A Strategy For Suffering
I Peter 1:6-9
I Peter 2:18-25
I Peter 3:13-4:7
I Peter 4:12-19
I Peter 5:6-12
I have never had a grandfather. They were born in the same village in Russia and in 1937 all of the men of the village in which they lived were taken away and put in prison by the communists because they were Christians. My grandmother (mother’s side)went to see her husband with her children, including the daughter who had been born after he was taken away, and after that they saw him only once more on the train that took them to another prison. The family learned some time later that they died in prison. The experience of suffering for being a Christian is something that is familiar and near in my family.
My children have never had a grandfather. My father was a business man and enjoyed his work and was doing well at it. In the spring of 1971, we noticed that there was something wrong with him. In June of that year, he was diagnosed with cancer and in September he died. He was 41 years old, I was the oldest son at 19 and my youngest brother was 13. Carla’s father died in the same year as my father of a heart attack and so before we were married, both our fathers were gone. The experience of losing someone close is something I experienced at a young age.
I do not tell you these stories so that you will feel sorry for me. I tell them to you to let you know that these experiences have forced me to think about suffering. At some time in life, all of us experience struggles of various kinds. When we do, we engage in various mental, emotional and spiritual struggles. We wonder about God’s care for us. We wonder if God is paying attention. We wonder if we have done something wrong to deserve more difficulty than some others. We wonder if God is able to help.
I once heard that the church in China had not developed an adequate theology of suffering and when the communist revolution occurred and Christianity became illegal, the Christians not only suffered at the hands of the communists, but also in their spirits because they did not have a handle on how to deal with their suffering.
We generally live in affluence, comfort and ease. The trials that come to us relate primarily to issues of health. For example, I have experienced none of the things that my grandparents and parents experienced in Russia. This has put us off our guard and we have not developed an adequate theology of suffering.
It is difficult to know exactly what kind of trials the people to whom Peter was writing were experiencing. That it was intense is obvious because almost every chapter has something about suffering. On the overhead, there is a list of the passages that deal with suffering. I would encourage you to write them down and study further. This morning, we will look at some of the key points that Peter makes as he encourages these troubled believers. The things he says will help us work towards developing a stronger theology of suffering. If you are following the outline, I would like to apologize because I have changed the order since it was printed.
I. Don’t Be Surprised
There is a theology which is prevalent in North America today which teaches that if you are sick or if you are not doing well economically, you do not have enough faith. It teaches that it is God’s desire that we all be healthy and wealthy. There are several programs with this kind of teaching on television and also churches in Winnipeg which teach this. It is embraced by many people in North America today. Is this teaching Biblical?
When we read I Peter 3:13, we might begin to think that it is. There we read, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” Taken to its logical conclusion, if we read only this verse, we would have to agree. What can harm us if we always do what is right? We should always experience blessing. But if we read only that passage, we have not read all of what the Bible says. The next verse goes on to say, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.” That tells us two important things. One, that the Bible recognises that trouble may happen to us. And furthermore, contrary to some teachers, it does not say that trouble is an indication of lack of faith, but rather, that when we suffer for doing right, we are blessed.
In 4:12, Peter says, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” Indeed, we could look at many other passages in this book which say a similar thing. When difficulties happen, do not be surprised. Struggles, trials, suffering are going to happen. They do not indicate that God has forgotten us, they do not necessarily indicate that we have done something wrong. As long as we are in this world which is a broken world, we will experience difficulties. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of this verse in “The Message” where he says, “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job.”
Throughout the book, Peter identifies some of the different trials we may experience.
In 1:6, Peter speaks about “grief in all kinds of trials.” There are many different sources of difficulty and trial. It may be illness, which Paul calls a messenger of Satan. It may be too much rain when we want sunshine. It may be loss of some kind.
In 3:17, he speaks about suffering for doing good. As we noted a moment ago, it is our normal expectation that if we do good to others, we will not be harmed, but this verse indicates that this is not always the case. Sometimes, we do good and still we experience suffering.
In 2:18, he addresses the case of slaves who do all the things their masters ask them but are beaten even though they have done everything right. We say, that is terrible, it is an injustice and Peter agrees, but still acknowledges that it happens.
He speaks in 3:1,7 about the trial of a person who is living with an unbelieving spouse. This is about someone who became a believer after they were married and their spouse did not and now the values of the believing spouse clash with the values of the unbelieving spouse and there is trouble.
In numerous passages in this text, in fact the suffering that is most clearly dealt with in this book, is the issue of suffering for being Christians. In 4:13, he speaks about being “insulted because of the name of Christ” and in 4:16 about when we “suffer as a Christian.”
In 5:8 he recognizes that “your enemy the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour” thus identifying the suffering that comes from attacks of Satan.
Struggles and trials are thus recognized and identified as normal for a Christian. Do not be surprised when they happen.
Peronne of Aubeton, was a pious woman who lived in the 1300’s. She was publicly burnt for her faith in about 1373. She had an adequate theology of suffering because as she was being killed, she testified quoting I Peter 1:7 acknowledging that suffering was not a surprise to her, she was ready to accept it as part of the life of being a follower of Christ.
Therefore, since suffering will happen, and since it is a part of life and Christians suffer even for doing good, the questions we have often asked ourselves, are perhaps the wrong questions to ask. We often ask, “Why does God allow suffering?” What are the questions we need to ask ourselves in order to develop a solid theology of suffering?
II. Questions To Ask In Suffering
A. What’s Wrong With Me?
We often ask the question, “what have I done wrong in order to deserve more suffering than the other person.” As we examine Peter, we notice that the question of whether suffering is deserved is asked. It is a valid question, but needs to be asked carefully.
In the discussion about slaves in 2:20, he acknowledges the possibility that slaves can suffer for doing wrong. If they disobey their masters, then they should not be surprised that they are punished. In 4:15, Peter also speaks about suffering for being a “murderer, thief, criminal or even as a meddler.” It is possible that we will suffer for our own wrong doing. If we act as if we are holier than others we should not wonder that people mock our faith. If we are aggressive and obnoxious in trying to get people to become Christians, we should not be surprised if they hate us. If we are inconsistent and hypocritical in our faith and we are ridiculed, we should not think that this is a commendable kind of suffering. If we are tormented by the government because we have not paid our taxes, we should not consider it a blessing to suffer in that way. If we are constantly bothered by the police because we don’t obey the speed limit or wear our seatbelts, God is not impressed with that kind of suffering.
Thus the first question we should ask is, “Do I deserve the difficulty I am experiencing because of things I have done wrong.” But as we ask this question, we need to also recognize that not every experience of suffering can be answered by saying yes to this question. If the answer is clearly “yes,” then we need to correct the wrong we have done and move on, but sometimes it is clear that we have done nothing to deserve this particular suffering as a consequence of our wrongdoing or as a punishment of God. I Peter 3:17 says, “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” We should make sure we don’t suffer for doing evil, but when we suffer, it may not be caused by our wrongdoing. When Job’s friends came to him, they looked for a sin in Job to explain the suffering, but Job maintained his innocence. We know that Job was right.
B. How Do I Relate To God?
When Job thought about his suffering, he did not accept the accusations of his friends. But since he rejected that explanation, he needed another explanation and so accused God of not treating him fairly. This is the second question that often comes to us in the midst of suffering. Where is God in all of this? Why is he allowing it. The interesting thing is that neither in Job nor in I Peter is that question answered.
1. Entrust Yourself To God
At the end of Job, we do not have an explanation as to why God allows suffering. What we do have is a question which God puts to Job. The question is, “Can you trust me no matter what?”
Peter directs our response in the same direction. As much as we would like to explain why God allows suffering, that question is not answered. Instead, Peter says in 4:19, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator.” If our suffering is not caused by our wrongdoing, then the only thing we can do is trust God.
There are two words here which are very important. We are invited to entrust ourselves to one who is faithful. He loves us and has demonstrated his care for us, particularly by sending Jesus to die on the cross. He will not abandon us. This seems to be a difficult thing for us to do. We always wonder if God is going to do what he says he will do. We see trouble coming and we don’t have the patience to wait for God because we have a hard time trusting that he is faithful. God’s word, however directs us: instead of looking for an explanation of why God allows suffering, God invites us to trust that He is faithful.
The word, “Creator” is also important. God is not only loving enough to make sure that we are cared for in the midst of our suffering, but also able to do something about it because he is our creator. He has all power to meet our needs. At the end of Job, God presents himself to Job as the creator and sustainer of the universe. The implication is, “can you trust that I have the power and wisdom to do what is best.”
On this basis, then, 5:7 encourages believers to “Cast all your cares on him.” I was talking with my mother about this and she said that although it is not an easy thing for us to do this and we often become angry with God, yet this is the place where we need go. Can you commit yourself to your faithful creator no matter what is happening to you?
One thing that will help us do this is prayer. We read in 4:7, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” This is not talking about prayer when trouble comes, but prayer as a part of our lifestyle. A large part of entrusting ourselves to God is to develop a strong prayer life. I believe that if we only pray when we are in trouble, it will be more difficult to do so. If we are alert and disciplined in prayer when things are going well, then we will learn to quickly go to God in prayer when things go wrong and we will be able to entrust ourselves to him because we will have developed the habit of trust.
2. Think About Jesus Suffering
One of the most common mistakes we make when we are experiencing difficulty is to think that somehow God has forgotten us. Repeatedly in this passage, Peter reminds us that this is not true. One of the most important things he says, and says several times is to look at Jesus. In 2:21, we read, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” Then in 4:1 once again we are called to look to Jesus in suffering. Instead of thinking that God has abandoned us in suffering, we find that he understands us more fully in suffering than anything else. Jesus himself experienced suffering and so knows what it is all about. He was tempted, He was ridiculed, He suffered the pain of crucifixion, He laboured under the agony of feeling that God had forsaken Him. He knows what suffering is all about and as we look to Him, we look to one who understands us.
Not only does he understand our suffering, he is also our example in suffering. Peter encourages us to look at how Jesus bore his suffering. He was silent, he did not revile, he did not threaten, he did not retaliate. He endured his suffering and, in Hebrews 12:2 we are told that he did so with the hope of joy set before him. Such an attitude is not a glib attitude. Jesus knew that what he was suffering was not right, but he was able to bear it without feelings of revenge or hatred.
As we suffer, we can also look to Jesus and be encouraged in our struggles and directed in how to deal with them.
C. What Attitude Will I Choose?
I have heard it said that you cannot choose what happens to you, but you can choose how to react. If we understand that suffering is a part of life and if we understand that we can trust God in the midst of it, then we also have the ability to choose how we will respond. Therefore, another question we need to ask is, “what attitude will I choose?
1. Endure It
When our children were in high school, they would sometimes complain about all the homework or about the difficulty of particular assignments. As they complained in class, one of the teachers would sometimes respond with the single word, “cope.” To the children, it seemed a rather rude response.
In some ways, God says the same thing to us. In 2:20, Peter says, “…if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” In simple terms, God is calling us simply to endure the trials we face. But, when he says this, it is not a rude or careless saying. God calls us to endure because of the eternal hope which is ours. He calls us to endure because our suffering is for now, but in the end, there will be great glory. Peter brings this out in 5:10 when he says, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
Hendrick Alewijns wrote before he was martyred for his faith on February 9, 1569, “Yea, we confess and declare with all saints rich in hope, that this present time is short, and that the sufferings of this time, for righteousness, are small, and hence not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us…Believers, rightly esteem the sufferings of the present time, because of the hope, promise and reward.”
Thomas À Kempis wrote, “Accept suffering graciously. When you have reached such a point, all misery will seem sweet and you will relish it for Christ's sake and think that you have discovered paradise on earth. As long as you object to suffering you will be ill at ease. Accept it, and you will find peace.”
Even more amazing is that we can choose joy in the midst of suffering.
After having described the glorious salvation we have in Christ, Peter says in 1:6, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” Yes, trials are a part of life. Yes, they are painful and undesired, but in the midst of them, we can continue to rejoice in the forgiveness of sins, acceptance by God, and eternal inheritance which is ours. In this instance, we do not rejoice that we suffer, but that even in suffering, our salvation is not taken away.
However, joy is also an appropriate attitude to choose because suffering contributes to our maturing as Christians. Now we need to be quick to say that suffering does not make us more fit to receive salvation. Christ has done that, it is a completed work. But suffering is involved in the goal of salvation. Peter mentions this theme several times.
First of all, we read in 1:7-9 that sufferings come to demonstrate true faith. If we are not people of faith, suffering will soon show that up. The imagery is that of refined gold. Through the refining process, what is true gold is brought out and what is dross is removed. The same thing happens in our lives. We are accepted by God, but our life is a mixture of impure motives and true faith. Through suffering, true faith is brought to the top and what is not true faith is removed. So Peter says that in suffering, we should rejoice greatly for as he says in 1:9, “you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” God is constantly drawing us to himself and if through suffering, then we should rejoice that he is active in our lives helping us to remove the garbage and become like pure gold.
A similar truth is taught in 4:1-3 where it says that just as Christ’s suffering removed sin, so we should face suffering in the same way as Christ did. Not to have sin removed from us by our suffering because Christ has done that, but rather to have our lives refined. When we suffer and we remember that Christ suffered for us, we look to Him and we live lives that are pure instead of going back to the kind of lives that are marked by sin.
Some of you have read the book “Joni” which is the story of a lady who broke her neck in a diving accident and became a quadriplegic. After much suffering, she wrote, “God is a Master Artist. And there are aspects of your life and character-good, quality things-he wants others to notice. So without using blatant tricks or obvious gimmicks, God brings the cool, dark contrast of suffering into your life. That contrast, laid up against the golden character of Christ within you, will draw attention . . . to him. Light against darkness. Beauty against affliction. Joy against sorrow. A sweet, patient spirit against pain and disappointment-major contrasts that have a way of attracting notice. You are the canvas on which he paints glorious truths, sharing beauty, and inspiring others. So that people might see him.”
The Message puts it this way, “Since Jesus went through everything you’re going through and more, learn to think like him. Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want.”
D. What Do I Do Now?
When struggles come, we are sometimes paralysed in our fear and in our struggles. Throughout the passage, Peter addresses particularly those who are suffering at the hands of others because they are believers. The last question which is answered by Peter is the question, “What do I do now?”
When they are abused for doing good, as in the case of slaves in chapter 2 or in the case of those who don’t understand the new holy lifestyle which believers live, Peter says keep on doing good. How strange to continue to do the very thing that is causing our hurt. In the Daily Bread on Thursday, there was a story about a man who stopped in a large city to offer help to someone who was stranded. For his good deed, he was shot, robbed, and left for dead. The man recovered from his injuries, and he says he has gained a deeper confidence in God. He still believers that helping others is the right thing to do. In 4:19 we read, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.”
When persecution comes because of our witness for Christ, we may also be tempted to be quiet. In the fear that we will be misunderstood, in the fear that our bold identification with Christ will result in ridicule, we may be tempted to say nothing. Peter, however, says in 3:15, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”
I trust that these thoughts will help us move towards an accurate theology of suffering. The questions come when troubles come. Let them be the right questions so that our faith will be strong and grow and so that we will look to God and see what he will do in our lives.
.” Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925) wrote, “Only Christianity has taught us the true peace and function of suffering. The Stoics tried the hopeless little game of denying its objective reality, or of declaring it a good in itself (which it never is). And the Pessimists attempted to revel in it, as a good to their melancholy, and as something that can no more be transformed than it can be avoided or explained. But Christ came, and he did not really explain it: he did far more. He met it, willed it, transformed it, and he taught us how to do all this, or rather he himself does it through us if we do not hinder the all-healing hands.