Suffering is an unpopular but essential topic for Christians to understand. And it is nowhere more clearly explained than in 1 Peter. So here are ten things we can learn about suffering from this letter.
(1) In 2 Corinthians 6:10 Paul describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”. And in Colossians 1:24 he again declares, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” It should come as little surprise, then, that Peter would echo this sentiment when he says in 1 Peter 1:6 that we “rejoice” in spite of the fact that “now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.” Suffering does not cancel out joy, but provides a platform for others to see that our satisfaction is in Christ and not in material or physical comfort.
(2) Suffering for the sake of the gospel is God’s will for us. Peter makes it plain that Christian distress only happens if God wills it. For example, in 1 Peter 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 1 Peter 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 1 Peter 1:6, “If necessary, you have been distressed by various trials,” he means, “If God deems it necessary.”
(3) In 1 Peter 2:19 we are told that “this is a gracious thing, when mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” Again, “if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:20). Thus Peter is saying that favor from God and blessing from God comes to those who so cherish him and treasure him above earthly vindication or more than being treated rightly in this life.
(4) All suffering is to be endured “mindful of God” (1 Peter 2:19). In other words, God often wills that we suffer for doing good precisely so that in our humble perseverance and our quiet and faithful endurance, people will be compelled to stop and notice and say: “Wow! Where does that come from? How does he do that? Why does she not defend herself? Why don’t you fight back? There’s something going on here that is above and beyond human nature. This person, this Christian, is energized and empowered by more than what I find present in my own heart. I wonder what it is? What is it about this God that he loves that could inspire such loyalty and humility?”
Bearing up under unjust, undeserved suffering shines a bright and breathtaking light on the grace of God and the glory of God and the value of God and the worthiness of God, that people who by nature ought to seek their own justice are happy to wait and let God sort it out. It demonstrates that there is something more important to us than our immediate physical comfort. It shows to the world that we value something above our own reputation. It reveals that when all the artificial human props are knocked out from under us the sustaining grace of God is enough.
So what does Peter mean when he says we are “mindful of God” (v. 19) when we bear up in this way? It means we care more about God’s reputation than our own. It means we are thinking of how he might be glorified rather than how we might be vindicated. It means that, like Jesus, we are so confident that God will cause justice to prevail that we don’t need to pursue it ourselves. It means that we are so conscious of his commitment to set things right in the end that we don’t need to set things right in the present.
(5) Suffering is part of each believer’s “calling” from God (1 Peter 2:21). To be hurt and treated unfairly and to be put upon and slandered and yet not to return evil for evil is part of our calling as the children of God.
Peter says it again with even greater force and clarity in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called that you may obtain a blessing.”
The one thing of which you may be assured, if you are a Christian, is that whatever you may suffer at the hands of others is not condemnation for sin; it is not judgment from God; it is not the wrath of your heavenly Father provoked by your failures. For that, Jesus suffered in your place. For that, he bore the guilt and punishment in his body on the cross. For that, he was “wounded” (1 Peter 2:24).
(6) Suffering for “righteousness’ sake” brings a blessing to God’s children: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed” (1 Peter 3:14). This blessing may take many forms. It may come in the form of a purified and sanctified heart, a heart more conformed to the image of Jesus. It may be the blessing of knowing that we have identified with Christ who himself suffered not for his sin but for righteousness’ sake. It may also be a blessed insofar as through our perseverance in suffering the gospel of the all-sufficiency of Christ and his grace is clearly seen, perhaps leading others to saving faith.
(7) We should never be surprised at our suffering, “as though something strange were happening to” us (1 Peter 4:12). Suffering, says Peter, is normal! It is standard fare for the believer. It is to be expected. But why? It is, says Peter, “to test” us. Suffering is “not a sign of God’s absence, but of his purifying presence” (Schreiner, 219)! Suffering for Christ in some form or degree is essential to the formation of Christian character.
It’s critically important that you not react with surprise when either you suffer or you hear of someone else who has. If you do not grasp this truth, your instinctive response will be to shake an angry fist in God’s face and scream out: “Where were you when that missionary in the Sudan died of AIDS trying to help those who are afflicted with it? Where were you when that godly Christian man lost his job because he refused his employer’s order to cover up an illegal transaction? Don’t you care? Didn’t you see this coming?”
By all means weep with those who weep. By all means experience righteous anger at those who unjustly oppress Christian men and women. But don’t let the onset of suffering, no matter how intense or prolonged it may be, throw you into confusion or doubt or shock or uncertainty about the goodness of God.
(8) To suffer for Christ’s sake is to experience the extraordinary presence of God’s Spirit. As Peter says, “if you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14).
This passage seems to suggest that there is a dimension of the Spirit’s presence available to us that goes beyond what we experience when we come to Christ. He’s not talking about what many call “baptism in the Spirit” but clearly he has in view an experience of the Spirit, an anointing, an additional empowering presence of the Spirit that only comes when we respond humbly and faithfully to the suffering that following Christ incurs.
The “Spirit of glory” is probably a reference to the “glory” that will be revealed fully when Christ returns. Note that it is “the Spirit of THE glory.” In other words, Peter is telling us that when we are asked by God to humbly endure unjust suffering for Christ’s sake that the glory that has yet to be revealed in its consummate and final expression at the end of history has already entered into our experience in advance of that day. When we suffer we are promised a foretaste, as it were, of that glory of Christ that will one day be put on display in unqualified fullness.
But what is the point or purpose of the Spirit’s unique, abiding presence when we suffer? To help us endure! To keep us from turning from Christ! You wonder: “If I’m persecuted and imprisoned and tortured and made to suffer because I’m a Christian, will I be faithful? Will I deny my Lord? Will I keep my heart focused on Jesus and my mouth loudly proclaiming his glory? How can I be sure that I won’t fail in that moment of crisis?” God has promised his Spirit precisely so that what you may not be capable of now, you will be empowered to do then. The Spirit of the glory of the coming Christ will come to you and abide with you and rest upon you and he will sustain you!
(9) Our perseverance through suffering serves to glorify God – “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:16).
If you rejoice in suffering for his sake, you show that he is gloriously more valuable than the pleasures and approval of man. If you do good to your persecutors instead of retaliating, you show that he is gloriously sufficient to satisfy your longings. The one all-consuming desire of true Christians is that Christ be glorified in their bodies whether by life or death.
The greatest way to show that someone satisfies your heart is to keep on rejoicing in them when all other supports for your satisfaction are falling away. When you keep rejoicing in God in the midst of suffering, it shows that God, and not other things, is the great source of your joy.
(10) When you suffer “according to God’s will,” “entrust” your soul “to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). All suffering passes through God’s hands. Nothing befalls us that he does not permit or fail to use for our ultimate good.
People who try to solve the problem of suffering by saying it is not God’s will in any sense, must take a long detour around this verse. If the fiery trial is the judgment of God beginning at the church, then it is his will that we suffer. We must not dishonor God by thinking that every time we suffer, he has lost control or dropped the reins. His ways are strange, but they are his ways. And our duty is to trust that he is a faithful Creator who only has our best interest at heart.
Suffering is not outside the will of God. It is in God’s will. This is true even when Satan may be the immediate cause. God is sovereign over all things, including our suffering, and including Satan.
Why is God called “Creator” in this verse? To emphasize his complete and comprehensive sovereignty over your life and all that you encounter. Why does Peter focus here on God’s “faithfulness”? What is he faithful to do in these circumstances? Fulfill his promises. Never forsake you. Work all things together for your good and his glory. Use suffering to conform you to Christ. Bring you finally and fully into the eternal kingdom of his Son.