In summer 1998 I visited the Fort Knox gold mine operated by the Kinross Corporation. This open pit is located just north of Fairbanks, Alaska. It is the largest gold-mining operation in North America.
While gold has been enticed from the Fairbanks mining district for a hundred years, no one has drilled, blasted, and processed with the immense efficiency found at Fort Knox. The mine covers more than 50,000 acres of the Alaskan wilderness.
Haul trucks the size of suburban homes move more than 100,000 tons of material every day. The mill, adjacent to this massive hole in the ground, refines the material 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. The operation never rests.
The process amazed me. Rock blasted from the earth is dumped onto conveyor belts that feed the never-ending hunger of the mill. Once inside, the rock is mashed inside a gyrating crusher. From there it is tumbled into even smaller pieces through a series of machines that resemble the inner workings of a large Laundromat.
Ultimately the ore is reduced to a thick gumbo that sits in leach tanks, mixing and interacting with lead nitrate, cyanide, and other chemicals that draw the gold out of the sludge. This final product is melted down into bars and shipped to refineries.
The process is time consuming, tedious, and expensive. The Kinross Corporation must process thirty-three tons of material to produce a single ounce of sellable gold. The one small wedding ring on your left hand had to be wrung out of enough rock to match the size and weight of the Statue of Liberty. For all the effort, the finished product is apparently worth it.
My reading of Peter’s first epistle has taken on a deeper meaning in light of this visit to the Alaskan boondocks. Peter writes, “There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine.
“It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold – though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world” (1 Pet 1:6-7).
The fire of today’s gold refineries burns with ruthless chemical precision. The recovery rate, the percentage of actual ore retrieved from the earth’s crust, is 90 percent. Very little of what shines is allowed to remain hidden beneath the soil. The metal is too precious, too valuable, too important to be left behind.
God feels the same way about you. We enter the world as a heap of flint-like stone with hard edges and an unprocessed, wayward heart. God, using the circumstances of life, family, good and bad decisions, begins to pulverize our rocky hearts.
Over time we are broken, gyrated, tumbled, and burned. Often, there is nothing left to us but sludge. It is then that God is doing his greatest work. For when the pain is most intense, the healing and reconstructing are most evident. When the refining fires are at their hottest, God’s grace is at its best.
There, deep within us, gleaming like twenty-four-carat gold, is a purified and sparkling faith; a faith we did not even know we possessed. It is a faith that would have gone otherwise unknown and unseen without the flames of adversity. God considers this treasure too important to leave in the dirt.
One of my mentors, Horace Stewart, has spent his ministry as a pastor, chaplain, and mental health professional. Often he shares this simple word of counsel with those who are in the midst of great difficulty: “Don’t waste it.”
He shared those words with me once. I was not in a good place. Life was bad. Puzzled, I asked him what in hell he could possibly mean. He said, “When life is hard, God is up to something. Don’t miss it. Don’t waste it.”
The testing, burning and refining of our faith, shapes us into being the people of God. It is slow work; sometimes tedious by its very nature. But little by little, flame by flame, pressure by pressure, God is producing something in us that shines like gold.