Learning From Suffering (1 Peter)

If I were to ask this morning, “With a show of hands, how many of you like chocolate ice cream?”, I suspect that there would be quite a few of you who would raise your hands.  And if I were to ask, “How many of you like Brussel sprouts?”, there would probably be a lot fewer of you raising your hands.  But, if I were to ask, “How many of you like to suffer?”, I doubt if there would be any hands raised.  Because none of us likes to suffer.

            Skip Heitzig has said, “Suffering in our world makes us want to avoid it at all costs. Suffering in our personal world makes us want to question God’s love.”  And I think there’s truth in that statement.

            Because one of the things that we all struggle with when we’re in pain is trying to understand why God allows suffering in this world.  George Barna took a survey sometime back and he asked people, “If you could ask God one question and you knew that he would give you an answer, what question would you ask him?”  Overwhelmingly the questions were things like, “Why would you allow so much evil, suffering and pain here on this earth?”

            And that’s not a new question at all.  We find it being asked all through the Bible.  For example, Gideon asked the angel, “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (Judges 6:13).  Job said to God, “What have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you set me as your target?” (Job 7:20, NET).  The Psalmist said, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).  Habakkuk said, “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2).  And even Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46)

            Philip Yancey is a popular Christian author.  One of his very first books was entitled, “Where is God When it Hurts?”  And he starts his first chapter by saying that most people would probably look around at this world and say that God did a pretty good job of making this universe but he made one mistake.  And that’s pain.  God should not have created a world with so much pain and so much suffering.

            One of Yancey’s most recent books is entitled, “Why? The Question That Never Goes Away.”  And he talks in this book about how, after he wrote his first book, he was invited to speak to the parents of the children in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting where 26 people were gunned down — 20 children and 6 adults.  They wanted Yancey to come talk with them about pain and suffering and God. 

            Yancey had been reading some of the books written by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.  And so here he is on the phone being asked to speak to the Sandy Hook school parents.  And it dawned on him.  He said there is a question that’s much harder to answer than, “Where is God when it hurts?” and that is, “Where is ‘no God’ when it hurts?” 

            And what he meant by that is that atheists will tell people that this universe is just random chance, that there’s no meaning, no purpose behind any of it.  And Yancey said he noticed that these atheists are never asked to speak at places like Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Because what could they possibly say that would be of any comfort to the parents?

            Can you imagine somebody standing up saying, “Well, the universe is random.  Bad things happen.  Get used to it.  Your children don’t live anymore, that’s just what happens.”  There’s no comfort in that.  No, they want to ask a Christian to speak at those places because a Christian can stand up and say, “Yes, what happened was tragic.  It should never have happened.  We should be angry at the sort of evil that resulted in that kind of tragedy.  However, we believe that there is a good God who will make all things work together for good if you will trust him.”  And there’s hope in that.

            This morning, in our study through the New Testament, we come to the book of I Peter.  We’ve just completed our study of I Peter on Wednesday evenings, and those of you who have been a part of that study know that I Peter is all about suffering.  In this short letter, Peter refers to suffering about 20 times.

            This morning, I want us to focus on a passage in chapter 4 where Peter tells us some of the things that suffering teaches us.  But before we get to that, let’s take a look at this overview of I Peter, and then I’ll be back to see what we can learn from suffering.

            Watch VIDEO (I Peter)

            Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “As an old man, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly—that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about … is suffering.”

            And I think he’s right.  Most of us don’t learn very much from good health, happy days, money in the bank, and good fortune.  We enjoy those things, but we don’t learn much from them.

            But we can learn a great deal from suffering.  Our text this morning is I Peter chapter 4, beginning with verse 12,

“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.” (I Peter 4:12-19)

            In this passage and throughout this letter, Peter’s primary focus is on the suffering that we experience because we are Christians.  But I think we’ll find that what Peter says about that kind of suffering relates to all of the suffering that we experience.  Let’s notice four things.

1.         Don’t Be Surprised When Suffering Comes

            “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.  (I Peter 4:12)

            Peter says, “Don’t be surprised when you suffer.”  But we are surprised, aren’t we?  Something bad happens to us and we’re shocked.  “Why did this have to happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this?”  I’ve noticed, though, that we don’t usually ask those questions when something good happens to us.  If you get an unexpected check in the mail, I doubt if any of you spend the rest of the day going, “Why did this happen to me?  What did I do to deserve this?”

But when something bad happens to us, we’re caught off guard.  We’re surprised when trials come.  But Peter says, “Don’t be surprised when you suffer.” 

I like what Chuck Swindoll has said, “If … we view life as a schoolroom and God as the instructor, it should come as no surprise when we encounter pop quizzes and periodic examinations.”  In other words, suffering is an opportunity for our faith to be tested.  So don’t be surprised if our teacher wants to test us every now and then.

But Peter especially wants us to know, “Don’t be surprised if you suffer for being a Christian.”  That’s a message that we as the American church need to hear.  Suffering is part of the Christian life, even painful suffering.  And I think Christians in other parts of the world understand this far better than we do.

Every day, 13 Christians around the world are killed because of their faith.  And every day, 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked.  But we like to think here in America that if we’re a Christian and we treat everybody with love and respect, then, in return, everybody else will treat us with love and respect.  And we’re surprised when it doesn’t always work out that way.  We’re shocked when people who aren’t Christians don’t act like Christians, and they don’t appreciate the fact that we are.

            But we shouldn’t be surprised.  We’ve certainly had plenty of warning.  Jesus said to his apostles, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20).  Paul said to Timothy, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (I Timothy 3:12).  John wrote, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” (I John 3:12). 

            It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Welcome to my world.  Don’t be surprised when people hate you.  If you want to be my follower and have an impact and be an influence for me, you’re going to have to get used to it.”

            Don’t be surprised when suffering comes.

2.         Suffering Bring Us Closer to Christ

            “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.”  (I Peter 4:13-14)

Peter says that when we suffer, we “share” in the sufferings of Christ.  That word “share” is the verb form of the Greek word koinonia, which is usually translated “fellowship.”  Now, to most of us, “fellowship” implies something positive or happy, like a picnic or a party at someone’s home.  But here Peter talks about of having “fellowship” in the sufferings of Christ.  Our suffering joins us with Jesus in a way that nothing else can.

Let me illustrate it using this diagram.  We start with us on one side and Christ on the other side.

Us……………………………………………..Christ

And the question for all of us is, “How can we get from where we are to where Christ is?”  And there are lots of answers to that question. We can read the Bible, pray, worship, sing songs of praise, share our faith, give our money, listen to sermons, use our spiritual gifts, spend time with other Christians, and so on. I could add a lot of other things to that list and all of them would be very helpful in drawing us closer to Christ.  But for most of us, even when we do all those things, we may still feel that we’re like this:

………………..………Us…………………..Christ

            Peter wants us to understand that nothing moves us closer to Christ than when we go through hard times.  It’s not that suffering in and of itself brings us to Christ; it’s what suffering does to us and what suffering does in us.  When we are flat on our faces, having been knocked down again and again, at some point if we truly know the Lord, we lay aside our pride and in sheer desperation, we cry out to God for help, and God is right there with us, even when we can’t see him.  Most of the time, we only see this looking back, after the trial is over.  But God allows us to go through hard times so that we’ll be like this:

…………………………………………….UsChrist

            God’s intention is that our pain and our suffering moves us from where we are to where Christ is.

3.         Suffering Should Lead Us to Serious Self-Examination

“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?’”
(I Peter 4:15-18)

Peter wants us to keep in mind that not all of our suffering comes about because of our godliness.  Sometimes we bring trouble on ourselves because of the mistakes that we make.

I heard about a prisoner in jail who wrote a letter to his preacher and he said, “I’m writing because I have chosen the wrong road in life. I do believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I read my Bible not like I should but I read it….I was raised up in the church but as I got older I thought I knew everything. I left my parent’s house at a young age…I regret my path I’ve taken but I done the crime, now I have to do the time.”

His grammar might be off a bit, but he’s honest enough to recognize that the suffering he’s experiencing in jail is of his own doing.  And that’s Peter’s point in verse 15.  If you do something wrong, you should expect to suffer.

Notice that Peter specifies four categories of wrongdoers. The first three all make sense – “let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer.  But then Peter says “or as a meddler.” That doesn’t seem to fit in with the first three. A meddler is “someone who gets involved in the affairs of others when he has no business being there.”  Someone who is the self-appointed overseer of the affairs of others.  He barges in where he’s not wanted or needed.

Peter says if you suffer because you’ve been meddling in other people’s affairs, don’t complain.  Because nobody likes a busybody who is constantly sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.

And then Peter adds, “But if you suffer as a Christian”, well, that’s a different matter.  In the first century, the Romans engaged in a worship of their emperor, Caesar.  In fact, in many cities, they required their subjects to say the words, “Caesar is Lord.”  But, of course, Christians couldn’t say that, because Jesus Christ was their Lord.  And that’s why the early church was persecuted.  They insisted on saying, “Jesus is Lord.”

            Even today, the people of this world hate the name of Christ. They don’t want to hear it.  It’s okay if you talk about God, just don’t mention the name of Jesus. If we would renounce our allegiance to Jesus, the world would leave us alone.  They don’t hate us.  They hate Christ in us.

            And the day may soon come, if it’s not already here, when Christians will have to make the same choice that the early Christians had to make.  Will we boldly proclaim that Jesus Christ is our Lord, or will we keep quiet in order to save ourselves some trouble?

            Peter’s answer is clear.  When that time comes, “Let him not be ashamed.”  I have to believe that as Peter wrote these words, he remembered back to that night when Jesus was arrested.  While he warmed himself around the fire, a young girl said to him, “Weren’t you one of his disciples?”  And Peter denied knowing Jesus.  He swore that he wasn’t one of Jesus’ followers.   Three times he denied Christ.

            Peter knew what it was like to feel that sense of shame because he never forgot the night he denied his Lord.  Peter wants us to know that when that moment of decision comes for us, we shouldn’t do anything that would dishonor the name of our Lord. 

            Verse 17 tells us that judgment begins with the household of God.  The Lord starts with his own children.  Persecution forces us to decide where we stand and what we believe.  And, in a sense, the hands of the persecutors are actually the hands of God.  He allows evildoers to turn up the heat so that we can be purified by our trials.  Which may not be much comfort if you’re in the middle of the furnace right now, but at least it means that God is still in control.

            But while it starts with us, it won’t end with us.  Verse 18 asks the question: “What will be the outcome for those who don’t obey the gospel of God?”  The answer basically is, they’re in big trouble.  God disciplines his children to make us holy, but those who aren’t his children eventually have God’s wrath to face.

            We may suffer for a little while and then we enter into glory. But for those who don’t know the Lord, this world is the closest thing to heaven they will ever know. When they die, they have absolutely nothing to look forward to but an eternity separated from God.

            Suffering should lead us to some serious self-examination.

4.         Suffering Teaches Us to Trust God

            “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (I Peter 4:19)

            When trouble comes—and it comes to all of us sooner or later — we usually can’t do much about our circumstances.  We can’t wave our hands and make the sick well, or put money in the bank, or cause angry people to like us.  But there is one thing we can do.  In the midst of our troubles, we can entrust or commit ourselves to our faithful Creator.

            That word “entrust” is actually a banking term that means to make a deposit.  Think about it this way.  When you go to the bank to make a deposit, you hand them your money and basically say, “I trust you to hold onto my money for me.  I trust you to take care of my money so that nothing happens to it.”

            And we do the same thing with our lives.  If we entrust ourselves to a faithful Creator, it’s as if we’re taking our lives and handing them over to God and saying, “I trust you to hold onto my life.  I trust you to take care of me and to use this life in a way that you think is best.”

            Some of you may find yourselves right now in a place of great personal difficulty.  You’ve been trying to make things better on your own and things have only gotten worse.  When life begins to cave in all around you, there is nothing is more important than committing yourself to a God who loves you and who promises to take care of you.  

            And instead of trying to figure out how to solve your own problems, you need to say, “Lord, I can’t do it.  I admit that without you, I’m helpless.  Lord, let your will be done in my life, whatever it takes, whatever it costs, nothing held back.”  When we begin to pray like that, God will answer from heaven.  And whether or not our circumstances change, we will change.

            I started off this lesson by talking about the fact that the question we keep asking over and over is, “Why?”  Why are all these things happening to me?  Why I am going through this pain and suffering?  And it’s frustrating that God doesn’t give us the answer to our questions.

            The problem is, we’re asking the wrong question.  In John chapter 9, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why was this man born blind?”  Why?   But, in his answer, Jesus changed the question from, “Why?” to “How?”

            “Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3).

            How can this man’s blindness be used to reveal the work of God?  Man asks why.  Jesus asks how.  Man asks, “Why did this happen?” Jesus asks, “How can my Father’s glory be displayed through this situation?”

            The answer to “why” doesn’t really help us. But knowing that God’s glory can be displayed, even in the brokenness of our lives, gives us hope despite our circumstances.  And I promise that you will find more purpose and joy in your life if you will stop asking, Why?” and begin asking “How?”

            How does my story fit into God’s greater story of redemption?  Because even when we can’t see how our story fits into God’s story of redemption, scripture promises that it always does.

            In the Bible, I see a picture of all things working together for good — a good that, quite frankly, I sometimes don’t understand. Somehow God mourns the death of a three-year-old, yet he also uses that baby’s death to bring glory to himself.  And if you don’t understand how he can do both, join the club because I don’t know either. But that’s because I’m looking at things from my perspective. Without seeing from God’s perspective, I can’t answer how that story or any other story, including mine, fits into his overall story.

            But the Bible does tell us that God is able to use things he hates — things like cancer, divorce, suicide, addiction, death, and so much more — to accomplish the things he loves.  And he does this on a regular basis.  It’s only when we bring our pain to him that we can find the strength that we need to get through it.

            And so, I encourage you this morning to change your question from why to how.  Maybe you’ve never thought about how God could use what you’re going through for His glory. Maybe this whole concept is totally new to you. If so, let me help you get started by giving you a few questions:

            How can God use the suffering that you’re going through right now to glorify him?  How can God use your weakness, infirmity, or disability to display his power?  How can God use your difficult circumstances to teach you something, to help you to grow closer to him?  How can God use your current mess to shape you into a man or a woman who walks by faith, not by sight?  How can God use your situation to show you that true peace is found only in him?

            As I read the quote earlier, “The only thing that really teaches us what life is about … is suffering.”  May God help us to use the moments of pain and suffering in our lives to learn and to grow.

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