“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian , let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God….Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.” (I Peter 4:12-16, 19)
No one knows when or how he or she will be called to suffer for their faith in Christ, but Jesus is clear that such suffering is inevitable. If we “live for him who died for us” we will somewhere run afoul of the world and, if we remain faithful, pay the price for it. At such times we should not be “surprised at the fiery ordeal that comes upon you ..as though something strange were happening to you.” And yet, far too many of us are, indeed, surprised and feel almost betrayed by God when such suffering comes.
Rather than surprise and resentment, Peter would have us endure such times faithfully and with, dare I say it, joy in the midst of them. Of course suffering is never good and we are never to seek it, nor are we being told to enjoy the suffering itself. No, suffering is horrible and evil. Rather, we are being told that we are not to miss the good that God can and will bring out of that suffering. That is the joy we are to embrace.
For Peter, and for the other apostle’s, the joy that we find when we are “reproached for the name of Christ” comes from the great honor of “sharing Christ’s sufferings”: we are being allowed to suffer with and for the one who suffered for us. This brings us at least two great pleasures. The first is the profound pleasure of offering back in gratitude the very gift he offered for us. The scripture says that we are to “live for him who died for us”. Countless Christians have considered it an honor, not only to live but to die for him who died for them. He was rebuked for them and they embraced being rebuked for him; he was maligned for them and it was their pleasure to be maligned for him; he died for them and it was their pleasure to die for him. This, those who love Jesus have found, is no small joy.
The second great pleasure is the knowledge that when we suffer for Christ and with Christ our suffering is somehow mysteriously joined with his so that we, too, play a part in the redemption of the world. What Christ achieved on the cross, once for all, never to be duplicated, we are able to help extend throughout the world by our own sufferings. Surely this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the Church” (Colossians 1:24) How this works in its fullness is a mystery, but all suffering for him and with him (no matter how slight) is redemptive whether we realize it or not.
We can, however, see its most obvious effect. For two thousand years the most powerful witness to Christ have been the lives of those who have stayed faithful to Christ and true to all he taught (including loving your enemies) even in the face of persecution. The saying has proved true throughout the ages, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Edmund Clowney recounts only one of millions of stories where this has proven true: “Armando Vallardes, a prisoner of Castro’s regime in Cuba, tells of how he came to a living trust in Christ: ‘Those cries of the executed patriots, “Long live Christ the King! Down with communism!’ had wakened me to a new life…The cries became such a potent and stirring symbol that by 1963 the men condemned to death were gagged before being carried down to be shot. The jailers feared those shouts.’” (Clowney, I Peter p 192)
Finally, though, there is a third reason Christians rejoice in the midst of their suffering for Christ. It is because they know that suffering will not last. Not only will it end, it will give way to glory. On the other side of the cross is the resurrection, not just for Jesus, but for all who take up his cross as well. This is one of the great themes of the New Testament: “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him.”(II Timothy 2:11-12)
This confidence is captured in the beautiful last verse of our quoted passage: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.” William Barclay tells us that the word we translate “entrust” is a technical term for depositing money with a trusted friend: “In the ancient days there were no banks and few really safe places in which to deposit money. So, before a man went on a journey, he often left his money in the safe keeping of a friend. Such a trust was regarded as one of the most sacred things in life. The friend was absolutely bound by all honour and all religion to return the money intact.” (Barclay, James and Peter, p.261) Then he adds this truth: “If a man entrusts himself to God, God will not fail him. If such a trust is sacred to men, how much more is it sacred to God.”
Surely this is what Jesus meant when, from the cross, he cried “Father, into your hands I commit (exactly the same word used by Peter) my spirit.” So we, too, from our cross commit our “souls to a faithful Creator” and know without a doubt that we who die with him shall be raised to glory with him. Thanks be to God.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.