making Sense of Suffering as a Christian

In the light of the recent persecutions of Christian in Orissa and other parts of India, there is a desperate need to rediscover a proper perspective on suffering. 1 Peter is a ‘pastoral’ letter originally written to believers in Asia Minor. It offered them meaning and clarified the worth of undergoing pain in ‘unconventional’ ways and showed some benefits in a Christlike response. Peter’s teaching can be an encouragement, comfort and challenge to Indian Christian today who are also suffering ‘for the name of Christ’ or ‘as a Christian’. Peter’s contribution to the Christian’s experience of suffering unjustly is significant in so far as he unmistakably links it to the concept of glory. Importantly, he reveals how God’s grace (charis) transforms suffering into something purposeful and honourable (4:14,16).

Five key passages, one from each chapter, clearly refer to some form of suffering and persecution (1:6-7: 2:18-25, 3:13-17; 4:12-19: 5:9). Due to constraint in space, I will limit my discussions to the theme of suffering in chapters 1-2. Notice how Christ had to suffer before he entered into his glory (1:11; 4:13; 5:1). This sequence, I will demonstrate, not only accomplished salvation for believers but also established the pattern and guide for a Christian response to unjust suffering – the badge of authentic discipleship (2:21, 24).

1. Foundational facts about suffering and the Christian:

Four descriptive phrases in 1:6 make concrete Peter’s view of ‘Christian’ suffering with respect to its reality, variety, brevity and necessity. These four notes trigger various issues and serve to re-evaluate questionable teachings on suffering in certain forms of liberation theology and prosperity theologies. First, sufferings or trials of faith were a present reality and no mere contingency for these Asian Christians. ‘You have had to suffer’ plainly suggests to a degree it had begun and was no ideology or illusion (maya). Peter’s second note is on variety or the ‘various ordeals’ Christians were undergoing. His view of Christian suffering is broad as he describes workers who were probably physically ill treated by their masters (2:18-25) or persecuted by civil authorities (3:13-17: 4:1-6).

Peter’s first explicit reference ‘to suffer’ (lupeo) shows a contrast in the feelings of those who greatly rejoice. Grudem notes, this pain ‘always refers to the emotions of grief, not to the suffering which produces grief (Mt 14:9; 1Thess 4:13) making the circumstances leading to such grief very general’. The stress is not on ‘how’ pain comes but ‘what’ it produces for Christians. The word ‘various’ builds on the diversity and complexity of the Christian’s experience of suffering. James (1:2) uses similar wording to capture the idea that trials come to Christians in different forms ‘like different temperature settings in God’s furnace’. It is intriguing that the only other place Peter uses this same word is to describe the ‘diversified’ grace that God gives Christians for service in their suffering situation (4:10). Although trials are variegated, God’s grace still proves sufficient for the Christian to cope with the different manifestations of suffering (2Cor. 12:9).

Third, Peter indicates their grief is ‘for a little while’ (Psa. 30:5). He wants them to look beyond their trials to a time when all sufferings will be removed (1:5,7,13; Rev. 21:4). Yet, since he envisions a ‘fiery trial’ (4:12) the reference to brevity goes beyond time to show its extent as insignificant and transitory compared to the ‘eternal glory’ (5:10). The point is: sufferings don’t last; the Christian does. Fourth, there is a necessity for suffering, only since God allows it. These ‘scattered strangers’ suffered according to divine plan (1:1,2). This raises the question: ‘must’ all Christians suffer? Is suffering ‘God’s will’?

The phrase ‘since it is necessary’ recalls Jesus’ warning that ‘certain things must take place but the end is not yet’ (Mk. 8:31) that Peter sees in Christ’s return, both imminent and certain (4:7). Besides, Jesus considered his own sufferings a ‘must’, which Peter restates as ‘destined’ (God’s will) for Christ (1:11) and makes the example for His followers (2:21-25). Suffering, as David Hill underlines, is the Christian’s ‘commitment to Christ’s way… part of the paraenetic tradition of the primitive Church, an element in the apostolic teaching from the earliest days… inevitable for Christians (1Thess 2:14; 3:2; Heb l0:32). 1 Peter features suffering as something according to God’s will (4:19).

2. Suffering in the light of the Christian’s salvation:

In 1:1-12, Peter sets forth the grand hope in Christian salvation. These believers chiefly suffered (typically the verb pascho is used) because they sought to follow Christ. This gave their faith a distinct identity. Though socially disinherited, they were chosen and protected by God who one day will vindicate them. Till then they had divine resources to endure and fulfil his purposes. The paradoxical expression of ‘glorious joy’ amidst and despite suffering is a ‘prelude to a glorious recompense which will follow at the last’.

The concept of ‘glory’ is a manifestation of divine splendour evident specifically when one suffered like Christ, which implies being ‘on the victory side’. Christ’s triumphant resurrection that followed his suffering, assures them of their own coming vindication. Awaiting Christ’s revelation to share in his glory gives their present suffering dignity. Unlike John (Rev. 1:4-20,21,22) Peter does not describe Christ’s unveiling though he glimpsed it at the transfiguration. It is ‘now’ unseen since he ‘looks to the revealing of Christ as the solution to the aggravations and tensions facing the Christians in the Roman Empire’. This ‘unimagined’ future glory is the object of hope and reason for endurance.

Peter’s theodicy, as he seeks to reconcile the existence of evil with God’s providential rule can aid the church facing trials. He teaches that God’s purposes at work through their suffering will be known yet fully only at Christ’s coming (1:5-9: 4:7; 5:10). Thus he reassures them that ‘both their salvation and status are secure… they are not at the mercy of feckless chance or historical accidents’. There is herein a necessary element of ‘mystery’ Carson considers as ‘the closest approach to theodicy [that] attacks man’s arrogance, defines the limits of his knowledge, and makes the ‘solution’ one of faith.

Peter wants his readers to be assured that through suffering faith is refined, God glorified and they will be vindicated at Christ’s appearing (1:7,9,13). He encourages them not to allow suffering to weaken faith but accept it as God’s providence (3:17; 4:16). He simply says: ‘God knows what is best, trust him and submit to his will – suffering’. Such submissive faith has benefits and brings ‘blessings’. When ministering to the afflicted one must recognise mysteries remain that are not going to be answered at the theoretical and intellectual level. The key question is, will there also be faith? 

Peter does not theologise in the abstract form, he seeks to give these socially excluded Christians a new identity in the family of God. He does not demythologise their suffering since it is their social fate caused by their spiritual stance (faith). He reminds them that God’s electing work has placed them as significant people in new group of caring people – the Church. As McKnight puts it: ‘While socially strange and foreign in Asia Minor, excluded, powerless and homeless in the Roman Empire, in God’s family they are citizens, included, royalty (2:9-10), and they are at home as God’s people.

Suffering can lead to depression causing a person to doubt God’s care and control. Peter’s message, though not primarily a mandate to work for the socio-politically deprived or disenfranchised groups (i.e. Dalits or refugees), is a model to comfort Christians in similar situations. The task is to imbibe in believers that commitment to Christ can involve suffering and does not make believers automatically ‘healthy and wealthy’. On the contrary, it often puts believers at odds with society and invites persecution. Yet as ‘significant members’ in God’s family (a spiritual house) these ‘homeless’ can glorify God and with the whole church learn, witness, and grow in God’s grace (4:7-11).

3. Suffering injustice in a Christlike way:

In 2:18-25, the nature of Christian suffering is clarified and defined in reference to Christ’s sufferings. The key adjective is ‘undeserved’ ‘unfair’ or ‘unjust’ (v.19) and the challenge is to learn to submit (v. 13,18). Peter underlines the value of endurance and teaches the principle of non-retaliation (v. 19,20,23). The remarkable proposition is to declare suffering as grace (charis, a creditable thing, v.20). Submissive suffering pleases God and finds his favour. Peter also speaks of suffering in relation to the Christian’s call (v.21). The concept of glory, better expressed as ‘renown’ is emphasized in relation to the way society accredits things (v.20). The suffering-glory motif in Christ’s life and mission (1:11,12) is developed and applied to His followers. The challenge for discipleship is to imitate Christ in suffering and therein lies the clarinet call for servant-leadership.

Peter address to Christian servants (v.18-20) falls under the larger framework (2:13-3:7) identified as ‘household duty code’. He insists: ‘accept the authority of your masters with all deference’ (v.18) without discussing the faith of the master or the rights of slaves from a legal point of view. He constructs a ‘case of injustice’ on the basis of how masters normally treated slaves. The situation in focus is where the Christian worker suffers after having done his best in what is required, and more so, what is right. The concern is the Christian slave’s response and the issue: is he going to ‘do wrong’ or keep ‘doing right’ and also suffer for it’? Enduring pain while suffering unjustly is considered ‘creditable’ grace with ‘God’s approval’ and ironically such suffering bears ‘renown’ or glory.

Peter’s exhortation to submit does not come across easily and it is helpful to first clarify that submission is not synonymous with blindly following orders that call Christians into paths that violate God’s direct commands in Scripture (Acts 4:19; 5:29). These rulers or masters in the Roman state obviously did not speak or act on God’s behalf when punishing Christians for their withdrawal from idolatrous cults. What then is Peter’s view on the sufferings caused by non-Christian Government authorities?

Peter writing from Rome, like Paul his letter to the Roman church (Rom. 13:1-4), asks Christians to ‘submit’ to imperial authority. However, Peter unlike Paul, does not see the government (‘emperor’ and the ‘magistrates’ sent by him, 2:13,14), as ‘instituted by God’ or ‘God’s servant for your good’. Peter rather views government powers as representing the pagan society, and the suffering Christians are called ‘servants/slaves of God’ (2:16). At the same time, Peter does not quite see the State as the Christian’s enemy. He certainly does not consider it like John does: ‘a horrible beast’ persecuting God’s people (Rev. 13:1-7). He is optimistic about the justice of the governing powers and expects the Christian sufferer to able to influence them for good (v. 12,15). So, Peter instructs suffering Christians to ‘respect’ and ‘honour’ authority ‘for the Lord’s sake’ (v.1.3).

Christian suffering is (charis) commendable as long as the believer has ‘a conscious awareness of God’s presence and will’. Because of such a faith or conscious, God approves by enabling (grace at work) the Christian to endure the pain of unjust suffering and thus fulfil his will. So, then Peter is not hesitant to share with his readers how God intends sufferings to be a ‘means of grace’. His reference to this ‘call’ often implies an ethical response such as, holy conduct (1:15), non-retaliation (2:21), and the rendering of positive blessings (3:9). Thus, the manner in which one suffers indicates the ‘Christian’ nature of this call. It is crucial to note, in Peter’s view, suffering for the sake of suffering is not a Christian virtue. If Christians do not suffer like Christ, theirs is not according to God’s will. So, the pertinent question arises – how did Christ respond to unjust suffering?

4. Suffering as following in Christ’s steps:

Having taught his readers the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of suffering, Peter now presents the ‘perfect model’ to show clearly ‘how’ Christians must suffer (2:21-25). There are two aspects to Christ’s sufferings: His exemplary suffering (v.22-23) and his redemptive sufferings (v.24-25). Peter explains how the former had purpose, value and results that are depicted in the latter. Christ ‘himself bore our sins in his body on the cross’ (v.24). This suffering is incomparable as it was Christ’s unique and supreme sacrifice for sin.

Yet, three salient features under gird a Christological model for suffering: innocence, persistence and confidence. Christ’s sufferings (v.22-25) reflect phrases of Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Messiah (53:4-12). ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’. Put differently, Christ was blameless in word and deed. Then the sufferings inflicted on him that he bore were totally undeserving and ‘unjust’. Herein is that mark of grace/credit (v. 19). Where Peter could say Christ was perfect, he rather stresses Christ’s innocence since his aim is to relate Christ’s sufferings to the Christian’s to inspire and teach the God approved response to injustice. As Hillyer states:

A Christ on a moral pedestal, far out of reach of imperfect ordinary mortals, can be no encouragement to those facing everyday provocation and persecution for their faith. But a Christ who despite his sheer, unquestioned goodness, has himself suffered, is a true sympathiser, standing along side lesser characters.

Two other phrases indelibly inscribe the principle of non-retaliation in Christlike suffering: ‘He did not return abuse, he did not threaten’ (v. 23). Christ’s patient endurance of injustice did not in any way make him bitter or vengeful. His non-threatening attitude during his trial is brought into focus at this point (Mk 15, Isa 53:6,7). Christ taught his followers not to counter-abuse but to bless and pray for those who mistreated them (Lk 6:28). Peter draws attention to and continues to emphasize such a response (3:9). Yet Peter does not present a ‘Stoic Christ’ detached from emotions, but the Christ who consciously endured pain and ‘entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly’ (v. 23). His example goes beyond non-retaliation to positive action in handing over all affairs ‘himself’, ‘his cause’’ or even ‘his enemies’. Christ confidence is expressed in leaving matters in God’s hands rather than justifying his own cause.

So then, as Hiebert notes, ‘it is precisely here that suffering believers can truly walk in his steps. As failing mortals they cannot place their feet in his sinless footprints, but by his grace they can resolutely determine to follow His example of unreservedly committing themselves to God in all circumstances. These qualities in Christlike suffering, Peter describes as a form of ‘grace’ that ‘glorifies God’, teach Christians how unjust suffering is actually the fruit of true discipleship. Christ has left this ‘example’ Peter asserts so that you should ‘follow in his steps’. Barclay points out the implication:

If we have to suffer insult and injustice and injury we have only to go through what he has already gone through… That suffering for Jesus was for the sake of man’s sin: he suffered in order to bring men back to God, may be that when the Christian suffers insult and injury with uncomplaining steadfastness and unfailing love, he shows such a life to others as will lead them to God.

‘Following’ Christ in submissive sufferings is the hallmark of authentic faith. For Peter, who according to tradition was crucified upside down, ‘believing in Christ’ goes hand in hand with ‘following Christ’ in the path of unjust suffering and even death. Christ suffering is the incentive and reason for Christian life and witness, which Peter applies to several sociological contexts (2:11-4:11). Peter as much as any other disciple wrestled with the cost of following Christ. Beyond deducing from Christ’s suffering the need for Christian suffering, conversely, Jesus’ suffering is mysteriously actualised in a situation of suffering for the community. It is related to a concrete experience of reality and in its own way is set forth as exemplary. Christ’s sufferings have become both the standing inspiration and more so the compelling reason for true Christian discipleship.

Conclusion 

In pastoral ministry, this principle ‘to submit and suffer as Christ did’ has implications with regard to hostile governments, at the workplace, in marriage relationships and even in the church. To expect them is to rob them of part of their power; to endure them with grace and fortitude is nothing other that following the example of Jesus’. Stowell proposes as a ‘fourfold pattern: (1) surrendering to an agenda beyond ourselves (2) sacrificing whatever is necessary to accomplish it (3) suffering if necessary to get the job done and (4) being servants to our loving Father and to those Christ came to save.

‘Only Christ’s perspective can replace your resentment with rejoicing. Jesus is the central piece of sufferings puzzle. If you fit Him into place, the rest of the puzzle – no matter how dark and enigmatic – begins to make sense’. When Christians suffer in a Christlike manner, Peter sees in it their true identity – Christians belong to Christ and endure only by God’s grace. There is a dignity to their pain in that it merits God’s favour and associates the sufferer with the resurrected Christ whose victories and glories they will soon share. Further, there is a necessary mystery to suffering that causes them to exercise faith in the One who judges justly. In all this, the results are clear and undeniable – they are witnesses to Christ’s saving power and the experience of his shepherding care for them amidst unjust sufferings. With this view, Christians are better able to understand the role of unjust suffering, appreciate its blessings and apply its benefits for God’s glory.

 

 

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