After the Lord of the Rings trilogy (whether one read the books or saw the movies), it's hard to read the title of this post and not put a few extra s's on the end of precious. But, according to a book by San Francisco's Archbishop George Niederauer, when he was still bishop of Salt Lake City, that's how God sees us.
In Precious as Silver: Imagining Your Life With God, Archbishop Niederauer guides us through reflections on a series of excellent questions:
What is God Like?
What Are We Like for God?
What is God's plan for us?
What Does it Mean to Be a Disciple?
Why and How Does a Disciple Pray?
and How Are DIsciples Called to Serve in Ministry?
The title comes from a passage in Malachi 3:1-3.
Yes, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner's fire, or like the fuller's lye.
He will sit refining and purifying [silver],
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver that they may offer due sacrifices to the Lord.
As a small sample of the archbishop's insights, I offer this excerpt from his book:
The truth is this: We are God's silver. All of us. God "sits refining and purifying" us all, his children, generation after generation, because he loves us. He knows that it is in our nature to become tarnished, to behave sinfully and ignor him, and that he must constantly call us back to himself and polish us with his attentive love and grace. God knows that we will go on getting more or less tarnished, and he will have to continue polishing. Even after Jesus Christ has "refined" us sacramentally through the power of his saving action, we will need that polishing all our lives long.
The last few days the daily reading from the Old Testament has come from the book of Job, which asks the perennial question, "Why do good people suffer?" Of course, we often ask a similar question, especially when the suffering is personal. In these cases, the question becomes all the more pointed and urgent, "Why am I suffering?"
Why does God do it? He polishes us because he cherishes us. We are precious and valuable to him. He could have created a stainless steel equivalent, but he created us. The reason why is a mystery, but the cherishing is real. The preaching of Jesus Christ is full of the good news of that cherishing.
This realization can calm our anxiety about our worth in God's eyes. It should not tempt us to complacency...The important lesson this image teaches is that we are simultaneously cherished and imperfect. To God, "cherished" matters much more than "imperfect," so it should matter much more to us.
God's 'answer' to Job is instructive, but not terribly comforting. Simply put, God says, "I'm God, you're not. Trust that I know what I'm doing. Everything's under control."
When confronting our tendency to worry or lament our misfortune, Jesus points out, a bit more comfortingly (and maybe with a wry smile) than the Almighty who speaks to Job. Jesus asks rhetorically, "Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins? Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows." Lk 12:6-7
Perhaps our suffering is often a sign that God may be polishing us a bit. Maybe the splendid brilliance in which we were created has become a bit darkened with tarnish. Rather than the free creatures God has made us to be, we have become slaves to lesser goods, or created lesser gods in our own image. Am I suffering as an effect of my sinfulness? That pain can be a call to conversion! Am I suffering because I've lost my home in a hurricane? Well, Job lost more, and he didn't curse God. In fact, his horrific losses got him thinking about and talking to God quite a bit, didn't it? The struggle, of course, is to remain believing we are precious in the midst of suffering. It is tough to believe every hair on our head is counted, or that we haven't, in fact, escaped God's notice, when our hair is falling out in chemotherapy-induced clumps.
I would suggest that our painful losses, whether the loss of property, prestige, youth, opportunity, health, or a beloved, are opportunities for us to return to the Lord with renewed dependence. Pain can actually be an invitation to be polished, and you and I have encountered people of faith who have suffered, or are suffering, and who have grown closer to God, and more in touch with their fragile creatureliness, as a consequence.
And they can be beautiful and brilliant to behold. And that is so because they still know they are cherished and precious even as they lose everything.
The paradox is, for those who cherish God in return, nothing else really matters, and the only loss that is feared is the loss of that relationship. To live in such a way is to enter the kingdom of heaven. That is precisely what the rich young man in Matthew 19 could not do because of his attachment to his wealth. He could keep the commandments - follow the rules - but he couldn't abandon himself to his Creator. Because of his attachments, he went away sad, unable to be polished, and unable to know how precious he was.