Great things take time to complete. This is true not only of good things, but of bad things as well. Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August details the dedication, precision, and long-term calculations of the German military. But for a few poor decisions and the surprising resolve of their opponents, the outcome of the Great War could have easily been different. The culmination of Germany's actions in World War I resulted from motivations that stretched far into her history, even before the Franco-Prussian war. Indeed, one could argue that it stretched back to Germany's beginnings as bands of tribes overshadowed and overpowered by Roman might, learning, and opulence. Was their a envy of the conquerors that grew into a desire to demonstrate through conquest the greatness of the German people? Perhaps this is too great a claim, but Tuchman characterizes German leaders as haunted by a specter of unwarranted disrespect and ostracism. Nevertheless, in the crucible of Germany's history, it is hard not to conclude that a significant amount of dross rose to prominence in its culture during the 19th and 20th centuries, and perhaps continues to be skimmed, or in need of skimming.
I imagine that applying the refiner's pot to a nation, even one as easy to pick on as Germany, rings hollow to many ears. As modern citizens of the United States steeped in the waters of individualism, there is a temptation to imagine the refiner's pot in terms of individual purification--the Lord takes each of His servants and purifies their soul of the dross of sin and corruption. There is nothing false about individual application here, but it is not the only interpretation that suits, nor is it, perhaps, the most important or relevant. Indeed, many passages of Scripture that use the crucible or the refiner's fire involve the entire nation of Israel. Moreover, the New Testament people are referred to as a body, a vine, and a bride--individual images applied to a corporate entity. There is good reason to avoid immediately individualizing; to try and consider the corporate nature of Christ's smelting (or perhaps, discipling) the nations. Consider the following an attempt to think it through.
Unrefined metals are purified through intense heat. The weightier, desired metal remains on the bottom of the pot while the lighter, undesired metals rise to the surface. The refiner scoops the dross from the surface and pours the pure metal into the desire molds for cooling. When the process is complete the purified metal has been formed into the pure image crafted by the refiner. If a culture is suited to this analogy, what would constitute the refiner, the intense heat, the pure metal, and the dross? If God is the refiner, the pure metal could be His own servants, the dross could be the servants of Satan, and the intense heat could be trials and circumstances--things like "acts of God" (earthquakes, famines, floods, etc.), wars with foreign powers, societal conflicts (persecutions, injustices, corruptions at various levels of authority), and all other circumstances that draw out the true nature of a people--will they respond as pure servants of God, or will they reveal themselves to be servants of Satan? Once the heat has become intense enough to cause full separation, the Refiner is free to remove from the midst of His people those servants of Satan that have been corrupting their collective purity.
Depending upon the relative purity of the ore, there may be less or more precious metal present. The less pure metal, the longer the process of refining, since the dross will be great and may require a number of scoops to removes all that is present. Even when the presence of precious metal of an ore is relatively high, the purest form of that precious metal requires the most intense heating treatment, to ensure the full separation of the dross.
Regardless of what quantity of precious metal a culture retains, or of what quality of purity the Refiner desires to make, there is one factor that is inevitable, and that is the presence of intense heat. The people of God will not always face trials of equal intensity, trials of equal kind. But any culture without trials is a culture that is, a) fully refined, or b) cooling into a mold, or c) not in the Refiner's care. The first scenario would be impossible this side of glory; the second would be a transitional place--a respite between one round of refining and the next; and the third scenario would make the culture dross, a culture to be cast aside.
As a citizen of the United States and a Christian who takes Christ's command to disciple the nations as a statement of His plan for universal conquest, it doesn't take long to identify the process of separation occurring within the culture. The State continues to embrace political agendas that marginalize Christian doctrine and practice in the public sphere, and a good number of Christians have embraced this marginalization as a healthy, right, and desirable place for the Church. Public education has consistently undermined the authority of the Scriptures and the validity of theological claims in any arena of debate that isn't explicitly religious--even ethical debates exile theological argument, usually distinguishing ethics as a public arena, and pushing theology into the private arena of "morality," unwilling to question the suitability of such distinctions. Christians who wish to live faithfully to Christ are more and more frequently being pushed out of not only the public sphere of policy-making, but the economic and educational spheres of life as well. Christian businesses being prosecuted for refusing to supply employees with benefits, which can be used for abortions; or Christian business being prosecuted for refusing to offer services that compromise their religious convictions about faithful practice are becoming commonplace.
The separation of Christ's precious metal from the surrounding dross appears more evident now than ever, and it can be a cause for thanksgiving, for it will be less and less difficult to see the choice between obedience and disobedience, faithfulness and faithlessness. The difficulty comes in being tried by fire to choose obedience over disobedience, faithfulness over faithlessness. For those who claim that seeing the right choice remains difficult, there is real danger that there is nothing precious to be recovered, that the heat won't be felt, because they are not in the pot, or are already floating on the surface, away from the heat and ready to be swept away. As the heat intensifies, the precious metals may be plunged beneath the surface, but they will be together, and a greater purity--a greater unity--will emerge, though it may not be noticeable for all the dross that may be present to the eye. Those with ears to hear and eyes to see will be where the precious metals are, weighted down with the glory of Christ their Head, for that is how the smelting process of the Refiner's pot works.