When Standing Means Suffering
What you suffer is less important than how you suffer. I realise that may be a bitter pill to swallow so let me clarify my meaning. What I’m not saying, is that your suffering is unimportant. I’m not saying that God does not care about your suffering. When I say, “What you suffer is less important than how you suffer”, I’m deliberately contrasting the difference between “what”, and “how”. The circumstances that cause your suffering are completely different to how you respond in your suffering.
If that is true, that what we suffer is a catalyst, and that how we suffer matters, what are some of the responses to suffering we need to guard against?
Three Responses To Suffering That Fail To Believe The Gospel
False Belief: This is where we begin to think false things about our suffering. “Because of my suffering, it must mean God has abandoned me.”
Retreating Faith: We no longer ‘Abide in the Vine’ as our trust in Jesus gradually decreases. We will have a decreasing interest in other people’s lives and problems, but an increasing interest in looking out for ourself.
Growing Bitterness: Resentment toward others who aren’t suffering, or resentment toward God.
Three Responses To Suffering Rooted In The Gospel
This is the antidote to bitterness in the face of suffering—that your identity is so absorbed in Jesus that you consider it a joy to be more like him, even if that means suffering like him.
Peter’s first letter reveals a gospel that informs our thinking, our actions, and our passions. 1 Peter 4 presents three key truths that form our gospel-centred response to gospel-provoked suffering. I use that term, ‘gospel-provoked suffering’ deliberately, because Peter isn’t dealing with every source of suffering; Peter specifically has in mind that type of suffering that springs either directly, or indirectly, from the fact that we claim our identity in Christ. As Peter acknowledges our suffering what truths will he point us to?
Get your head in the right place
Peter knows that the way we combat bitterness in the face of suffering begins in the mind. It’s not the only tactic we have, but it’s where it begins. As we think, so we act. If you believe falsely, you will make decisions falsely, you will take actions falsely, and your passions will be aroused on false foundations. So what does Peter centre our thinking on? What is the weapon of our mind loaded with? The gospel. Jesus stood in our place, bore our punishment, suffered our death.
Because Jesus suffered and died in our place, Peter says that we can arm ourself with this way of thinking, that our mind can be tuned to greater things than just the pain or loss of our suffering. Yet Peter isn’t talking about training our mind with some empty mantra, or overcoming negativity with positive thinking. That type of feel-good, superstitious faith might get good shares on Facebook, but it doesn’t cut it in the real world. What Peter is talking about is aligning our mind with Christ’s. He talking about thinking about suffering in the same terms that Jesus thought about suffering.
Get your hands in the right place
A retreating faith is where, instead of abiding in the vine, we detach and retreat. Problems and circumstances absorb our attention, and conversely, other people fade into insignificance. Peter counters that tendency. Contrary to our modern thinking about service which says, “Only do what you’re passionate about”, Peter says, “Think right, then do right.”
In the middle of 1 Peter 4, sandwiched between suffering, sits a passage centred on service. Peter hasn’t just randomly thrown something in to encourage people to put their name onto the church roster, Peter is concerned that we would stand in the midst of suffering, and one way that happens is when we get busy thinking about other people. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly…” Not some type of hypothetical love either, but tangible, practical, experienced love.
Get your heart in the right place
When our head and hands are in the right place, Peter then exhorts us to bend our heart to the gospel as well. For even here, on the worst of days, with the Son betrayed and abandoned, perfection suffering a sinner’s death, we hear these words: Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. — Hebrews 12:3 ESV
We look to Jesus. We take heart in the gospel. We let the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ shape our suffering toward joy. We bend our thinking, our actions, and our passions, to the faithful care of a God who made us and saved us by his grace.