Making sense of suffering

1 Peter 4:12-19

Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

Since mid-June I’ve been preaching about what the Bible says about suffering, so if there is a God who is loving, why does He allow such suffering?  Can we avoid suffering by being ultra-cautious?

Well, first of all suffering wasn’t part of God’s original plan.  The world was made by God and it was very good.  There was no suffering or death.  So, what happened?  Well, suffering results from what Christians call “the fall” – human beings deliberately deciding, when presented with a choice by God, to choose evil.

And the Bible explores the human experience of being caught up in suffering.  The Old Testament devotes an entire book (Exodus) to the experience of an enslaved people and their journey from slavery in Egypt to the challenges of being a nomadic people.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah writes of his people exiled and oppressed by a foreign power.  The generational oppression of invasion and foreign rule is expressed by the psalmist who laments “by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept” (Psalm 137).

There is a whole book of the Bible devoted to an exploration of grief and lament for a people ravaged by war, violence and death – it is called Lamentations.

So the Old Testament shows us that God allows suffering, that He allows bad things happen to good people as seen in the Book of Job.  This is a mysterious book that deals head-on with the question of suffering.  It shows us that God is in control of everything, including evil. In it, Job questions God, and says something along these lines to his accusers… “I am suffering.  I haven’t done anything really wrong.  Therefore God is unfair”

God eventually answers Job out of the storm, but He only gives him a partial answer. Because of Jesus today we can see the big picture behind God’s purposes while Job couldn’t.

I think that we are all “Job” – we are in the suffering story and often we struggle to see any rhyme or reason in it.  However, when we meet God face to face everything, I believe, will click into place.  But how do we live in the meantime?

Job senses his need of a person to help with his suffering, a friend, an advocate, and a mediator, someone to represent him, someone to help him, someone to get alongside him.

Now, finally, here comes the good news for all of us experiencing suffering. God didn’t leave us (as we deserve) to the consequences of our own sin and to deal with suffering on our own.  He intervened with a rescue mission to offer us a way out of suffering.  And that rescue mission involved God himself suffering.

The four Gospels show us how God in the form of His Son Jesus suffered.  This Son was born as a Jew into an occupied territory, the child of a refugee teenage mother, who goes on to be unjustly accused and tried by a powerful and corrupt system of collaborators and Roman oppressors.

So the pain of suffering and injustice is not ignored or swept over by the Bible.  It is a prominent concern in both Old and New Testaments, and a significant focus of the ministry of Jesus.

But as we heard in our reading from Peter we are told to rejoice because of our sufferings.  Let me say that again, so I can check myself even as I read it!  We are, Peter says, to rejoice because of our sufferings, (v.12-13). Why?  Because fiery trials are designed to test us by proving to ourselves and to others the genuineness of our faith.  As we endure, what we believe becomes more precious to us. So rejoice. 

Secondly, we are not to be ashamed of our sufferings.  Privately we are to rejoice because of them, publicly we are not to be ashamed of them.  Instead we are to consider ourselves blessed to suffer as a Christian because then the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us.

Peter says if you want to see someone upon whom the Spirit of glory actually rests, don’t look to their successes, look to their struggles and see how they are enabled to endure.  Your endurance is evidence that God is at work; He is near, even resting upon you.

Finally, Peter says we are not simply to rejoice and consider ourselves blessed because of our suffering. Instead it ought to make us fearfully entrust our own souls to God in the midst of it. This is completely in keeping with Peter’s theology of grace.  We are unconditionally loved but this should never lead us to presume on the lover.  Verses 17-18 are ultimately intended to point out the end of all those who oppose God and his people; they shall not be saved, no matter how strong they look today.

You see God is the faithful Creator who cares for all who take refuge in Him, but He is also the undeniable, unassailable judge, and here Peter says His judgement has already begun.  What? Where? Where are we to see God’s judgment today?  Peter says among those who profess His name.  It is in God’s household.  But why?  Why is God seated in judgement over the church?  Well, His judgement is seen on the sufferers who turn away from Him.  Those who do this are exposed as having shallow roots.  This is why suffering is to take on a refining edge, to cause all who call upon God out of a pure heart to entrust themselves more and more to him.  Suffering acts like a great wedge that is driven into the church, sometimes with small taps, at other times with great heavy blows, separating the true from the false believer.  “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (v.19).

Peter’s uncommon strategies for enduring suffering are of course only echoes of how Jesus Himself endured when He suffered on the cross for us. Not only are we to live by Him, but we are also to live increasingly like Him. Revelation 21 clearly describes our reward for doing this:

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.  And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:4,5)

In some ways this reminds me of our oldest daughter Rachel.  She was ultra-cautious.  But one day as a small child she fell off her tricycle.  As her father I ran to her, as I could see that it was going to happen, and I sat her on my knee, took care of the wound, and with a tissue wiped away her tears.  She was comforted and soon stopped crying and got back on her tricycle.

Isn’t this an amazing, and indeed staggering, image that we find right at the very end of the Bible.  God himself will ‘sit us on his knee’ and wipe away all our tears and pain.  All suffering and pain and even, I suggest, the memory of suffering, will be removed.  Everything that’s gone wrong will be made right, for evil itself has been defeated and destroyed!

How? Through Jesus’s death on the cross.

Why?  Because He loves us

What should our response to this be? Trust in the suffering servant – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

Based on a sermon first delivered on Sunday 30th August 2020