Thursday, January 30, 2014

Christians and Suffering

Is suffering a bad thing? If so, is the inverse also true? Is not suffering a good thing? Is suffering a problem that Christians should be concerned with solving? How should Christians think about suffering?

I ask these questions in light of Christian organizations that work to provide mosquito nets for children in Africa in order that they might not get Malaria. I ask these questions in light of organizations that rescue young girls from the sex trade. I ask these questions in light of organizations that provide for the needs of those in poverty. Jesus seemed to be greatly concerned with the sick and the oppressed and the poor, and it seems as if he gave incredible value to the idea of bringing people out of their suffering. And even in the New Jerusalem, we see suffering end; “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” So there seems to be at least some kind of negativity regarding suffering in Scripture.

Yet, at the same time, I ask these questions in light of Jesus’ suffering. I ask these questions in light of the reality that we would have no hope without that suffering. I ask these questions with the words of Jesus to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” as Peter displayed his desire for Jesus not to suffer. So in spite of the negativity that is given in Scripture to suffering, it also seems that there is a necessity to it as well.

So we turn in Scripture to the first letter from the one to which those words, "Get behind me Satan," were directed. I believe Peter offers us incredible insight into how Christians ought to think about suffering.

1 Peter 4 

The Purpose of Suffering 
Verses 1-2

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 

Arm yourselves with the same purpose, namely, to suffer in the flesh as Christ suffered in the flesh. Does Peter really mean this? Right off the bat in this chapter it seems that Peter is calling Christians to have the purpose of suffering. Why? “Because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Obviously Peter doesn’t mean that Christ ceased from sin in the sense that he was, at one time, a sinner. But Peter is telling us that suffering is going to be a part of our becoming holy. Sanctification will involve suffering. But I think if we stop here, there is potential for us to think that perhaps the life of an ascetic monk with a propensity for self-mutilation could be the right way to go. Instead, in the rest of this chapter, I think we will see what kinds of suffering Peter means when he calls his readers to arm themselves with the purpose of suffering. 

Suffering in Repentance 
Verses 3-7

For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. 

Here Peter addresses our sinful desires. The time is gone for us to pursue a course of sinfulness. We know Christ. We know there is something greater for us than that with which our flesh tempts us. But why am I calling repentance suffering, particularly when the text isn’t explicitly calling it suffering? The answer to that question is simple: repentance is hard.

Peter offers up a list of sins that I think can be categorized more simply as sexual immorality, worldliness, and idolatry. 

Sensuality and lusts involve sexual immorality. I look at myself and see how hard it has been for me to overcome the desires and habits of my flesh. And it gets even harder and more complex when we consider how much our culture wants to unite sexual preference with identity. Repentance from sexual immorality is hard. The Spirit of God wages war against our flesh, and war always involves suffering. Of course, this is a suffering that is good; it is the putting to death of our flesh. But good suffering doesn’t negate the suffering itself.

Next, Peter mentions drunkenness, carousing, and drinking parties – forms of worldliness. These are ways in which the world calls us to take part in its sinfulness. I think about how hard it is for the alcoholic to say no to a drink. I think about how difficult it is for a friend to deny the peer pressure of his friends to engage in sinful activities. I think about what it looks like for a believer who works for a company asking him to engage in sinful work. Repentance from worldliness often involves losing friends and opportunities. It’s hard. It involves suffering.

And finally, Peter mentions idolatry, specifically abominable idolatry, but what idolatry is there that isn’t abominable? Idolatry takes my mind to the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18. Jesus tells the rich man, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But the rich man was sad because he was very rich. Jesus points out the idolatry in the rich man. Both the rich man and Jesus realize that repentance from idolatry for this man was going to involve a type of suffering. And ultimately, it was a suffering that the man wasn’t willing to endure. The treasure of heaven wasn’t enough for him to believe that the suffering of repentance was worth it.

So if repentance involves suffering, why wouldn’t we want to be like the rich man? Why would we want to put our flesh through suffering? If my debt has been paid, why would I want to suffer in my repentance? This isn’t a question of whether we should continue in sin that grace might abound. This is a question of whether we should continue in sin because it’s easier. The answer is still a resounding no!

First, building on the foundation of what was said in verses 1-2, we understand that the suffering of our flesh is intended for our sanctification. We are being made into the image of Christ, and if we aren’t becoming more like Christ in our obedience, then the reality is that we do not truly love Christ or believe in him at all. If we aren't repenting, then our debt ultimately hasn't been paid.

Second, Peter says, “they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation.” A reason we see for our repentance, beyond the centrality of repentance to our sanctification, is that others will take notice of it. Our repentance is a display of God’s grace and holiness on this earth, and the purpose of that display goes far beyond us. When we repent, we reveal a greater treasure in our heart in such a way that others can see that treasure.

Peter also shows that the display of God’s righteousness through our repentance and obedience points to the judgment. All men are going to be judged, and those who have not put their hope in the gospel will be found guilty. So we preach the gospel in order that those who believe it would live!

There’s a famous quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (though he likely never said it), “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” This quote makes me cringe every time I hear it!

Yes, it’s important that we live our lives in such a way that the effects of the gospel in us are evident. But, in the same way that someone can only learn so much about God through His revelation in Creation, someone can only learn so much about the gospel through its revelation in our obedience. The gospel is a message of words, and our preaching the gospel always involves preaching the message of the gospel with words.

Our lifestyle doesn’t preach the gospel. Our lifestyle earns us opportunities to preach the gospel. 

Suffering in Service 
Verses 8-11

Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. 10 As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11 Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 

Peter now shifts his attention to the call for the church to serve one another. In verse 8 he says to love one another, in verse 9, he says to be hospitable to one another, and in verse 10, he says to serve one another with the spiritual gifts.

Why am I calling this suffering when the text, again, does not explicitly call it suffering?

I’m calling this suffering because it does indeed involve suffering! We would never need to be called to love a people if that people were ultimately lovable. The church is full of redeemed sinners who still wrestle with their sin, who hurt one another, and who fail to be perfectly united in Christ. Peter feels the need to tell the church to be hospitable without complaint. This is a prepositional phrase that would not be necessary if there was nothing to complain about in our hospitality! And when Peter calls the church to serve one another with their gifts, he says that their gifts are tools of God’s manifold grace. Grace is not necessary where there is no sin. It takes a humbling of ourselves to serve others. It’s intrinsic in the nature of serving that we consider others more highly than ourselves. So I’m calling the service of the church suffering because it is indeed a type of suffering.

So why would we choose to suffer in our service? Why would we put up with all of the hardships that come along with suffering?

The second half of verse 11 answers this question for us. We serve “so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Once again, the reason for our suffering involves something outside of us. Sure, the same way that the suffering of repentance works for our sanctification, the suffering of service in the church works for our building up, but ultimately, our service works for the glory of God. “They will know you by your love.” Our service to one another is a display of God’s glory, and we are willing to suffer in service because we understand that God’s glory is worth suffering for.

Let’s look back at the rich young ruler in Luke 18. When Jesus tells the man, “Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor,” he is displaying a certain value set that is seen both in the character of Christ throughout the gospels and in the call of the church in 1 Peter 4. Jesus is valuing the poor coming out of the poverty while simultaneously calling the rich man entering into poverty. In a more generic sense, Jesus values the idea of people coming out of suffering while simultaneously calling the church to enter into suffering for the sake of those who are already suffering.

There is a great C.S. Lewis quote from Virtue and Vice that says, “If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.”

In other words, there ought to be a way in which we are lowered for the purpose of raising others. This is the heart of service through love and hospitality and our use of gifts, though I think the call of what we are seeing in 1 Peter 4 goes beyond that. Our service is meant to emulate Christ’s service, and Christ’s service certainly went far beyond material giving.

This same concept is seen in the heart of Paul that we see in Philippians 2. In verse 7, Paul says that Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant.” And, because of the glory of Christ displayed in the world, Paul says in verse 17, “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” And, in verse 18, Paul offers the same call that we see from Peter in 1 Peter 4. Philippians 2:18, “You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.”

Our service is a pouring out of ourselves for others in the way that Christ emptied himself for us. 

Suffering in Persecution 
Verses 12-18

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but 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. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? 

Finally, we come to what this chapter actually calls suffering, namely persecution for faith in Christ and obedience to Christ. It’s not likely that most of us will ever experience the type of persecution for faith that many who have gone before us have experienced. It’s not likely, in this country, that we’ll be killed or tortured for being a Christian. That has been a reality for a lot of Christians throughout church history, but it likely won’t be a reality for Christians who live and die in the United States.

Still, the words of Peter should bear weight on our lives. When he says, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you,” he is reminding us of a truth that has always and will always be true, that a Christian worldview is going to offend and chafe against a secular worldview. We should not be surprised when we find that our beliefs cause problems. The gospel demands a confrontation with sin. So whether it’s an MSNBC reporter calling conservative Christians kooks or an atheist looking for a fight, we shouldn’t be surprised when we are insulted or hated because of our Christianity.

If you’re not being persecuted by the world for your Christianity, it’s because you’re not displaying it for the world to see.

Not only does Peter tell us that persecution should be expected, he tells us that this persecution is for our testing. Our response to persecution reveals something about how we feel about our faith. Do we respond to persecution with reservations because we are ashamed of our beliefs? Peter shows us that we ought to respond to persecution with joy because “the Spirit of glory and of God” rests upon us.

Now, in verse 15, Peter brings up an exception to the type of suffering that Christians are called to endure. If you’re arrested for stealing diet pills from Kmart, that isn’t suffering for being a Christian – it’s suffering for being a sinner. The suffering that Christians are called to endure is a type of suffering that confronts the world with the holiness of God.

When the apostles are persecuted for their faith, being flogged for preaching the gospel, they respond, as we see in Acts 5:41, “rejoicing, that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name.” I can’t imagine actually being flogged for preaching the gospel, and I certainly can’t imagine coming away from the flogging with a spirit of rejoicing. But the reality is that, as we are persecuted in the name of Christ, we are putting the glory of God on display by showing that His name is worth suffering for.

In verses 17-18, Peter reminds us again that our suffering and our response to it point to the judgment of God as an underlying reality. All of the suffering we experience on this earth points to the judgment of God. Temporal suffering points to eternal suffering. It isn’t necessarily that there is a correlation between who is suffering temporally and who will suffer eternally. Rather, the suffering that occurs in this world is a result of the fallen nature of the world because of sin. And this suffering points to the reality of judgment – all sin will be judged. As believers, we trust that the wrath for our sin was placed on Christ on the cross.

Paul, in Romans 8, gives us an incredible example of how Christians see suffering in light of eternity. Romans 8:18 says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Christians ought to be willing to go into dangerous places and risk disease and endure persecution because they understand that the worst of sufferings on this earth are not even worthy to be compared with their eternal treasure. 

The Result of Suffering 
Verse 19

19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right. 

It makes no sense for a Christian to be willing to suffer unless there is an assurance of hope that the purpose of suffering is far greater than the cost of that suffering. When we suffer, we trust our souls to God, and we reveal the depth with which we believe Christ’s suffering was worth the cost.

A chapter earlier in our Bibles, in 1 Peter 3:15, Peter says, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account of the hope that is in you.”

It is in our suffering that our hope is revealed.

As we mortify our flesh in repentance, we reveal our hope that Christ is a greater treasure than any of our lusts. And as we pour ourselves out in service, we reveal our hope that we are more satisfied in Christ than we are in ourselves. And as we suffer in persecution, we reveal our hope that Christ’s glory in the world is more valuable than our own. All of these revelations of hope in our life are entirely counterintuitive to the nature of life apart from Christ, and they are intended to be tools by which our lives can be used to point to the gospel.

There are a lot of types of suffering that are not mentioned in 1 Peter 4, but I think even for the most random suffering, like an accidental injury, that we ought to think of it as it relates to eternity. All suffering pales in comparison to future suffering and is not worthy to be compared to our coming glory. So as we think about children with Malaria, girls in sexual slavery, and those who are in poverty, we are right to think that it is a good thing for them to come out of their suffering because, in their coming out of suffering, the hope of an eternity with no suffering is emulated in them. And when we experience similar types of suffering, we can endure those sufferings because we understand that same hope.
Peter calls Christians to be armed with the purpose of suffering in the flesh. We voluntarily enter into suffering as it relates to repentance and service, and we willingly endure the suffering that comes from the world as a result of our obedience to Christ. All of this suffering reveals the hope of the gospel in us and serves to glorify God in our lives.

May our suffering be a sweet fragrance to the world, that the world may know the beauty of our God.