When writing one of my earliest posts (‘Mary’s Song’) I realised that there was the potential to open a ‘can of worms’ in bringing up the concept of being joyful at all times and rejoicing even in times of suffering. So I felt it was appropriate to follow up with a post addressing this (somewhat). I quite recently read the book of 1 Peter, which is a great starting place for finding what God’s Word says about not only rejoicing in our suffering, but the practical out-workings of this.
Whether you have heard someone talk about this topic of rejoicing in suffering before or if this is the first time you have come across it, it will not take you long to realise that simply being told that you should be rejoicing in your suffering without any explanation of how or why seems to be an impossible feat. It may cause you to think that we are being told to hold unrealistic expectations, or even that the Bible must simply be wrong—Peter mustn’t really have said that! Today I hope to provide that how or why. I will focus on a few of the key points that are taught in relation to suffering in 1 Peter, and how these fit in to us being in a place where we can rejoice in our suffering.
As a bit of background, 1 Peter was a letter written by Peter to Christians who were scattered throughout Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). They were exiles, Christians who were suffering from religious persecution as they lived in a way that was vastly different from the cultural norms which surrounded them. Peter’s letter was to encourage them to persist and endure the suffering and persecution they were experiencing.
In light of this, it is important to note that as we discuss rejoicing in suffering, the suffering we are talking about here is not a blanket of all the suffering you or I will ever endure. Peter is specifically talking to Christians that are suffering as a result of their faithfulness to Christ. Suffering as a result of the sin of this world that is unrelated to persecution is very real, and a lot of Peter’s teaching—such as setting our hope fully on God (1:13)—can be really helpful as we face this and all types of suffering. However, we must always be conscious of the context of what the Bible is saying, as this guides how and where we can apply it’s teaching.
Whilst there is a lot more to the letter of 1 Peter than the topic of suffering, it is certainly a strong theme throughout, and many of the texts in the book not specifically on this theme still contribute to our understanding of it, so I encourage you to read the letter from start to finish (it’s 5 chapters – not too long, I promise).
The 3 key points Peter shares about suffering that we are going to focus on today are:
1. Suffering has a purpose and can be necessary
2. Suffering provides a platform for us to witness to those who are not yet saved
3. Suffering is an indication of being a disciple of Christ
Suffering Has a Purpose and Can be Necessary
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 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.” (1 Peter 1:3-7)
It is in this passage that we hear the phrase we are focusing on today: ‘In this you rejoice.’ What is notable is that Peter starts his letter by explaining to these Christians just what they have to rejoice about. The Christians Peter is writing to, and ourselves alongside them, have a living hope (1:3); we have a new identity and new life, and with Jesus’ resurrection comes the hope for our own resurrection. Peter is saying that it is this that we need to root our joy in, and in this we are armed to face any suffering we may receive because of it.
In vs 6-7 we see how this suffering has a purpose, and that in some instances it can actually be necessary to achieve its purpose. This purpose is to test and prove the genuineness of our faith. He uses the analogy of fire removing the impurities from gold, indicating that the value of true faith is even more precious than pure gold! The end goal here is not that the genuineness of our faith is proven for the sake of those around us, or even for ourselves, but proven in God’s sight on the final day of judgement when Jesus returns. And this is why our suffering for the sake of the gospel can be necessary; as we faithfully endure various trials we prove that our faith is real. It is not said specifically why and when this is deemed to be necessary, but in trusting God’s goodness, we can be sure that the end goal of being seen as a genuine follower of Christ – praise, glory and honour of God when judgement day comes- is worth our temporary suffering for His sake.
Suffering provides a platform for us to witness to those who are not yet saved
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)
* visitation = the day when Christ returns
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15)
In between these sections are a couple of passages which discuss different aspects of Christian living, including submission to authority and a godly marriage. Peter is essentially saying, ‘I know you are suffering for being a Christian, but keep living your life in a way which glorifies God, so that others may see your deeds and the reason you have for doing them, so that they too may be saved on the day of judgement.’ I have frequently heard 1 Peter 3:15 used by people to justify the need to have an answer as to why they follow Jesus when they are asked. And having such preparation is certainly a great thing, but I find it interesting that the context of this verse is that Christians are being asked for the hope they have because they are suffering for the sake of their faith. There is something outwardly visible and profound to those looking in on that, so much so that people will question what that is; and the opportunity to share the gospel is found in that.
When we are suffering, we can often view the potential outcomes from a self-centered viewpoint: ‘why is this happening to me?’, ‘how is God even using this to grow my character?’ ‘I’m sure that at the end of this I will be more Christlike through God’s work’. But we can see here that God’s plan for suffering is even bigger than ours – we should be encouraged that our suffering can be an opportunity to proclaim Christ to others, an opportunity we may not have if it was not for the suffering we were enduring.
Suffering is an indication of being a disciple of Christ
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps”. (1 Peter 2:21)
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.“(1 Peter 4:1-2)
Peter tells us that we, as followers of Jesus, have been called to follow in his footsteps; that just as Christ suffered, we should expect to suffer too, as it is an indication that we are no longer of this world but are faithfully living out the Christian life. What’s more, not only should we expect suffering, but we are called to act as Jesus did during his suffering too, which was to not sin, to not verbally lash out at those causing the suffering, and to trust God (vs 22-23). Verse one of chapter four confirms for us that our suffering for the sake of the gospel is an indication of faithfully following Christ. It tells us that living a life of suffering demonstrates having chosen Christ over the world, and shows that we desire the will of God more than our human passions and have ceased to be a slave to sin as we once were.
Of course, like the topic of suffering, the reasons why Jesus suffered are complex and multi-factorial. He was unique in being perfect yet suffering for the sin of the world, for our salvation and to fulfill prophesies. However an important cause for Jesus’ suffering was because he was righteous, holy and good, and evil hates what is good; hence those who are evil hated Christ. “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:20). If we are to live like Christ, good and God-honoring lives, pursuing holiness, it is inevitable that we will face opposition from an evil and sinful world. Knowing that this inherently stems from a battle of good vs evil enables us to see this opposition and the suffering it causes as a feather in our cap, rather than something to be avoided.
As much as this is an encouragement, is is also a challenge for us -our lives should be so vastly different from those who don’t follow Jesus that we should be experiencing suffering and persecution for our faith.
From these three points, we can see God’s purpose in his people, whom he loves, is for us to suffer for the sake of following Christ. This is not just because ‘that’s how it is;’ there are purposes here that, in some instances, can only achieved by us suffering as faithful servants. God truly works for our good and his glory (Romans 8:28).
Now in saying all this, despite knowing some of God’s incredible and good purpose’s in suffering, we are not expected to enjoy it or look forward to it; if suffering was easy and enjoyable, it wouldn’t be suffering! But I hope that in light of what Peter teaches us about God’s work in suffering, we can be encouraged by how this fits into the hope we have in Christ, and as both confirmation of our future salvation and as opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with those around us.