How Should We View and Handle Suffering?
Text: 1 Peter 4:1-11
Audio: Suffering Well
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
We are continuing in our series of sermons on the First Letter of Peter in the New Testament. Turn with me today to 1 Peter 4:1-11.
We have seen since the beginning of this series, that one of the primary themes of this letter is suffering. But the other primary theme is hope.
And we have seen that all through the letter, Peter keeps pointing to Jesus’ death and resurrection as the reason we can find hope in the midst of our suffering. If God can take the whippings and beatings and suffering and crucifixion of Jesus and transform it into the greatest redeeming sacrifice of all time, then what is there that any of us might go through in this life that God can’t redeem for His glory and for our good?
So today we come on chapter 4, as Peter is encouraging his readers then and now, to arm ourselves with that attitude so that when sufferings come our way, we can suffer them well, with hope.
Listen to 1 Peter 4:1-11.
4 Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. 2 As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. 3 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. 5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. 7 The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
So who wants to come to church on a Sunday morning and hear a message about suffering, right? But maybe, in fact, it’s exactly what we need to come on a Sunday morning and hear. Because suffering is real life. And suffering comes to all of us. And it comes in a whole variety of forms
Suffering can come in the shape of a COVID 19 virus, and put us in the hospital on a ventilator struggling for breath. For the doctors and nurses taking care of us it can come in the form of stress, long hours, discouragement, anxiety and sheer overwhelm.
Suffering can come to us undeservedly in the form of unfair treatment, persecution, injustice, rejection or hostility from other people. It can also come as a result of our own errors, sins, selfishness or stupidity. I mean, admit it, some of the messes we end up suffering the consequences of, are of our own making. We got ourselves into the mess.
Some of our sufferings are bodily pains, and some of our sufferings are pains of inner anguish, alienation from others, anxiety, fear, hurt, shame, guilt or insecurity.
In fact, one writer said that suffering at its most basic level is simply not getting our own way. We suffer whenever we don’t get what we want. When the world doesn’t operate the way we think it should. When people around us don’t do what we think they should. When God Himself doesn’t do for us what we think He should.
None of us like saying to God or anyone else, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” And all of us suffer in various ways when “our will” is not what is done.
So suffering is pretty much the human experience. And Jesus is pretty clear that suffering is going to be the Christian’s experience, too, because of their faith. And the question is, when suffering comes to me, will I suffer well? Will you suffer well? What does it even mean to suffer well? and with hope?
As we have seen over the past weeks, Peter is writing to Christians all over the Roman Empire who are suffering in all kinds of ways because of their faith. They feel like strangers and foreigners and exiles in their world and in their culture and in their families, because their faith in Christ has begun changing their values and priorities and outlook on life and death and everything, and they no longer fit in.
Peter writes here in chapter 4:3, that in the past they used to carouse with their friends, worship idols with their neighbors, join in the city festivals and get drunk, and indulge their lusts. But now they aren’t doing that anymore, and their neighbors think they are strange and heap abuse on them.
In fact, in verse 6, Peter says that some Christians they all know have been killed for their faith. Just like with Jesus, the Roman world pronounced judgment on them by killing their bodies. But he goes on to say that in regard to the Spirit and according to the judgment of God, they still live.
That’s the reality and the hope Peter keeps bringing us back to: if we are in Christ, even if we die, yet shall we live. Because in the end it is the judgment of God that ultimately matters the most, not the judgments of the world.
However, short of dying and going home to be with the Lord, there is the reality of the suffering we must face in this world, and again, the question is how to suffer well.
And in this section of Peter’s letter, there are a few pointers he shares with us that can help us.
1. He begins chapter 4 by pointing us again to Jesus: “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves with “the same attitude” or “the same way of thinking.”
That’s a remarkable statement. First, that Christ suffered in his body. It’s a statement of the incarnation. That God, in Christ, actually took on human flesh, a human body, and lived among us as one of us, and suffered in that body just like we do. And in that body he suffered all the kinds of suffering we humans suffer: physical pains, mental anguish, relational rejection, not being understood, not being accepted or believed, instead betrayed, treated unfairly, often hungry, nowhere to lay his head. And at the end, he suffers in his body on a cross slowly dying. But Jesus’ entire life, death and resurrection give witness to the fact that God was with him. God was actually IN HIM making Himself known to the world as a God who suffers alongside of us.
Christ’s suffering in his body is the ultimate signpost for us that God is with us in our suffering. And it tells us with a megaphone: we can find God there. We can find God especially in our times of suffering. That’s when we need God most. That’s when we cry out to Him the most. That’s when all the other distractions are stripped away and we find God’s presence to be the “one thing needed.” And God is there with us, right there, in our suffering.
So arming ourselves with this attitude means actually approaching our suffering with an expectation of seeing God and experiencing His presence in a deeper way like Jesus did. Jesus’ ultimate suffering on the cross led to a resurrection to the right hand of God. Suffering and glory were somehow bound up together. And Peter says, “Trust in that yourselves. Let your sufferings in the body be opportunities to experience more of God’s presence, and see more of His goodness and glory than you would otherwise experience.
2. And how does that work? Peter says, “For one thing, those who suffer in their bodies are done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”
It’s not that our own bodily sufferings cause us to suddenly be sinless. But the experience of suffering often causes us to come to the end of our rope, to give up on ourselves, and our own attempts to be in control of our lives.
It forces us to admit our need, our weaknesses, our vulnerability. It causes us to let go of our idols, and cry out to the only God who can help.
A cancer diagnosis will rearrange our priorities in a big way, just like that. Living on the edge of life and death will make us reexamine what is really important to us. And it can purify us, Peter said in an earlier chapter, like a refining fire purifies gold.
All the dross gets burnt away. My friends, there are countless stories of people who say that after receiving their cancer diagnosis of impending death they actually started really living their lives.They lived with a new intensity, focus, appreciation for life and love and family and nature and time itself.
This is what I mean by learning to suffer well. We can find God in the midst of suffering, and we can rediscover our true selves in the midst of suffering, and we can experience more of love and grace and hope. And find a way to live whatever days we have left with a new kind of freedom and insight, and love.
3. This is the third pointer Peter gives us about suffering well. In v. 7 he says that because the end of all things is actually nearer to everyone of us than we tend to think, we need to be clear minded and self-controlled so that we can pray and love.
In the midst of suffering, and even with death at the door, be clear minded that loving God and loving others are still what this life in Christ is all about. Let your suffering draw you to prayer so you can have that attitude of Christ and see God and discover more of God in your suffering. And let your suffering open you up to loving others more and more, too.
And isn’t it true, that suffering can actually make us more compassionate about the sufferings of others. More sympathetic, more aware that we are not the only ones suffering. I remember when Mark Belanger was in Tufts New England Medical downtown battling his cancer, and getting his bone marrow treatment. He lost his hair, his appetite, his taste buds, his freedom. But you know what, grumpy old Mark Belanger became like a teddy bear. He treated the nursing staff so well because he was so grateful for all they were doing for him. He began caring about all the others on the floor who were going through just what he was going through. Once he was cleared to actually leave his sealed room and see other people, he would take his IV pole and go down the hall encouraging other patients. At Christmas he wore a Santa hat and made the rounds.
That’s what I mean by suffering well, and I believe it is what Peter is calling us to here. He is calling suffering Christians to continue to pursue loving God and loving others, even in their suffering.
He invites us to meet God in the midst of your suffering, because God is there to be found. He invites us to let the suffering transform us as we let go of distractions and sin and selfish priorities, and give ourselves anew to love, to compassion, to generosity and hospitality.
It’s a call to let people into our lives when we’re suffering, instead of shutting them out. He calls us to spend what time and energy we have to blessing others, using the gifts and personality God has given us.
These are all ways in which the experience of suffering can transform us, and in suffering we can suffer well.
But it’s not a given that this will happen, is it? In fact, there are many people whose experience of suffering has the opposite effect. They become hardened, bitter, angry, and depressed. They turn inward, and close up and shut people out. They resent the suffering, find God nowhere in it, and feel victimized at the unfairness of life, and the meanness of a God who would let bad things happen to them.
There are times when we all feel like that. And no one is immune from feelings like that at times. But we don’t want to live there. We don’t want to settle into those feelings and surrender to them.
We simply need to recognize such feelings for what they are, part of the suffering that comes to us in this life in the body. They are an integral part of the suffering.
But it’s then that, as Christians, we want to help each other grieve and suffer as people of hope.That’s what Peter is doing in his day by writing this letter.
Reminding us of the hope we have in Him who came to suffer and even die for us, but was raised from the dead and now is seated at the right hand of God. At the very beginning of this letter, he wrote that in Christ we have a sure and certain hope of the resurrection and of an eternal inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade, kept in heaven for us who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to revealed I the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
Let’s pursue having that same attitude in ourselves, my friends as we face together whatever sufferings may come our way today, and tomorrow, and in whatever time we have left on this earth.