A few months ago, I sat around a campfire staring at the flames while toasting marshmallows with 14 friends at our last Growth Group (Bible study) meeting of the school year. I have always loved fire. I grew up camping with my family and am used to having a camp fire nearby to cook over and keep warm, but mostly to toast marshmallows to a perfect golden brown for s’mores (a small but passionate hobby of mine). However, I have not been able to go camping with my family or anyone for a long time. Thus, sitting around a small fire in Steph’s backyard with these few friends with whom I had started to get close was an immensely pleasurable experience for me. We talked and laughed, played a few worship songs and enjoyed each others’ company one last time as a group before finals brought the school year to a close, before seniors graduated and moved on to the next phase of their lives. All the while, I studied the flames as they gradually waned from the strong, bright yellow-white flames into smoldering, red-hot coals, and finally died out, leaving cold grey ash in the bottom of the pit.
Just as gradually as the flames diminished, I began to think over my past struggles and the different phases of pain and growth I have gone through in the recent past. As we talked, I thought over the entire process of the fire, from dry wood lit by a small spark, fanned into a blazing flame that gradually got smaller, yet somehow hotter until its fuel was finally depleted and it died out. As I turned this metaphor of the flames as a representation of trials in our lives over in my mind, I thought of how my struggles with self-harm started innocently enough – an accident provided the tiny spark which would ignite a long, raging battle inside and outside of me.
Yet once the spark was established, the winds of adversity and the enemy’s lies fanned into flame that which without further provocation might have easily fizzled out into nothingness.
Things steadily got hotter – my battle with lies from the enemy, self-hatred and cutting incrementally got worse until one day I woke up to discover how far deep I had already gone – without realizing it along the way. Like the flames, things increasingly got hotter and hotter; when the outer flames of self-injury seemed to die down, that was when the fire was in its hottest state: burning-hot coals. During that time, encountering torturous thoughts of temptation, extreme insomnia, and experimentation with other forms of self-injury occurred daily. I cycled through hateful thoughts towards myself, my life and everything about me, hurting myself while abhorring it, and then loathing myself for allowing myself to do it once again, finally coming full circle to harm yet again.
From my life and upon hearing other peoples’ testimonies of living through hardship in their lives, I have come to the conclusion that the cliché “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” is actually often true. It certainly was in my case. The coals are the hottest stage of the fire, and everyone knows that after they cool down, they are reduced to a dull gray ash. Some may argue that the smoldering coals would be the “darkest hour” part of the fire; the time when hardship is at its height, temptation at its strongest, and pain at its most intolerable. Yet in my experience, although hardship, temptation and pain are inevitable truths in the coals stage, it is not the stage containing the “darkest hour.” Perhaps surprisingly to some, the darkest hour is in fact the ashes stage which immediately follows the coals.
After the heat has tempered and smoke signals the demise of the fire, what remains in the fire pit are the cooling ashes. This is the point at which ambition, courage, and most importantly hope begin to die out. Whilst the literal fire dies and turns to ash, defeat replaces dreams, pain overcomes faith, despair conquers hope. In short, this is the dying stage. For me, it was a literal death. After enduring the hell-on-earth experience of the coals, I lost all desire to live and decided death was the next and only option for me. This was my ashes stage. But the amazing fact that I am here writing this means that my life didn’t stay in the ashes stage. Obviously, I didn’t die, though I tried so hard, at best I only came very close.
But guess what: there’s good news.
According to the Bible, what rises from the ashes is not dead at all, it is Beauty. As in my case, it takes a lot of time and hard work to rise from the ashes changed, made new, and beautiful. But it can be done, when you give your whole heart and control over to Jesus accept His forgiveness and allow him to break your chains, bind up your wounds and bring His brilliant light into your dark life.
Jesus takes your ashes upon himself and in return gives you His crown, His joy, His strength and His beauty. His love overwhelms everything else if you only let it.
The Year of the LORD’s Favor
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
The whole journey of transformation has many stages, but the Ashes turned to Beauty step is, in my opinion, the most vital. You can choose to stay in the ashes stage, miserable, broken and bound. Or you can choose freedom. Only Jesus can break you free from your past and make you totally and completely new. All you have to do is choose him. I did; and He has changed my heart and given me life again. Will you choose him too?