Making Sense of Suffering
1 Peter 4:12-19
Schutt Sports is a major supplier of football helmets for the National Football League, and they issue this warning label on all their helmets and they also have it on their website’s homepage:
WARNING …. NO HELMET SYSTEM CAN PREVENT CONCUSSIONS OR ELIMINATE THE RISK OF SERIOUS HEAD OR NECK INJURIES WHILE PLAYING FOOTBALL.
The warning label continues with some information about the symptoms for concussions and concludes by repeating the original warning:
“TO AVOID THESE RISKS [OF PLAYING FOOTBALL], DO NOT ENGAGE IN THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL.”
Visitors to the website can’t even access content until they check a box next to the words “Please indicate that you have read and understand [this warning label].”
At least this company is utterly honest about the risks of playing football. They actually tell you NOT TO PLAY the sport their product is designed to for! Of course, they do that so they don’t get sued every time a player gets a concussion while playing football wearing one of their helmets. The helmet helps, but it doesn’t make injury impossible.
You know, the Bible, just like the Schutt website, is honest about the risks of following Jesus. In a way, the Bible says, “TO AVOID THE RISKS OF DISCIPLESHIP, DO NOT ENGAGE IN FOLLOWING JESUS.” Of course the Bible also offers some amazing promises about the rewards of discipleship. But the truth is, following Jesus by definition puts you at odds with popular culture at times, regardless of the culture you’re living in.
I think all of us, if we’re honest, have come to the point in our lives where following Jesus cost us something and we didn’t like it. “Hey Jesus, you didn’t tell me some people might not like me if I’m really living like you ask me to live!” “Hey Jesus, you didn’t tell me I might get passed up for a promotion at work because I insisted on being honest and doing what is right, even if it costs the business extra money to fix a problem.” “Hey Jesus, you didn’t tell me I’d lose my closest friend when I started following you.” “Hey Jesus, you didn’t tell me my family would stop inviting me to things because I’m a Christian.” “Hey Jesus, you didn’t tell me I could still get cancer if I’m following you.” Those are the kinds of things we face here in America for following Jesus. In other parts of the world, the issue is much more dire.
An article titled “Arrests, Beatings, and Prayers: Inside the Persecution of India’s Christians” details the persecution of Christians in India. The article says: “In church after church, the very act of worship has become dangerous despite constitutional protections for freedom of religion.”
The end of the article focuses on Pastor Vinod Patil, who refuses to stop witnessing for Jesus but must operate like a secret agent. The article says:
He leaves his house quietly and never in a group. He jumps on a small Honda motorbike and putters past little towns and scratchy wheat fields, Bible tucked inside his jacket. He constantly checks his mirrors to make sure he is not tailed.
Hindu extremists have warned Pastor Patil that they will kill him if they catch him preaching. So last year he shut down his Living Hope Pentecostal Church, which he said used to have 400 members, and shifted to small clandestine services, usually at night.
One cold night this past winter, Pastor Patil drove to a secret prayer session in an unmarked farmhouse. He quickly stepped inside. On a dusty carpet that smelled like sheep, two dozen church members waited for him. Most were lower-caste farmers. When a dog barked outside, one woman whipped around and whispered, “What’s that?”
Pastor Patil reassured the woman that God was watching over. He cracked open his weathered, Hindi-language Bible and rested his finger on Luke 21, an apt passage for his beleaguered flock. “They will seize you and persecute you,” he read, voice trembling. “They will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”
Pastor Patil says, “You get this energy just thinking about his name.” The journalist concluded the article by stating, “They believe deeply in the teachings of Jesus.”
Today, we’re continuing our journey through the letter, or epistle, of 1 Peter; a letter written to poor Christians living under the very real threat of persecution and resistance from their families, their neighbors, their communities for following Jesus. They were losing their customers and businesses. They were losing their families and friends. Their safety and security were at risk. Their lives were at risk. And yet, they still followed Jesus. Why? Why follow Jesus when it costs so much? And how? How do we follow Jesus when it costs so much? Turn with me to 1 Peter 4:12-19.
Fiery trials. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Not really. The word “fiery” here emphasizes the agonizing, desperate nature of those times in life when things get bad simply because we’re following Jesus. When things would get better, sometimes immediately, if we’d just decide to reject Christ, to not follow Jesus. Peter here isn’t talking about momentary inconveniences or missed opportunities. He isn’t talking about being made fun of. The word for “insulted” in V. 14 doesn’t mean ridiculed or made fun of. It means to be rejected by society. It means to lose your place in your culture. It means to lose your social standing and everything that goes with it because of your lifestyle for Jesus or your confession of Jesus as your savior.
Peter tells us not to be surprised when culture pushes back against your faith and your desire to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Sometimes that push-back is subtle, more of an inconvenience. But there are times when the push-back is more aggressive and severe. Times when it gets downright dangerous. We don’t experience much of that kind of push-back here in America right now, although attacks on churches and shootings in churches are becoming more common. But the really severe stuff doesn’t happen as often here as it does in other places in the world. But Peter doesn’t want us to be surprised when we suffer because we’re following Jesus, like its strange or unusual. Jesus himself suffered. Why wouldn’t those who seek to follow him suffer too?
You see, suffering happens for lots of reasons. And sometimes, that suffering is deserved. Look down at V. 15. Sometimes, our suffering is actually justice at work. If I break the law in some way, and SUFFER the consequences, I deserve that suffering. Murderers and thieves and other law-breakers deserve what they get. If you’re speeding, you deserve the ticket you get. If you drive drunk, you deserve to lose your license or to spend some time in jail. Peter tells us to make sure we aren’t suffering because of our own bad decisions and our own actions. And that makes sense, right? If I shoot Gregg, and Ruth rounds up a posse and comes after me and beats me up, and then hands me over to law enforcement, and I’m found guilty and sentenced to prison, I am not suffering for Jesus. I’m suffering because I was stupid. Or if I break into Saint Lenda’s house and she shoots me, and I wind up in the hospital and then prison, I am suffering, but not for Jesus. We get that, right?
But then Peter slips this more subtle word in there … meddlers. He isn’t just talking about the severe, obviously wrong, evil actions like murder and stealing. Meddlers are those who are always putting their nose in someone else’s business. Those who are harshly judgmental of those who don’t follow Jesus like we do. We can’t force people to follow Jesus or even to adopt his perspective on things. We can try to gently persuade, and we can make our voice heard in the voting booth, but shouting and name-calling and trying to strong arm others into agreeing with us isn’t what Christ calls us to as his people. He invites people to join him, and there are real consequences, both now and eternally, for not accepting his invitation, but that invitation never becomes more than that. God doesn’t force anyone to worship him and trust him.
But as followers of Christ, sometimes we meddle. We try to force others to agree with us. We argue and we try to shame and we name-call. And when we suffer rejection and ridicule and spite for doing that, it isn’t glorifying to God any more than if I were to kill someone and suffer a prison sentence for doing that. We need to make sure that we aren’t suffering because of our own sinful, evil behavior. And when we do suffer because we follow Jesus, we aren’t to be surprised, we are to be ready. As Christians, we aren’t fireproof.
But when we suffer because we are faithfully following Jesus, God is glorified. And so Peter tells us to rejoice when we suffer for Christ’s sake. Rejoice? Rejoice when we suffer. How do we do that? By continuing to follow Jesus when we suffer, suffering in the same way that he suffered. So how did Jesus suffer? Turn with me to Mark 14.
Just like everyone else, Jesus suffered in many ways while he walked the earth. He experienced hunger and thirst. At one point he told his disciples that he had no home, no place to lay his head. He wept over Jerusalem’s stubborn refusal to embrace his good news about the coming of God’s kingdom in him. And then the temperature of his fiery trial was really turned up as he neared the cross. In Mark 14, starting in V. 32, we find Jesus and his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Look at Vv. 32-34.
The first thing Jesus did was acknowledge that he was suffering. Jesus wasn’t in denial about the turmoil in his heart and mind. He truly feared the physical and mental anguish he was about to endure, and he admitted it. He didn’t put on a false front for his disciples. He told them about the sorrow and anguish he was in. We can’t deny the reality of pain and suffering around us, or in our own hearts and minds and bodies. If we’re going to follow Jesus as we suffer, we have to be willing to admit that we’re going through something difficult. We have to be willing to admit that we are, in fact, suffering. We have to be willing to face it.
The second thing Jesus did was to pour his heart out to God and ask God to remove the suffering if possible. Look at Vv. 35-36. After admitting that we are suffering, we can ask God to remove the suffering if possible. Even Jesus wondered if the suffering was necessary. Why wouldn’t we do the same?
But then Jesus did the unthinkable. He submitted his will, a will that was objecting to everything he was facing, to the will of the Father. Look at Vv. 36-42. If this was the path forward, he was resolved to walk it, come what may. When God said, “This is the path,” he didn’t object any longer. He faced it. He moved toward it. He leaned into it. He accepted it.
Admit, ask for relief, and submit. Believe it or not, that is the pathway to rejoicing in our suffering. Not because suffering is fun and we will find that we enjoy it, but because we know that when we suffer because of Jesus, God is at work in our suffering.
God is at work testing our faith. Flip back over to 1 Peter 4:13. This testing isn’t some kind of exam. It’s the kind of test that shows something to be real, authentic, genuine. God tests our faith not because HE believes that our faith will falter, or because he doesn’t know how strong our faith is, but because we need to know. Our faith is shown to be authentic, genuine, not when life is easy but when life is hard. St. James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). Steadfastness, the ability to hold on, hang in there, comes because we experience the faithfulness of God in the midst of our suffering. Peter Marshall said, “It is a fact of Christian experience that life is a series of troughs and peaks. In his efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, God relies on the troughs more than the peaks. And some of his special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.
The second thing that happens when we suffer for Christ is that we identify more closely with Christ. Peter says we share in Christ’s sufferings. It’s one way we imitate Christ, and it creates a special bond with Christ.
In the earliest days of the church, the word Christian was actually a derogatory term. It was a term the culture at large used as a way of shaming and showing spite for those who followed Jesus. Look at V. 16. Peter takes a word intended by culture as a title of shame and tells his readers to be proud of the name. Take the sneers and the attempted shame, and wear it as a badge of honor.
And why do we do that? Look at Vv. 17-19. In a word … hope. God’s final victory will far outweigh any present trouble we face because we follow Jesus. Our souls are entrusted to our faithful Creator, our good, good, Father. Nothing we face in this life can change that. And his victory is secure. Nothing we face in this life can change it. Yes, we will face trouble in this life. But that trouble will, from the perspective of eternity, pale in comparison to the glory of God’s final victory over sin and death and the future he has planned for those who trust him. THAT is why Peter, in V. 13, says that we will “rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
Margaret Sangster Phippen wrote that in the mid 1950s her father, British minister W. E. Sangster, began to notice some uneasiness in his throat and a dragging in his leg. When he went to the doctor, he found that he had an incurable disease that caused progressive muscular atrophy. His muscles would gradually waste away, his voice would fail, his throat would soon become unable to swallow.
Sangster threw himself into his work in British home missions, figuring he could still write and he would have even more time for prayer. “Let me stay in the struggle Lord,” he pleaded. “I don’t mind if I can no longer be a general, but give me just a regiment to lead.” He wrote articles and books, and helped organize prayer cells throughout England. “I’m only in the kindergarten of suffering,” he told people who pitied him.
Gradually Sangster’s legs became useless. His voice went completely. But he could still hold a pen, shakily. On Easter morning, just a few weeks before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter. In it, he said, “It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’ – but it would be still more terrible to have a voice and not want to shout.”
Yes, the Bible, like a football helmet, comes with a warning label. We WILL face trouble as we follow Jesus, because we follow Jesus. But we can hold on in hope, hanging in there when it gets tough, knowing that God’s victory in our lives and in this world, is secure. That WE are secure. Let us pray.