Jesus said: "Everyone will be salted with fire." (Mark 9:49)
I'll be honest – I'm writing this in the middle of a situation I do not like, do not understand, and would do pretty much anything to change.
Nothing to do with church, you understand; no, this is a situation away from church but which impacts a number of those I love both personally and painfully. It's gone on for quite a considerable time now and every time it seems to be sorted, something new in connection with it ambushes us out of the blue.
From a Christian perspective, we have all the usual pain and suffering that any human being experiences – plus the added dimension of faith, or to be more precise, the question: "What on earth (or indeed in heaven) are you up to, Lord?"
By coincidence, or providence – because I often find the next part of Mark's Gospel for these fortnightly columns seems to coincide rather interestingly with my own situation – we now find ourselves at the point in the account where Jesus says: "Everyone will be salted with fire."
This is not the easiest of Jesus' sayings to understand. But he appears to use two pictures together here. The first is the sacrifices in the Old Testament which were offered to God with salt (see Leviticus 2:13 and Ezekiel 43:24). Following on from what Jesus has just been saying in the preceding section about the costliness of discipleship, Jesus would seem to be saying that believers are to offer themselves to God, recognising the self-sacrifice this will involve.
The second picture is fire, which seems to represent suffering and hardship. So it is likely the gist of what Jesus is getting at here is that following him is tough, that fire will refine our character and make us more like Christ, but that ultimately, just as salt preserves things, so we too will ultimately survive.
If this understanding is correct, it's one of those promises of Jesus we probably don't like to "claim"... It's not going to be appearing on bumper stickers or posters with beach sunset scenes any time soon.
And yet it comes. And it is painful and perplexing and frustrating and mystifying and... even as I write this I am waiting for a phone call from a hospital which I was hoping for a while earlier today. So I write, and wait. And as I do so I pass on to you the things I have found helpful in this season of being salted with fire.
1. The psalms. They are there to be used, especially when we can't find the words ourselves. Here are some words I read with someone else who is suffering just last week: "I am worn out, O Lord; have pity on me! Give me strength; I am completely exhausted and my whole being is deeply troubled. How long, O Lord, will you wait to help me?" (Psalm 6:2-3, GNB). The psalms are good. Tim Keller's book My Rock My Refuge helps us with them.
2. Perspective. Yesterday I preached among other things on the apostle Paul's injunction to "rejoice in the Lord always" (Philippians 4:4). Yeah right, Paul, I thought, as I began to prepare it; get real. But then I remembered that he was writing or dictating these words in prison, and I discovered for the first time that very probably he was tied to a pole in the middle of the cell standing knee deep in human excrement as he did so.
3. Friends. I cannot tell you how helpful we have found the support and help of Christian friends, whose kindness has sometimes been breath-taking. If you're not in a position to receive it from anyone, it can be quite therapeutic to give help to someone else. Or if not that, phone the Samaritans or a Christian helpline.
4. Remember those who have gone before. Sometimes I think that if Darlene Diebler Rose could get through a Japanese POW camp, if Elizabeth Elliott could return to the people who murdered her husband, if James O. Fraser could survive his time in the Far East, then we can certainly get through this. Find them online; read them.
Meanwhile, right here and right now, I still wait. And the phone remains silent.
The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England.