“Fire tests the purity of silver and gold,
but a person is tested by being praised.”
What do you think of when you hear the word “test”? Does it conjure up images of school? Having to study? Passing or failing?
Most of us probably think of a test as something difficult, something that must be conquered. Adding fire imagery, as the writer of Proverbs does in the verse above, may take us to another level of testing—something that must be proven, burned away, or purified. If a test is inherently strenuous, adding the danger and unpredictability of flames most assuredly makes it particularly precarious. Fire is hot, dangerous, and can transform the environment around us. Anyone who has been burned knows how badly it can hurt and can cause lasting or even permanent damage.
The New International Version of the Bible translates Proverbs 27:21 as, “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but people are tested by their praise.” A crucible is a container in which metals are melted by being subjected to extremely high temperatures. As the metal melts, impurities rise to the surface (this is called dross or slag) and are removed, leaving the purest possible form of the metal. This “testing” is necessary to ensure the quality of precious metals like silver and gold—the higher the quality, the fewer impurities there are in the finished product. Conversely, the more dross the metal contains the less useful it is and is often discarded.
The crucible of praise is no different. When we are given a compliment, the way that we receive it reveals a lot about who we are and the condition of our hearts. Whether we reject it (I’m not really as good as you think I am), deflect it (it was those people over there who are the real heroes), absorb it (you know, you’re right…I am awesome), or reflect it back to the One who gave it, we are being refined and showing what we’re really made of.
After my senior year of college, I had an opportunity to meet with Ross Parsley, who was the worship pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, at the time. My family had visited New Life quite frequently, and my older brother was a member there and participated in the worship choir. One day a friend of ours, Paul, whom we had known for several years and was also on staff in the NLC worship department, invited me to lunch with Ross and himself. I had looked up to Ross for many years and greatly admired his abilities as a worship leader and songwriter. When we met outside the restaurant, Paul introduced us by saying, “Ross, this is Brian. He’s the reason we still have to practice.”
I felt my face flush. I brushed it off and made some joke about paying him to say that. But as we were seated at our table, Paul told me that I really need to work on how I accept compliments. He asked me if I had ever received a really great present before. The first thing I thought of was my Grandpa taking me to JC Penny almost every summer before school to buy me a new watch. One year, I picked out a cool Ironman digital watch, complete with a timer, stopwatch, alarm, different time zones (for all that time zone hopping I did as a teenager), and Casio’s latest feature, Indiglo, which illuminated the entire watch face with a cool blue light.
Paul said, “Ok, now say you’re wearing that watch and someone compliments you on it. ‘That’s a nice watch!’ You would probably just say, ‘Thanks, my grandpa gave it to me.’ You didn’t build it. You didn’t even pay for it. But you’re proud of it because your grandpa gave it to you. And you’re grateful and humbled that he would be so generous. It’s the same with your talent. Sure, you’ve worked hard and practiced to get where you are, but the raw ability was placed in you by God, as was the calling to lead worship with those abilities. Stop thinking about it as something you need to downplay or be ashamed of—think about it as a really nice watch that your grandpa gave you.”
Here’s the thing: There is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that you are talented. Your abilities are a part of who you are, your God-given identity, and to belittle them, ignore them, or take too much credit for them is a disservice to the gift-giver. We should neither stash our watch away in a drawer nor claim that we are the watchmaker. Somewhere in the middle, between the One who planted the seed within us and the work we put in to cultivate the talent in order to see a return for the Kingdom, is where we should live. And that Kingdom perspective is what should inform our response to the praise we receive and reveal the truth about who gave us the talent in the first place.
Here’s the other thing: Unless you are Jesus you will not get this right 100% of the time. The crucible of praise is a fire that you will endure for the rest of your life. The temptation will always be there to absorb more or reject more adoration than you should. The slag and dross will always find its way to the surface. You’re not going to step down from the stage one Sunday morning suddenly blessed with effortless confidence cloaked in consummate humility. Our need for grace in this area is ever-present. Fortunately, this grace is also endlessly abundant.
So, where do you fall on this spectrum? Are you constantly avoiding, rejecting, or deflecting praise? How does your false humility manifest itself—in insecurity that begs for validation, or in a desire to have your ego stroked? Do you wear your watch as an homage to the Watchmaker or as a status symbol that shows everyone you’ve arrived? Wrestling with these kinds of questions is never easy, but it is necessary to keeping ourselves from getting swallowed up in the day-to-day “stuff” of leadership and ministry. If left unchecked, unexamined, and un-talked-about we’ll end up being entirely consumed in the refining process. Allowing ourselves the grace and the space to process it is one of the best ways we can continue to see Christlikeness reflected in our lives and in our leadership.