A New Perspective on Suffering
Ask the average person in the pew what they are looking for in a Sunday sermon and what you will likely hear is an expressed desire for a biblical message that resonates with personal experience.
And while I am committed to bringing you a biblical message each Sunday, I confess that it is unlikely that this text will resonate with your personal experience for it scarcely resonates with my own.
This morning’s text is not so much about the suffering that is common to the human experience, but it is concerned with the suffering that comes as a direct result of being a Christian. Peter does not address the suffering caused by painful, life-threatening, diseases, rather he addresses the persecution that is likely to follow the heralding of the Christian Gospel.
The New Testament describes the persecution of many of the apostles in great detail. And when I say that I can scarcely relate to Peter and Paul, I am referring to the fact that whenever Peter or Paul went to visit some place, they got beat up; but whenever I go to visit some place, I get served tea and cookies.
Truth is, very few of us will ever know what it is like to physically suffer for the gospel. Yet, in many countries—Indonesia, for example—the killing of Christians has been the norm for many years.
While we may be, at the moment, exempt from physical harm, it is not difficult to imagine that Christians who insist on holding to biblical theology will increasingly become objects of scorn. And, as governments and judges continue to legislate behaviours that contradict the plain teaching of Scripture, it is quite likely that the public derision of Christians will continue to intensify.
What does Peter say to this? “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes for your testing, as though something strange were happening to you”(1Pet.4:12).
Peter’s first point is that Christians should expect suffering. It shouldn’t catch us off guard. It shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus warned us that persecution would come when He said, “you will be hated by all on account of My name”(Mt. 10:22).
I think we need these reminders. We need these reminders because somehow we have come to believe that since God loves us, nothing bad will happen to us. Yet, the Bible nowhere promises us this. In fact, the Bible promises us just the opposite. Jesus has promised, “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you”(Jn. 15:20).
If this message is foreign to you, if the notion of being derided as a Christian is alien to you, it may be worth asking whether you have become timid with the proclamation of the Gospel. Because if we are bold in sharing the Gospel, the Bible promises that persecution will follow.
I fear that I have been too timid. On one occasion, a relative of mine labeled me ‘a fanatic’. And, on another occasion, after a discussion with a friend about what the Bible says, I was called ‘a Neanderthal’. Those occasions have been few and far between. I fear that I have been too timid.
I remember reading an account of John Wesley, of how Wesley measured his faithfulness—not by counting converts, but by counting those who opposed him and the Gospel message he was heralding. On one occasion, Wesley was riding horseback through a particular town and was lamenting the fact that he had not been persecuted for quite some time. As a result, Wesley began to question whether he was faithfully proclaiming the Gospel. Just before finishing his journey through town, Wesley was struck in the face by a glob of mud thrown by somebody on the street. Immediately, Wesley smiled and looked heavenward, ‘Thank-you Lord.’
Friends, are we ready to be scoffed at; are we ready to be called an old-fashioned fossil, for Christ's sake? If it were required, are we prepared to lose our good reputation with others for Christ's sake? If we are ridiculed for sharing the gospel, let us be comforted by Jesus who promises, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake"(Mt.5:10). Beloved, Christians should expect suffering.
Now after saying all of that, I wouldn't want any of you to get the impression that we are to go out looking for trouble. I have come across some Christians who are ridiculed, not because their message was offensive, but because they were offensive. If we are persecuted, we must be sure that it is our message and not our manner of presentation that precipitates opposition. This, I think, is Peter’s point in verse 15. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, ‘make sure that you are being persecuted for “righteousness sake” and not for jerkness sake.’
Notice that Peter does more than ready us for suffering, he calls us to bear in mind the meaning of our suffering, “13 to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
It is not as if Peter is rejoicing in his suffering here. Peter is rejoicing in what his suffering signifies. Suffering for Christ signifies that we belong to Christ. Enduring persecution because of our Christian convictions assures us that the Spirit of God rests on (us).
We hear this note sounded by Paul as well, as he explains to the Philippians why he has forsaken his former manner of living, “that I may know (Christ) . . . and the fellowship of His sufferings”(Phil. 3:10).
What I hear from Paul, and what I hear from Peter, is that suffering as a Christian is an honour.
Those of you who have visited my study may have noticed three prominent pictures on my wall—pictures of John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Nicholas Ridley. What these three men have in common is that they defended Biblical truth in the face of great opposition. As I stare at these pictures across from my desk, I am reminded that standing up for the Gospel of Christ is not an easy thing.
Some of you know that Bishop Ridley, along with Bishop Latimer, were burned at the stake because of their biblical convictions. As they brought a torch to lay at Ridley’s feet, Latimer called out, ‘Be of good comfort, brother Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.’
Foxe’s book of Christian Martyrs records Bishop Ridley’s farewell letter to his family, where he writes, ‘Do not be ashamed of my death. I think it is the greatest honour of my life and thank God for calling me to give my life for His sake and in His cause . . . All of you that love me should rejoice that I . . . was called to give up this temporal life in defense of His eternal, everlasting truth’ (Foxe, Christian Martyrs of the World, 157).
Once again, the note sounded is clear: Suffering as a Christian is an honour.
Now, up to this point, I have avoided speaking about suffering in general. I have avoided speaking about the suffering that accompanies the death of a loved one, the suffering that results from physical illness, or the suffering that results from a broken relationship. I have avoided speaking about suffering in general because Peter does not address this in chapter 4. Peter does, however, offer a word of instruction that applies to all who suffer. In verse 19, Peter says, “let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator”.
Regardless of the nature of our suffering, this exhortation is a fitting one. Those who suffer should place their trust in God. We are to trust God, who is described here as faithful.
What does that mean? What does it mean for God to be faithful in the midst of suffering? Does it mean that God will eventually make the problem go away? Not necessarily. In response to the apostle Paul’s prayers, the Lord replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2Cor.12:9).
The Bible is clear on this point: in the midst of our suffering, something good is being prepared by God for us. This is the promise of Romans 8:28, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
Admittedly, if given a choice, few would ever choose to suffer. And while few of us would ever choose to suffer, we must never lose sight of the fact that our faithful God provides for us in the midst of suffering.
It is not in the green pastures, but in the dark valley, where we sense the comforting power of God’s rod and staff.
Samuel Rutherford said that when he was cast into the cellars of affliction, he remembered that the great King always kept his wine there. Charles Spurgeon said that those who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls. Spurgeon goes on to say, “I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether immeasurable . . . We never have such close dealings with God, as when we are in tribulation.”
If we are to patiently endure suffering, we must always have in view the rare pearls God intends to uncover, we must always have in view the choice wine God intends to serve us, we must always have in view the infinite value of our eternal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Why it is that some Christians forsake God, or leave the church, while suffering is beyond me. It is in the midst of suffering when we need fellowship with God the most.
How can we ever survive the "valley of the shadow of death" unless God is with us? How can we endure unless "His rod and His staff, they comfort (us)"? The answer is, we can’t.
When the day of suffering comes, entrust your souls to our faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.