Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.
The book of 1 Peter was written by Peter to the Christians at a time of immense suffering and persecution. It’s pretty much a letter that was meant to comfort his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, at the same time to encourage and affirm them to be steadfast in their faith. He wrote this letter to every Christian. To all of God’s elect – not some of them, not only the ones who were suffering. Perhaps at that time, in the early Church days, persecution was happening – at varying degrees – everywhere. Everyone was suffering when they walked into this faith whether they expected to or not. Today we may live without the persecution of the society for our faith. We may be unable to see the sufferings of another Christian from the outside; we may feel that there are some of us who do not suffer at all. We may have come to expect not to suffer, and as a result, when we suffer, we are surprised and we feel wronged. Peter questions the Christians – is it strange to suffer? Why are you surprised when you suffer? In today’s study, we will adopt Peter’s take on suffering and expand it to see why we are surprised when we suffer.
Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering – when are humans surprised? They are surprised when what happens is something different or far from what they had expected. What, then, are the expectations of us as Christians that would cause us surprise when we suffer painful trials? I can think of a few, speculatively, and there are probably many more, but let us tackle these scenarios one by one.
1. You expect a good, blessed life in Christ after receiving Jesus as your Lord and saviour.
There’s nothing wrong in this expectation if your definition of a good, blessed life coincides with that of the Bible. Did Paul lead a good, blessed life? It’s hard to say he didn’t – near the end of his life he exclaimed himself that he had fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith [2 Tim 4:7]. He was thankful for the protection and immense blessing that the Lord had given him over the years [2 Tim 4:17]. He had mentored so many leaders, raised so many churches, kept pushing on as one of the first missionaries in history – it is very difficult to say that his life wasn’t good and blessed, except for the fact this: Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches [2 Cor 11:24-28] He was persecuted all his Christian life, rejected by non-Christians and Christians alike, and for several times he was near-death. Eventually, how did he died? He was crucified – martyred for the kingdom of God. Sure, it was a good and blessed life, but also a painful and suffering life. They are not mutually exclusive. Christianity isn’t the immunity pill to all bad things.
2. You expect your righteousness to pay off, you expect God’s protection.
You may not expect a good and easy life, but major sufferings come to you as a shock. Why you? Why not that man who committed adultery? Why not that family of liars? It is difficult to understand God’s justice even as Christians. It is difficult to understand it especially if we are not able to think in terms of eternal life. When we hold our problems too closely to our hearts, they become bigger than they actually are. Why did Job suffer, even though he was so righteous – even called the most righteous in all the earth; and why did so many worse men not? Why, the extent of his suffering was so great that his friends had no doubt that he must have done some heinous sins to provoke the wrath of God – but did he really? Is it fair? If we always limit ourselves in a mental paradigm that the good will be rewarded and protected from suffering; we will never truly experience the greatness of our Lord. Peter questions why we find suffering as a strange occurrence; Paul lists persecution as a fact – In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted [2 Tim 3:12].
3. You expect trials and hardships, but you also expect that they will be less painful and easier to cope with through the strength of the Lord.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this line of thought except in definition. This is probably how many Christians think these days, which is gratifying. A lot of Christians today believe that God will never give them more than what they can handle – most commonly a concept taken through 1 Corinthians 10:13, although quite often a concept that has been criticized to be taking the verse out of context – No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it – I do agree with the fact that 1 Corinthians 10:13 isn’t talking specifically on suffering, and in multitudes of verses on suffering in the Bible, this idea was never explicitly stated. But I do not disagree with applying this idea to suffering, and as of now I still do not find evidences in the Bible that states that there are suffering given to us that we have no way out of. There are two main types of suffering – problems of pains (natural evil) and problems of evil (moral evil). I believe temptations are a subset of moral evil, which is a form of suffering, though not all sufferings are temptations. I believe perhaps that the idea that God will never give us more than what we can take can be more precisely stated as God will never give us a situation that he cannot bring us out from – be it suffering or temptation or whatever you want to call it. In essence, we are never strong enough to deal with our trials – but drawing on the strength of the Lord, we can overcome. Many trials will seem overwhelming to you and you may cry that you cannot cope, and you may question God – why did you give me such a huge burden when I cannot cope with it? It’s not that you can cope with it through your own strength – we can never. What 1 Cor 10:13 promises us is not that. What it promises us is that whenever we feel helpless and weak, and not strong enough to cope with our temptations, we can be assured that God will empower us and strengthen us, and through Him we can overcome.
Have you ever been horrified by your suffering? Have you ever asked God, why is it so unfair? Have you ever pondered, why me and not him? Why me, when I did so much good and have done so much for your Kingdom? If so, you too have been surprised by your suffering as though something strange is happening to you. It sounds scary when we say that all who leads a godly life in Christ will suffer and be persecuted. Who would want to be a Christian, then? It’s not that scary if we understand our Lord. It’s not all that scary when we know the word enough. It’s no longer unjust or unfair when we are able to look at things from a greater perspective and understand the concept of eternal life.
Expect to suffer, so that you will not be surprised when sufferings come. Expect to suffer, but also be assured that God is with you through your sufferings, and he will deliver you. Through him, you will overcome, no matter how mind-blowing your suffering may seem to be. At the same time, expect to be blessed. Sufferings and blessings are not mutually-exclusive. Not in a Christian way of life.