I would like your thoughts.   How can we mine crucible experiences and learn from them?