Participating in Suffering
by Mark Dever
The bell rang, and as I left the classroom a young man in the class pulled me over to ask me to pray for his grandmother who was very sick in the hospital. Though shocked, I happily complied. Minutes before, when the teacher had been out of the room, the young man had led the class in making fun of me for being a Christian. I was a fairly young Christian and didn’t enjoy the experience. You can imagine how that added to my surprise when he pulled me over and asked me to pray for his grandmother.
It was also a lesson in God’s kindness. My faith was young and weak, and, as if my Father knew I couldn’t bear much for His name, He directly encouraged me with this request. In my own small way, I was learning how to be faithful to Christ even if others apparently rejected me.
I suppose you’ve met hard times too. We find them in the strangest places — like our churches, and even our homes. Many of us will be at denominational conventions this month. Many will also be celebrating wedding anniversaries (June is, after all, the month for getting married!). Even during these blessed times, some are called to suffer for their faithfulness in following Christ.
Peter wrote to some young Christians scattered around what is today the western part of Turkey. They were surprised that they were suffering for being Christians. They thought it was strange that their religion — which one would think should help — would actually end up hurting them, at least with some of their family and friends.
We don’t know of any official persecution going on at the time. But they were still suffering in less organized ways. It seems from 4:14 that Peter perhaps knew that they were being “reviled for the name of Christ.” And their revilers were succeeding in making them feel ashamed!
Obeying God was bringing these young Christians into suffering and this disoriented and discouraged them. But Peter said that it shouldn’t have that effect on them. They needed to ask themselves very carefully why they were suffering, and then consider how a Christian should suffer. That’s how they could reconsider their hard times and understand them more as God wanted them to.
First they had to ask themselves why they were suffering. Much suffering comes to us in this life because of things we do wrong. Murderers and thieves are chased, arrested, and sentenced. Those who meddle in other people’s business can have strained relationships and embittered hearts. However, this isn’t the suffering that Peter is writing about here. The suffering he addresses is the suffering we experience because we are Christians. They were not to suffer for doing wrong, but only for doing right, like Christ Himself did. What could it mean for them — or us — to think that we are following Christ, and refuse to go with Him to suffering, and even to the cross? Peter, no doubt, remembered Jesus’ words to him after he had first confessed Jesus as the Messiah: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
It seems that the first Christians were told this again and again. And perhaps we need to hear more of this ourselves. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth about how “the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance” (2 Cor. 1:5). Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi about his own desire to know this participation in Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10). These early Christians knew that they were called to share with Christ, to participate with Him. Just as He had shared in their humanity (Heb. 2:14), so they were to share in His sufferings.
Peter also wrote to these Christians about how they should suffer. And the answer is simple, at least to say. We’re to suffer not with surprise and shame, but with rejoicing and praise just like Christ accepted His suffering. This may take a little getting used to, but I know that those of us who have had little babies know that we can have joy during the hassles and trial of sleepless nights, if it is part of that child’s teeth coming in. If we know that our sufferings are part of something good, we’re helped to endure them. We believe that the trials we undergo for being Christians are part of what Peter refers to here in 4:13 as sharing in the sufferings of Christ. That’s why we can rejoice in them. They are actually evidence that we are united with Christ. How amazing! These young Christians were scared that the insults and trials they were experiening meant they had done something wrong — Peter tells them that they were evidence that they were doing something right!
So, there is suffering for the Christian. But after the suffering comes the glory. Christ has become more than a model for His people, and more than even a substitute for us, though He is both of those. He has united us to Himself, filling us with His own Spirit, conforming us increasingly to His own image, bringing us finally to His own home.
Suffering, then glory. This is Peter’s theme about Christ, and about the lives of all of us who would follow Him. One day, as Peter says here, the glory will be revealed. It is in that light — the light that this glorious hope casts back into our present darkness — that we live if we’re Christians.