SOURCE: Discipleship Journal/Jim Chew
Issues: The Bible gives such good reasons for rejoicing in the midst of our hardships that we can consider suffering to be a true privilege.
The opening portion of Peter’s first epistle is one of the most exuberant passages in the Bible. It begins with “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Peter 1:3), and ends with “You believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8–9).
Clearly, the apostle could hardly contain his joy as he wrote to his scattered flock.
We can easily identify with such high spirits if, like Peter, we review all the blessings we have in Christ. Joy is normal to the Christian. But in this same passage Peter reminds his readers that they “have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).
How strange! Sufferings, grief, and trials are hardly compatible with rejoicing. It is one thing to endure trials and sufferings because we love Christ, but quite another to rejoice in the midst of them.
Yet this unusual response to difficult times is not an isolated teaching in the Bible. Again and again we are exhorted to find joy in our affliction. In the opening verses of Romans 5, for example, the apostle Paul wrote about the joy of being justified in Christ, and then added, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings.”
What do these inspired writers mean?
GRIT YOUR TEETH?
Let’s look first at Paul’s exhortation in Romans 5. I don’t think he is asking us to grit our teeth and be stoical about suffering. Neither is he saying that afflictions, in themselves, should be enjoyed. Rather, we are asked to rejoice in what sufferings can produce. Paul explains that we rejoice in our sufferings “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3–4). Suffering produces endurance and a Christlike character.
We can translate the Greek word for “suffering” in this passage with a more common and modern term: pressure. The pressures of life have a way of developing endurance in us, and this endurance can be exercised only when we are placed under pressure. The very trials we dread are thus used by God to strengthen us.
Therefore the followers of Christ can view sufferings as opportunities, as training situations in which our inner reserves of strength and tenacity are developed. And how we need these qualities if we are to maintain godly, righteous lives in the complex, highly pressurized societies in which we live!
We’ve already noted the apparent contradiction in Peter’s first letter—the great burst of joy at the beginning, coupled with the reminder that he was writing to churches facing fierce persecution. Indeed, suffering is one of the major themes of the letter.
What gave Peter such a confident belief that trials and afflictions are occasions for rejoicing?
First, I think he understood the value of faith, which he said was “of greater worth than gold” (Romans 1:7). He could welcome and rejoice in sufferings because he knew they were the crucible in which his faith would be tested and proven, and that they would authenticate and strengthen his trust in God.
Peter also saw that our afflictions are opportunities to participate in Christ’s sufferings (Romans 4:12–14). Through afflictions we learn more deeply “the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings,” as Paul put it (Philippians 3:10). We are brought closer to the heart of our Lord. His presence becomes a reality. With a sharpened sense we learn to discern between things of eternal value and those that are merely passing away. We realize afresh that we are but pilgrims in the world. We become more like Christ.
But without sharing in his sufferings, we cannot hope to grow closer to him and to become more like him. Christ suffered; we are Christ’s, so we suffer too.
Only the person who thus identifies with Christ can really rejoice. The more we suffer, the more we share in his sufferings; therefore, the more we suffer, the more we can rejoice.
So it is that the apostles rejoiced to be counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake (Acts 5:40–42). They did not mope or complain, but kept on teaching and preaching Christ. And Peter was one of them.
Peter knew as well that we learn how to suffer from our Lord. Christ’s suffering is our example, that we “should follow in his steps” (Acts 2:21). He suffered undeservingly, yet submitted to his persecutors and to the will of God. We can learn to do the same.
Submission is not a sign of weakness in the Bible’s point of view. On the contrary, a submissive attitude has powerful effects. With it, Christian wives can win their husbands to the Lord (Acts 3:1–2), and Christian citizens can silence their critics in society who are ignorant and foolish (Acts 2:13–15).
And let us never forget that Christ’s life of submission made salvation possible for all mankind. Howard Hendricks wrote, “You will never learn to suffer with the right attitudes if you have never learned to submit at every level, and you will never learn to submit if you do not have a deep appreciation of the salvation with which you were saved.”
A CERTAIN FACT
Suffering is painful, but submission to it always leads to victory. I remember visiting a close Christian friend who was dying of cancer. He was enduring great pain, and his body was so emaciated I could hardly recognize him. Yet his response was one of thanksgiving to God. Doctors and other patients were influenced by his radiant testimony, and visitors who came to comfort him were instead comforted by him. His last words to me were, “Endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ.”
I can recall clearly a time in my experience as an overseas missionary when I was adjusting to a foreign culture and also assuming more and more responsibilities. With burdens and problems mounting, I was tempted to give up.
Again and again I turned to Scriptures that talk of trials and sufferings. It dawned on me that, compared to the difficulties experienced by many of God’s servants in the Bible, my problems were minimal!
The Lord then allowed a series of personal testings through which I experienced the reality of his grace and strength. I learned that God’s presence in the midst of suffering is a certain fact.
No wonder Peter tells us, “Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:14).
Are you in the midst of trials and perplexities? Happy are you! Celebrate this privilege, because the Spirit of glory and of God is resting on you!