First Peter has some essential insights on suffering for the 21st century church.
Shaped by Suffering
By Kenneth Boa with Jenny Abel
If the book of 1 Peter has a thesis, verse 10 of chapter five is it: “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
Besides encapsulating the hope of our salvation and the surety of future glory, this verse communicates two key truths about suffering. First, suffering is a given for every believer; it’s a required course in the university of life. Notice Peter does not say “if you suffer,” but “after you have suffered.” Jesus communicated this reality in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble.” Paul, too, reiterates the inevitability of believers’ suffering in his second letter to Timothy: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Pain and adversity are not optional—they will come.
The idea that our sufferings will decrease when we place our faith in Jesus is a false gospel. The philosophy that Jesus just wants us to be happy, healthy, safe and materially blessed is a far cry from the picture Jesus presented for his disciples about what to expect when we follow him:
“Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. … They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. … [T]hey have seen [my miraculous works], and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’
“They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them.”
— John 15:20–21, 24–25; 16:2–4
Too many of us have failed to remember Jesus’ warnings, favoring more palatable verses instead—often taken out of context (for example, his promise of peace [John 14:27], of rest [Matt. 11:28–30] and of comfort [Matt. 5:4]). Without the full counsel of Scripture, a prosperity gospel can easily take root—and it has. Today, that gospel is preached in both blatant and subtle forms from many pulpits. This is one reason we believe 1 Peter is so pertinent to us in the 21st century: It provides a godly perspective on suffering so desperately missing in churches today.
While the first critical truth is that suffering is guaranteed, the second is that it is brief. It only lasts for “a little while,” comparatively, as 1 Peter 5:10 says. In relation to eternity, even our worst and longest-lasting pain on earth—regardless of how unending it feels—is a mere blip on the time line of history (in reality, it’s not even a blip). Peter emphasizes this truth in another verse as well: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).
These two truths—the inevitability of suffering and the relative brevity of suffering compared to eternity—undergird Peter’s message. And the crux of 1 Peter’s message is this: Our own sufferings allow us to share in the sufferings of our Savior—tasting just a little of what he tasted during his time on earth and ultimately on the cross. Not only is Jesus our ultimate example for how to suffer righteously, but he himself was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10). God used his sufferings for a greater purpose, as he will use ours. If the One we’re called to follow and imitate suffered, then surely we are not exempt, nor should we be surprised when troubles come our way.
A WITNESS TO CHRIST’S SUFFERING
God doesn’t abandon us in our suffering. Moreover, he doesn’t look at our suffering from afar but as one who also suffered. He understands. He sympathizes. He walks with us in our adversities. And as he does, he will (if we let him) transform us into someone more beautiful than if everything went our way.
Jesus as our exemplar and fellow sufferer is a major motif throughout 1 Peter. As we continually return to this theme, keep in mind that Peter did not speak of Jesus’ sufferings from secondhand knowledge. Unlike Paul, who never met Jesus prior to the resurrection, Peter wrote from the perspective of being one of Jesus’ closest friends on earth—someone who watched Jesus’ ministry and sufferings unfold, and who saw him up close immediately prior to (if not at) his death. Here was a man who understood what it feels like when God’s timeline isn’t ours, the agony of waiting and the crushing disappointment when all hope appears lost.
Moreover, Peter wrote from the context of intensifying persecution of Jesus’ followers in an increasingly pagan world not unlike ours today. The rejoicing and praising he encouraged in the midst of difficulties (see 1 Peter 1:3, 6) didn’t come from an untested or ignorant heart. He knew deep pain personally; indeed, many of his original readers knew it—and had been forced to flee their homes as a result of persecution. But Peter clung to the promise that the story of our lives as believers really will end well. The day will come when our God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes,” and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
Until God makes everything new, he calls us to fix our eyes on the One who both suffered and who conquered suffering once and for all.
Excerpted from Shaped By Suffering by Kenneth Boa with Jenny Abel. Copyright (c) 2020 by Kenneth D. Boa Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com