The Duration and Design of our Distress
There is yet another reason why Peter can say with a straight face and a sincere heart that we are to rejoice in suffering. It’s found in 1 Peter 1:6-7. He highlights two things about our suffering that are essential for us to understand if we ever hope to experience joy in the midst of it. And it has to do with both the duration and design of suffering.
“Now, for a little while,” says Peter, “you have been grieved by various trials.” “A little while” is somewhat relative, depending on your circumstances and the nature of your suffering. It could mean 15 minutes or 15 years, or perhaps even the entire span of our lives on earth.
I think Peter’s point is that when compared to eternity, the time of suffering now will always be but “a little while.” Compared to the inheritance imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you, suffering is only for a little while.
In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Paul declares that the persecution he endures and the trials he confronts daily are but “slight momentary affliction”! Paul was no Pollyanna. The suffering in his life was very real, not imaginary, and if viewed only from an earthly or temporal perspective would probably be more than any human might endure. But when viewed from the vantage point of eternity his suffering took on a different hue – it seemed slight and temporary.
In Romans 8:18 Paul says that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
God is not asking you to treat pain as though it were pleasure, or grief as though it were joy, but to bring all earthly adversity into comparison with heavenly glory and thereby be strengthened to endure.
What does Peter say that justifies the idea that God has a design or aim or goal in our suffering? Two things in particular.
First, note the words “if necessary”. What kind of necessity is this? Who or what is making the distress of these trials "necessary"? Is it some unavoidable fate? Are the stars above in control of our destiny? Has Satan imposed an inevitable suffering to which we must submit?
No! The necessity comes from God. Peter makes it plain that Christian distress only happens if God wills it. For example, in 3:17 he says, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” You might suffer for doing what is right; you might not. The ultimate choice is God's. “If that should be God’s will,” we will or we won't. Or again in 4:19 he says, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
In other words, Peter is teaching that the sovereign will of God governs all the distresses that happen to us and, therefore the design in them is not ultimately the design of evil men or the design of Satan, but is a design of God.
So when Peter says in verse 6, "If necessary, you have been distressed by various trials," he means, "If God deems it necessary."
Second, why would God deem it necessary to allow suffering in our lives? The answer is found in v. 7 and the little purpose statement, “so that”: so that “the tested genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
What this verse does is spell out the design of our distresses. The design is that our troubles and trials would refine the genuineness of our faith the way fire refines gold so that when Christ comes back, the quality of our faith would win praise and glory and honor.
Approved faith is said to be more valuable than gold because gold is temporary and will ultimately be destroyed. But faith is also compared with gold because both are refined and purified of their dross and alloy when in the fire.
When gold is melted in the fire the impurities float to the top and can be removed. When the refining fire is over, the gold is even more valuable. So it is with your faith in God. You have faith. You trust his promises. But there are impurities in it. There are elements of murmuring and pessimism. And there are tendencies to trust money and position and popularity alongside God.
These impurities in our faith hinder our fullest experience of the goodness and greatness of God. So God designs to refine our faith with the fires of trial and distress. His aim is that our faith be more pure and more genuine. That is, that it be more utterly dependent on him and not on things and other persons for our joy.
Suffering is not because you lack faith or have faith that is inadequate, but in order to refine it and strengthen it and above all else to display the supremacy of God as one who is worthy of faith and trust and our confidence even when circumstances are hard and painful (see 2 Cor. 1:8-9).
Let me give you another example of what both Peter and Paul have in mind.
I first met Nancy Heche in 1998 and soon discovered what a remarkable life she had lived. Her first child died two months after being born. Nancy’s husband Don, a fundamentalist Baptist, was leading a double life of which Nancy was entirely unaware. He died of AIDS in March of 1983. Nancy’s son, Nathan, died in a car wreck two months later. Abigail, her middle daughter, was dismissed from Wheaton College, endured two divorces, but is now walking with the Lord. During this time Nancy herself wandered from the Lord, giving vent to her bitterness and anger over her husband’s betrayal. Anne, her youngest daughter became an actress and won several Emmy awards for a daytime soap opera. In 1997 Anne “fell in love” with Ellen DeGeneres as they quickly became the most famous lesbian couple in the world (although Anne is now married to a man). After having lost two children and her husband to death and her youngest daughter to an on-going strained relationship, Nancy’s oldest daughter Susan was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died in January of 2005. And if that were not enough, last week, on Thursday, Nancy’s second husband died of a sudden and massive heart attack while playing golf.
Through the years Ann and I have been strengthened and encouraged by Nancy’s unyielding and unfailing faith and joy perhaps more than by any other person. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t struggled with bitterness and anger and confusion. On several occasions she has called me, screaming and crying out over the phone in anguish over her daughters, wondering why she could never have a normal family life, wondering why three of her children had to die so young and why she has struggled so deeply in her relationship with another.
But Nancy knew something Peter and Paul both knew: that it’s only for a “little while.” The anticipation of heavenly glory has kept her going. She also embraced the design of God in her suffering, longing to have her faith refined, to see the rough edges pared off, to experience a deeper and ever more vibrant trust in God without all the artificial props on which we so often depend.
When Jesus appears in glory, two things are going to happen. First, his glory will be magnificently reflected in the mirror of our faith. He will be the trusted one and the hoped-for one and the rejoiced-in one. So his glory will shine in our faith and hope and joy. And the more pure and refined the gold of our faith, the more clearly his beauty and worth will be reflected.
But, second, since God exalts all that exalts him, he will give praise and honor and glory to our faith. He will say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." He will give us (as Peter says in 5:4) "the unfading crown of glory" (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:5).
Having said all this, perhaps even more important is the fact that suffering provides a platform on which the majesty and glory of God are most clearly revealed.
If someone should see me singing, with lifted hands, during a time of remarkable financial prosperity, he may or may not think much of the God whom I worship.
If someone should take notice of my trust in God during a season of physical health and personal comfort, he may or may not think much of the God whom I serve.
If someone should hear me speak or preach about the gospel of Jesus Christ in a place of safety and comfort and protection, he may or may not think much of the God whose message I proclaim.
But if someone should see me singing or take note of my faith or hear me speak in a season of intense suffering, while experiencing severe physical anguish, under the pressure of financial strain, or when it puts me at risk of being persecuted, beaten, jailed, and perhaps even martyred, I assure you they will think much of my God; they will marvel at a God who can inspire such joy in the midst of such pain; they will pause and wonder and shake their heads in amazement at a God who is seen to be worthy of worship and of such immeasurable glory and honor that he can win the affection and adoration of people who have not been overtly blessed with health and convenience and the praise of mankind.
Loss and hard times and difficult circumstances, when joyfully accepted for the sake of the kingdom of God, show the supremacy of God’s worth more clearly in the world than all worship and prayer. God ordains suffering because more than any other human experience it displays to the world the supremacy of his worth above all treasures.
In telling you the story of Joni or of Nancy Heche, what ought to amaze you most isn’t the two ladies themselves, but their God. What kind of God is this who can inspire such freedom and joy in one who, from a human point of view, would appear to have every reason to hate him? What kind of God is this who can evoke such confidence and trust in a person who is so horribly disabled? What kind of God is this who has the qualities and characteristics and attributes and beauty and glory that he can be found worthy of the praise and gratitude and delight of a woman who’s spent the last 46 years in a wheelchair or of another who endured the death of three children? Wow! Now that’s some God!