God's Plan for Painful Suffering

1 Peter 4:12-19

Influencers like Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Jesse DuPlantis, Joyce Meyer, Joel and Victoria Osteen, and Paula White (just to name a few) teach a false “health, wealth, and prosperity” gospel. They are the kind of false teachers that 2 Pet 2:3 describes.

By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.

Now, while God certainly does bless many believers today, material blessings in this life are not the goal of following Christ and neither are they guaranteed or a litmus test of genuine faith and God’s favor. Consider what Christ himself taught his followers in Mark 10:29-31:

Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Can you see what I see? When we let go of this world’s material and relationship blessings to follow Christ, we will receive all such things in return – perhaps in this life but certainly in the life which is to come. Notice, though, how Christ balances this truth with the equal promise of persecutions in this life, too. Health and wealth influencers don’t talk about this detail.

What’s more, Christ indicates that those who receive more material blessing in this life – even as believers – may end up receiving less in his eternal kingdom, behind those who received less in this life. So, a key for those believers in this life who receive more material blessing than others as they follow Christ is to devote themselves to investing their material blessings back into the kingdom of God one way or another.

Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)

Sadly, many believers (esp. in America) make the pursuit of a pain-free, materialistic lifestyle their primary responsibility, doing very little and therefore suffering very little for following Christ – and that is the topic we will be looking closely at today. As we follow Christ, we should anticipate that painful suffering will come our way. For as 2 Tim 3:12 tells us:

Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.

Knowing this, how should we think, feel, and behave towards painful suffering when it comes into our lives?

Don’t let painful suffering surprise you.

Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you;

Though Peter is about to say things that are hard to receive, he prefaces what he is about to say with a gentle word. “Beloved” is a gentle greeting that expresses both affection and empathy. It conveys both “I have feelings for you” and “I understand what you are feeling.” In this way, Peter does not offer difficult counsel in a calloused or insensitive manner. He does not give instruction like a raving football coach or a heartless machine, but like an attentive and considerate nurse – with the very compassion and gentleness of Christ.

After prefacing his instruction with a gentle greeting, he gives some difficult advice.

The focus of this advice is “the fiery trial.” This language describes “severe burning” or “a burning ordeal.” It refers to those kind of experiences which bring severe pain into our lives, whether that pain is physical, emotional, mental or all of these combined.

The goal of this advice is to correct a wrong response to “the fiery trial.” When intense suffering comes into our lives as we follow Christ, we naturally act surprised. First, we act surprised from a basic, daily life standpoint because – like a reckless driver speeding through a red light or a sucker punch from behind – “we didn’t see it coming.”

Second, we act surprised for another reason – a theological one. We ask, “If God is so good, why would he let me suffer like this?” or, “Why do bad things happen to good people [like me]?” Peter will answer this theological question shortly, at least in part.

But the key detail here is diagnosing our fundamental feeling of denial, disbelief, and surprise – which is a wrong response. Why is it a wrong response? Because denial and disbelief prevent you from experiencing the great benefit that such suffering provides.

The purpose of this trial is to test you. Experiences of intense suffering have a God-ordained function of serving as a crucial and necessary experiment through which both God, yourself, and those around you – whether other believers or nonbelievers – are able to examine the genuineness of your faith in Christ. You may say you follow Christ as your God and Savior and that Christ has genuinely changed and is changing your life, yet only through the experience of intense suffering is the genuineness of our faith verified.

The proof is in the pudding!

Perhaps you’ve heard this English idiom, but what does this mean? It means that no matter who made the pudding or how good the pudding may look or smell, the only way to know whether it is good or not is to eat it.

Maxims like this one date as far back as the 1300s, when pudding was something very different from the cold, milky, smooth, and sweet dessert we eat with a spoon today. It was instead a mixture of cereal, minced meat, spices, and even sometimes blood, all stuffed into a sausage-like animal casing to be boiled or steamed. Since preservative techniques were primitive back then and food regulatory agencies didn’t exist, it was always possible that a meat dish – “pudding” – could sicken or even kill you. The only way to know whether it was a delicious delicacy or a deadly dish was to dig in.

Similarly, the only way to know with a high degree of certainty whether a person has a genuine faith in Christ is to observe their response to experiences of intense suffering. Since this is the case, we should learn to not only value but anticipate and expect intense suffering to knock at the door of our lives and move in.

Gladly welcome painful suffering into your life.

How would you respond if a stranger or unexpected guest rang your doorbell and walked into your home unannounced – eating your food, reclining in your chair, and taking over your bedroom and garage? You’d respond very differently than you would to someone you know and love well whom you have invited and prepared to welcome as a guest.

That’s what the word strange refers to – a stranger or an unexpected guest walking in and settling into your house. Yet, this is exactly how we feel when unplanned, painful suffering waltzes unannounced into our lives. Peter – as lovingly as he knows how – teaches us not to feel this way, giving us a better way to respond instead.

but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.

By saying, “but rejoice,” Peter tells us how to respond when experiences of painful suffering invite themselves into our lives unannounced. When this happens, we should not respond in denial or disbelief, but we should respond with a glad and welcoming heart. “Rejoice” means to be glad and envisions one person greeting another person by saying, “Welcome!” or, “Good day!” or, “I am glad to see you!”

Can you see why it was important for Peter to begin his instructions with “beloved?” This was important because these instructions that he is giving sound flippant and unserious. They sound as though Peter is being insensitive and making light of a serious situation.

To be clear, Peter is not necessarily encouraging us to response to painful suffering with a “happy go lucky” attitude. Instead, he is teaching us both to expect and welcome painful suffering into our lives whenever, whether it comes to visit or to stay. We should view it as an planned guest whom you have expected to come not as an unexpected stranger who is barging into your life.

Why should we anticipate painful suffering coming into our lives? Because if we are serious about following in the footsteps of Christ as our God and Savior, then we should fully expect that our footsteps will take us to the sufferings of the cross. We should be no more surprised by painful suffering than Christ was surprised by the sufferings of the cross. And we know that Christ was not surprised by the cross to even the slightest degree because that is why he came into this world in the first place – to suffer on our behalf.

When we endure painful suffering, we “partake” (or “fellowship” – or literally “share”) in the sufferings of Christ. Such suffering deepens our appreciation and awareness of Christ, draws us closer in intimacy and relationship to Christ, and demonstrates the authenticity and genuineness of our faith in and relationship with Christ.

There is another way that our painful sufferings bring us closer to Christ as well – they prepare us for even greater gladness and glory when Christ returns and brings us into the newly created heaven and Earth, the center of his everlasting kingdom, which his suffering has made possible and which will feature no more suffering of any kind forever. Those who suffer painfully for Christ today will enjoy his eternal kingdom more profoundly.

Though I feel as though I cannot fully explain what this deepened, heightened, and increased glory and exceptional gladness will be like for those who faithfully and gladly endured painful suffering for Christ in this life, I imagine that it will – in part – resemble the greater glory that athletes experience when they win a medal, trophy, or championship.

Though all their fans rejoice with them and enjoy the victory, those who actually practiced and competed know are rejoice and are rewarded even more greatly. While their fans wore their jerseys, ate hotdogs and popcorn, and sat in the stands or their own easy chair at home, they endured grueling, painful, and stressful press conferences, practices, losses, and competition day in and day out.

If you want to get the most out of eternity for following Christ today, then welcome painful suffering when it comes your way.

Special blessing comes to believers who suffer for good reasons.

If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part, He is glorified … Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.

Knowing that this is difficult advice to accept, Peter leans into it a little bit longer so that the truth and value of it may sink into your hearts, persuading to take it seriously rather than brush it aside as calloused, unfeeling, or unreasonable.

“If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you.” Reproach means to be blamed, censured, defamed, insulted, and mocked. If this is how people treat you for following Christ (which means for living as Jesus lived, being what Jesus taught us to be, believing what Jesus taught us to believe, and doing what Jesus taught us to do), then be very okay and at peace with that.

“Blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” “Blessed are you” means that you should be happy, not sad, because of God’s special favor directed towards you. In this way, suffering painfully for Christ is a mark of God’s favor not a mark of his displeasure. After all, nonbelievers are not treated this way.

“The Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” means that by being targeted for painful suffering by the world and receiving painful suffering for Christ, you are giving evidence that the Spirit of God – who is invisible – rests upon you, marking you out as one of God’s true and genuine children. So, if anyone endures painful suffering for being a Christian, they should not be ashamed or discouraged, but should praise God for allowing them to be treated as one of his children.

This blessing does not apply to believers who suffer for bad reasons.

But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.

Peter now qualifies what he has been saying. Not all suffering is a mark of God’s blessing and favor, for some suffering is nothing more than the consequences of our sinful choices and may, in some cases, be evidence that we are not a child of God at all. When we suffer for these reasons, we should not view our suffering as affirming our bad behavior.

“As a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters” – these four wrong behaviors are not the only wrong behaviors we should refuse to do as followers of Christ, but they seem to provide a fourfold spectrum of possible behaviors that followers of Christ should not do – and if they do them, they should not view the consequences as affirming their behavior in any way.

  • Murder describes any behavior which takes the life of another person. On the spectrum of possible wrong behaviors, this type of action may be the worst and is certainly criminal.
  • Stealing represents other behaviors which though they do not take the life of another person are a crime nonetheless.
  • Evildoing represents a third tier of wrong behaviors which though they may not be criminalized still violate the character and nature of God. Getting drunk, telling crude jokes, or treating another person disrespectfully may not be criminal activities, but they are ungodly nonetheless and result in their own painful consequences.
  • Being a busybody in other people’s matters represents a fourth category of behavior that also deserves its own share of painful consequences. This word means something like “meddling” or “watching over another person’s affairs.” This involves behavior like gossiping, tattling, offering unwanted advice, and behaving in other annoying and irritating ways.

Peter realized that most Christians will not be guilty of obvious sins like murder and stealing, and so he concluded by encouraging believers to even refrain from annoying others. If believers act like busybodies, they would be considered to be pests who deserve ostracism and mistreatment … Peter wanted believers to refrain from acting tactlessly and without social graces. (Thomas Schreiner)

Can you see how this fourfold categorical list limits the kind of painful suffering that Peter encourages us to welcome into our lives? We are not martyrs and receive no special blessing or favor from God – nor do we demonstrate the genuineness of our faith in Christ – when we suffer for committing capital crimes, other crimes, un-criminalized wrong behavior, or even for annoying and pesky behavior towards others. These are all bad but justifiable reasons to suffer, even painfully. But such suffering should cause grief, repentance, and sorrow, not gladness and rejoicing.

God rescues us through painful suffering not from it.

For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now “If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?”

With this additional explanation, Peter explains the importance of painful suffering for believers in the family and household of God, and his explanation centers around two key words – judgment and salvation.

Judgment refers to God’s divine means of bringing forward a firm and final verdict on every person’s spiritual condition, relationship with, and standing before God.

Salvation refers to God’s rescuing of genuine believers from the future and eternal consequences of their sins and preparing them to enter into his eternal kingdom. This salvation he provides through Christ alone and in total, forgiving all sins past, present, and future the moment a person believes on Christ as God and Savior. There is nothing more to earn – whether in this life or after this life in an imagined place such as purgatory. And such forgiveness and salvation may never be lost, relinquished, or reversed either.

This said, the remainder of our Christian journey of following Christ consists of taking our next steps in following Christ – not to become a Christian or to remain a Christian, but to become more like Christ, to become better prepared to meet Christ, and to demonstrate that we are genuine and real followers of Christ, not pretenders.

So, all painful suffering – the suffering that comes from bad, un-Christlike behavior and the suffering that comes from good, Christlike behavior, all plays out over time to reveal the genuineness of our faith in Christ.

Those who have merely professed to follow Christ but have not genuinely believed will be “weeded out,” so to speak, over time. Those who have genuinely believed will persevere to the end and become more like Christ along the way, in nature and behavior.

Such preparing, proving, and sorting is not possible without painful suffering, which is why we should welcome such whenever it comes and in whatever form it arrives.

“If the righteous one is scarcely saved” – what does this mean? First, this seems to be an adaptation of Prov 11:31, which says:

If the righteous will be recompensed on the earth, how much more the ungodly and the sinner.

Those who prove out over time to be nonbelievers and pretenders will then be judged by God even more painfully after death, when they are assigned to their own place in the Lake of Fire, which lasts forever.

Those who profess Christ are the first ones to be tested in God’s judging action, and it occurs during their lives and throughout history. (Karen Jobes)

In this case, scarcely (or rarely) is probably not the best possible translation, as this word most likely means – in this context – something like “with difficulty,” instead. Paul used it this way when he described a harrowing shipwreck in which he and the other passengers nearly drowned as a storm smashed their ship against the rocky coastline of an island.

When we had sailed slowly many days, and arrived with difficulty off Cnidus, the wind not permitting us to proceed, we sailed under the shelter of Crete off Salmone. Passing it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea. (Acts 27:7-8)

And running under the shelter of an island called Clauda, we secured the skiff with difficulty. (Acts 27:16)

The point here is that following Christ in genuine faith does not guarantee a comfortable, pleasant, and pain-free life, so we should accept that from the outset. Following Christ requires painful suffering of some kind or another along the way and will resemble a stormy, shipwrecked journey more than a pleasure cruise to be sure.

Believers should entrust themselves to God as they suffer.

Peter’s final statement here provides us with our application – the way that we should allow this teaching to change the way we think about painful suffering, how we feel about painful suffering, and how we respond to painful suffering when it comes.

Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.

If you are faithfully, graciously, and lovingly doing “the will of God” and painful suffering enters into your life along the way, you should not only welcome such suffering into your life as an expected guest or resident of your home, but you should “commit your soul to [God]” as you let that suffering in.

To “commit your soul” means to entrust the condition and outcome of your life into the care of God, who is both sovereign over all things and perfectly good, just, and loving. As Peter said, God is our “faithful Creator.” He made you. He has also made promises to you, to which he will be faithful.

For this reason, you can trust that though painful suffering has entered into your life and people are mistreating you badly, that (1) God will both bring about the best and proper outcome, (2) that whatever painful suffering you are experiencing is somehow necessary for the greatest possible good, and (3) most importantly – you will become more like Christ and closer to Christ as a result if you persevere in faith.

We should not view our trials as necessary evils, hindrances, or obstructions to despise or fear, but as opportunities we are privileged to experience. We should rejoice that we can suffer not resent it. Though cursed and insulted by others, we are blessed by God.

Believers should not view their suffering as some fiery, violent lava spewing out from a volcano, unleashing random, senseless pain, but rather as the concentrated, controlled fiery heat of a master metalworker. The following moment has been retold of a lady who watched a silversmith do his work:

As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse that says: ‘He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.’ (Malachi 3:3) She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, ‘How do you know when the silver is fully refined?’ He smiled at her and answered, ‘Oh, that’s easy — when I see my image in it.’

My beloved, though the suffering you have endured, are currently enduring, or will yet endure may bring what seems to be unbearable pain, whether that pain be physical, emotional, or mental or some other form, know this – that you can trust your faithful Creator to hold you there just as long as necessary and no more. Through your suffering, he is enabling you to follow more closely to Christ than any other way might provide, and he is proving out the genuineness and purity of your faith.

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