Making Sense of Suffering1
My primary concern as I begin this brief series of articles on suffering is this: how do I communicate the biblical perspective on suffering to a people, myself included, who live in such a safe environment? Continue reading . . .
My primary concern as I begin this brief series of articles on suffering is this: how do I communicate the biblical perspective on suffering to a people, myself included, who live in such a safe environment? I don’t mean safe in terms of a low crime rate or the absence of racial tension. I mean safe in the sense that few of us ever have or ever will experience the kind or degree of suffering that Christians in the first century endured. Needless to say, this is a challenge for all of us.
That being said, look with me at what Peter said in 1 Peter 4:12-19.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good”(1 Peter 4:12-19).
Let’s briefly consider why it is important for us to have a solid, Scriptural perspective on the issue of suffering.
(1) One reason why it was so important for Peter to have written this letter about suffering to the Christians in Asia Minor and why it is so important for us today to take the time to probe deeply and soberly into this issue is because all suffering that Christians endure while seeking to live godly lives for Jesus threatens our confidence in the goodness of God and poses a powerful temptation to quit and join the other side.
This is easy to understand once we think about the wrong ways we often respond to suffering: We mistakenly conclude that (1) God has forsaken me; or (2) it doesn’t pay to obey; I’ve lived for Jesus and look what it got me; or (3) if this is what it means to say that God loves me, I think I’ll check out another religion and find a “god” who’s a bit more compassionate. The result is bitterness and unbelief: “I’m not sure God can be trusted with my life,” combined with doubts about his power and his wisdom.
(2) A second reason why we need to look carefully at this theme in this text is because of how suffering serves to enhance and deepen our relationship with Christ. I realize it sounds strange to say, on the one hand, that suffering threatens to undermine our faith in God and that, on the other hand, it has the potential to deepen our intimacy with him. But such it is! Piper comments: “I have never heard anyone say, ‘The really deep lessons of life have come through times of ease and comfort.’ But I have heard strong saints say, ‘Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depths of God’s love and growing deep with him, has come through suffering’” (Desiring God, 222).
All that said, we are now faced with a question forced upon us by Peter and by life itself: How are we to respond to suffering?
It’s important to note that Peter doesn’t go into great detail as to the nature and extent of this suffering, but he does identify its cause. In verse 13 the fiery trial is called "sharing Christ's sufferings." In verse 14 it is called being "insulted for the name of Christ." And in verse 16 it is called suffering “as a Christian."
So the suffering that is coming is owing to the fact that the believers are living the way of Christ, identifying with him openly and being labeled "Christian." Peter sees that persecution is going to become severe simply because believers are living like Christ and being open about their allegiance to him in every arena of life.
The apostle’s counsel and exhortation to us comes in five ways. In the next article we’ll look at the first.