Suffering. It is a reality of life and this troubles us. Many reject the notion of an Almighty God because there is so much suffering in this present world. I’ve heard it many times, and so have you, “How can there be a loving God if there’s so much pain and suffering in the world?” I understand the sentiment of their words, but their very words indicate there is an internal, absolute standard of good and evil; right and wrong, which, in my humble opinion, is only true if there is a good Almighty God.
This week the thought of suffering has been on my mind because I’m teaching on 1 Peter 4:12-19 this Sunday. This whole passage teaches how the follower of Christ should respond to suffering. In addition to this passage, I’ve seen plenty of suffering in my own life and I deal with the suffering of others on a regular basis as a pastor. We don’t have to look far to find a good example of suffering for suffering seems to be the very thing that keeps the news agencies in business.
There are many Christian pastors and teachers who teach a “prosperity gospel” that leads people to believe that Christians who live their lives well will be rewarded with good health, money, and healthy relationships. If these things don’t happen in their followers lives, lack of faith or sin in in the individual’s life is blamed—the teaching is never thought to be wrong or unbiblical. It breaks my heart to see the damage these teachers cause. I’m dumbfounded that they can read the New Testament and reach their conclusions. Jesus was executed. All of the apostles were executed, with exception of John (but they tried to kill him by boiling him alive, but he survived which is probably worse), the early church suffered immensely and Christians around the world are persecuted for their faith.
I believe one of the most important things for the Christian to understand is suffering. I love this section of 1 Peter because there are some very practical tips on how we should handle suffering. Let’s review some of the lessons Peter shares with us.
Don’t be surprised by suffering (1 Peter 4:12). I like things that are simple to understand. Peter’s first point is very simple. Don’t be surprised by your suffering. Suffering is normal for all people. If you’re human and living on earth, you live in a fallen world that is marked with the consequence of sin. The most visible consequence of sin seen is death, but there are many, many forms of suffering. Embedded in this verse, there is a clue of how the Christian’s view of suffering is different from others. Peter comments on suffering in this way, “which [suffering] comes upon you for your testing.” God is greater than your suffering and is using your suffering to test, try, or refine you into His image. As hot water brings out the nature of the tea bag, suffering brings out the new nature of Christ within the believer. I know that I have grown most through times of suffering. There is no reason we should be shocked or surprised by suffering—it is a part of life.
If you suffer as Christ suffered, rejoice (1 Peter 4:13-14). This one is hard to apply. Who likes suffering in the midst of it? Not me. It’s miserable. In the midst of suffering, I do everything I can to do get out from under it! The author of Hebrews speaks of being disciplined in this way, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful” (Hebrews 12:11). I do think I need to develop this thought more, but I hesitate saying that I need to experience more suffering for my faith to learn how to better explain Peter’s teaching here. But in my study, so far, it seems that he is saying if you suffer for following Christ’s example, you should rejoice, or have much joy that you are identified with him. I think of those mentioned in Hebrews 11:37-38 who “were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword, they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in the deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” There was nothing joyful about what they went through, but they experienced this because their lives were so linked to Christ’s life that the writer says the world was not worthy of these men—this identification to Christ should cause them great joy. And if we suffer for being associated with Jesus than we should rejoice over this great honor of being connected to Him.
Not all suffering is the same (1 Peter 4:15). I’m all for outreaches to those in prison. So don’t misunderstand me here, but I’m bothered by those who do prison ministry and quote Hebrews 13:3, “Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them” as a proof text for their ministry. The author of Hebrews is speaking to Christians who are not in prison to remember their brothers and sisters who are in prison for their faith in Christ, not common criminals. In the present passage, I love that Peter makes a clear distinction for suffering because of righteousness from suffering that is a consequence to one’s sin and folly. Suffering because you are reaping the consequence of murdering someone, stealing, doing evil, or meddling is not the same as suffering as a Christian. We are instructed to not suffer in this way, to turn from evil and to do good as Peter mentions in 1 Peter 3:11.
If you suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed (1 Peter 4:16). I can’t help but to remind us that the man who is writing this is the same man whose reputation is marked by his actions of denying Jesus three times before the rooster crowed. I don’t say this to shame Peter, but in remembering this we gain greater insight into his heart. When you are teased, mocked, harassed, shunned, or worse for your faith in Christ, I think it is a normal reaction to want to shrink away in shame or embarrassment. Peter learned that leaning on Jesus and trusting in Him is the best response to suffering and we, who are persecuted for Christ’s sake, have nothing to be ashamed about.
Suffering can be God’s will for your life (1 Peter 4:17-19). The last point Peter makes, I believe, is one of the most important points relating to the Christian and suffering. I almost moved this up, but I figure Peter put it at the end so I should deal with it at the end. Here is what Peter says in 1 Peter 4:19, “Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God…” Let that sink in. Suffer according to the will of God. Have you ever embraced your suffering as the very will of God for your life, or are you too busy trying to get out from under the suffering because you can't comprehend your suffering could be His very will for your life? If I’m honest, I know my inclination is the later. There’s something freeing about embracing our present suffering as God’s will. Embracing our suffering as God’s will causes a couple of things. First, I believe we turn to Him for help through the trial, which He is faithful to do. Consequently, as we lean upon Him through the trial, we ultimately grow in our relationship with Him, learn more about many things—mostly God’s nature, and ultimately reflect His glory to the world around us. Our hope ultimately is not in this present life, but in the one to come a difficult reality to understand for those living in the here and now.
Pondering suffering doesn’t send me on a quest to suffer more, but it does encourage me to desire to embrace the suffering that is place upon me. I fear I’ve missed many valuable lessons focusing on evading my suffering. My prayer is that when suffering comes, I will not be surprised by it, find a way to rejoice in the midst of it (so long as its not a result of my on folly), and grow through the experience trusting that my sovereign Lord has a wonderful plan in the midst of it, even though I may have no clue what it is!