Every believer who desires to honor God is should expect persecution. Scripture affirms this as Paul encourages young Timothy to endure the hardships that are certain to accompany pastoral ministry (2 Timothy 3:12). However, as the apostle assured his reader, suffering is not exclusive to church leaders or mature believers. In fact, since the day humanity was cursed due to the original sin creation groans and suffers the pain of childbirth (Romans 8:22), waiting eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19). From Eden until today God’s people have been familiar with adversity. The heroes of the faith are a testimony that trials and tribulations have been used by the Father to accomplish His sovereign purposes.
A full Biblical theology of suffering would exceed the space limitations here. For this reason I present to you a brief inductive study from 1 Peter, where suffering seems to be a key theme. In his epistles, the apostle writes to saints scattered throughout Asia Minor. One of his purposes in the first letter is to educate and encourage his readers (who were persecuted under Nero) on the right perspective on trials.
It is essential for believers today to understand the Scriptural perspective on suffering. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter explains the reasons for suffering, the results of suffering, and the reactions to suffering.
THE RESONS FOR SUFFERING
Testing: Peter introduces a few divine attributes in his introduction to the believers in Asia Minor. They would be encouraged by an understanding that God is the initiator of their new birth (1:3), the giver of their inheritance (1:4), the protector of their lives (1:5), the purifier of their faith (1:6-7), and the source of their joy (1:8).
As the purifier of the believer’s faith, God sometimes uses unconventional, unexpected, and even unwelcomed methods (from a human perspective). The persecution under the Roman emperor was one of them. It was necessary for them, according to the sovereignty and provision of God, to be distressed by various fiery trials for a little while (1:6b). The reason, the writer assures, is to test their faith (1:7a). Seasons of severe tribulations are common to all believers. Faith testing is better accomplished through adversity than through prosperity.
Maturing: Peter also encourages his audience by affirming that another reason for their ordeal was to produce a spiritual house for a holy priesthood (2:4-5). Their suffering was sacrifice acceptable to God! For this reason, believers who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed (3:14). The fiery ordeal of Roman persecution, even though unpleasant and unwelcomed, was divinely designed to perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish the believers in Asia Minor (5:10). A correct understanding of the divine purposes in maturing the believer’s faith will, likewise, encourage suffering saints today.
THE RESULTS OF SUFFERING
Praise, Honor and Glory: Still in the beginning of his first epistle, Peter encourages his readers by telling them about the end result intended for and through the persecuted believer. As noted before, persecution is intended to produce a godly Christian; but it will also result in a glorified Christ. The proof of the sufferer’s faith in intended to result in praise, honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1:7c).
Only from a Biblical perspective can Christ’s followers rejoice with joy inexpressible in the midst of tribulation (1:8a). It is notable that the author places praise, honor, and glory with the Second Advent. Delayed honor is not compatible with human reasoning. For the Christian, however, the focus on future glory is crucial for coping with present difficulties (1:9). No other portion of Scripture promises honor and praises for Christ’s disciples on this life. Abundant life starts at salvation and flows from an understanding of being accepted (blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ – Ephesians 1:3). Future rewards are promised to faithful servants (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Furthermore, there is a proper time for the exaltation of the believer (1 Peter 5:6).
During trials Christians have a unique opportunity to minister to unbelievers. God determined to be glorified in his people. Followers of Christ who heed to current man-centered teachings miss the opportunity to be used by the Almighty. Frustration and bitterness may result, but the worst outcome of such thinking is a faith based on the shaky ground of self-centeredness. Man’s priority is to please God. One’s own happiness is secondary, and will only occur by abiding in Him.
THE REACTIONS TO SUFFERING
Rejoice: According to Petrine literature, rejoicing is the proper response for the believer in the midst of trials (1:8). James agrees. He writes: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3). Again, Peter assures his readers that joy for the sufferer is possible through the right perspective – a focus on the glories to follow (1 Peter 1:11).
Hope: Another proper response during adversity is to hope “completely on the grace to be brought to you at the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13). The suffering saints at Asia Minor were instructed to fix their hope in the future glory.
Obey: Obedience is also a proper response to trials. Many believers are tempted to look for relief through their own (sometimes unbiblical) means. Lest the readers at Asia Minor succumb to this temptation, the apostle alerts: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts” (1:14a).
Read: The persecuted saints of Asia Minor are encouraged to read the Word (the pure milk). The reason is that only Scripture can sustain a discouraged believer in challenging times. Encouragement from “people helpers” is no more than Biblical truth taught and lived. Bible reading is yet another proper way to respond to adversity.
Imitate: All believers are commanded to be imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Peter’s readers are informed that they are to follow in Christ’s footsteps (2:21-25). Jesus kept trusting the Father while suffering. He considered his own will secondary and yielded completely to the divine purposes. The suffering saint can experience true joy (although temporary discomfort may occur) only when he yields to the will of God (see also 1 Peter 4:19). Following Christ’s example is another way to correctly react to difficulties.
Witness: Peter charges his audience to always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks them to give an account for their hope (3:15-16). Suffering Christians are a testimony to a watching world. There is no true hope outside Christ. The false sense of significance and security offered by the world soon fades. Another proper response to suffering for the believer is, therefore, to witness about the hope unique to Christians.
Resist: Christians may be especially vulnerable to satanic lies during persecution. Peter warns his readers about diabolical schemes (5:8). A wise way to respond to suffering is to resist the devil in the same fashion Jesus did in the desert; by learning Scriptures and applying it against false claims of security and relief.