Hopeful Suffering

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Christians in the Western-influenced world tend to trivialise suffering. We know that everyone who lives a godly life is supposed to suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12) and, since we don’t often experience the same kind of suffering that the first-century Christians experienced, we tend to identify lesser difficulties as suffering.

We may consider it “suffering” when we experience a flat tyre on the way to an important meeting. We may “suffer” by being passed over for promotion. “Suffering” might be the mental pressure of preparing for an exam or the intense stress of a Human Resources investigation. While we do not wish to minimise the reality of such stresses, we also do not want to trivialise true Christian suffering.

When Peter wrote of “various trials” and “test[ing] by fire” (1:6–7), he rooted this suffering in salvation (1:3–4). In other words, the suffering his readers experienced was suffering for their faith. They suffered because they were Christian. Flat tyres, exam pressure, and human relations investigations happen to everyone. They are not necessarily displays of Christian suffering and when we make them out to be that, we trivialise what the early Christians and many faithful contemporary Christians experience(d) for their faith.

There are reasonable explanations why Western Christians do not experience the same degree of suffering that the early Christians did. Secularism (de-emphasis on religious truth) and pluralism (acceptance of varying faiths) mark our society in a way that was not true of the first-century Roman Empire. In such a society, opposition to the claims of Christianity might not be as harsh as they were for Peter’s readers.

At the same time, we must admit that our lack of suffering might at times be our own fault. That is, we may not suffer as the early Christians did because we do not stand as faithfully for Christian truth as they did. As Scot McKnight puts it, “one of the reasons there are so few sparks is because the fires of commitment and unswerving confession of the truth of the gospel are too frequently set on low flame, as if the church grows best if it only simmers rather than boils.”

Perhaps one reason that our commitment has waned is that we have forgotten the truth of 1 Peter 1:3–12. We have forgotten that Christ has secured an imperishable inheritance for us that will be realised at the resurrection. According to Peter, it is this inheritance, which is “ready to be revealed in the last time,” that produces in us “a living hope.”

When we speak of Christians having “a living hope,” we do not mean that they walk about with a breezy sense of confidence despite their circumstances. Paul spoke of being “burdened beyond [his] strength” so that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). Hope did not look like airy confidence that everything was going to be okay. It did not look like assurance that circumstances would right themselves and that everybody would live happily ever after. He recognised that life might be filled with unbearable suffering. But his hope stretched beyond here and now. That is the hope of which Peter writes to the scattered saints in Asia Minor.

The same Scriptures that “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (v. 11) likewise predict the sufferings of Christ’s people and the subsequent glories. The promise of Scripture is that Christians have hope beyond the grave. We have living hope because it is hope of eternal life. The worst suffering we can face might cause us to despair of this life, but it can never cause us to despair of the life to come. Our inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for us “in the last time.”

As you reflect this morning on your “living hope” in Christ, allow it to embolden your obedience to Christ despite the suffering it might invite. May that “living hope” encourage you to challenge the unbelieving world with the message of the cross and to live according to the teachings of Jesus with uncompromising rigour.