According to Open Doors, more than fifty countries are listed as hostile to Christianity. This means that if one becomes a believer in Jesus Christ as Savior, they can expect to face suffering.
Even though we in the West are not used to thinking about suffering for Christ’s sake, we need to be ready for suffering if God brings it our way. On October 31, 2018, Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy by the Pakistan Supreme Court but she remained threatened with assassination by Muslim fundamentalists. Similar dangerous situations are growing worldwide.
Peter wrote his first epistle to suffering believers during Nero’s reign. Not only did these believers suffer at the hands of the Jews who had rejected Jesus as Messiah, but also the Roman government wanted to kill them for refusing to worship the emperor as God.
How would Peter tell these believers to endure such suffering? He gives his readers three instructions: keep your eyes on Jesus himself; be holy in your behavior; and view your suffering as sent by the sovereign God to purify and refine you.
Eyes on Jesus
Our natural response in suffering is to look at our circumstances and ask, “Why me?” Asking this question reveals that we are expecting God to provide us with what we want from Him. It is the same form of worldly wisdom that James warns us about in James 1:5-8, a double-minded wisdom based on our doubting the sovereignty and goodness of God
Peter reinforces the idea that God sovereignly provides suffering when He knows it is best for us and for the furtherance of the gospel. Peter points to Jesus as our example of how to respond to unjust suffering (1 Peter 2:21-24). Instead of seeking His own rights, Jesus silently and patiently endured the brutality against Him, choosing instead to trust the Father who judges righteously. Jesus’ submission to the Father resulted in our forgiveness and righteousness. Peter points out that Jesus was willing to suffer without complaint even when His punishment was unjust. Are we willing to do the same?
As a result of looking at Jesus when we go through difficult circumstances, Peter notes that we become truly blessed. This means that suffering for doing what is right results in the Holy Spirit dwelling in the life of the believer (4:13, 14). That blessing indicates that we have God’s approval even when we do not experience man’s approval.
When Boko Haram kidnapped the Dapchi (Nigeria) Christian girls on February 23, 2018, Leah Sharibu (age 14) did not renounce her faith, even though they kept her captive after releasing the girls who converted to Islam. We should pray for God’s rich blessing on young faithful witnesses like Leah.
We may be tempted to compromise when we are faced with trials. Who doesn’t want to get out from under difficulty by taking an ethical shortcut? However, Peter directs believers to live holy lives in response to persecution.
Quoting Leviticus 11 and 19, Peter reminds his readers of God’s commands to be holy in all conduct (1 Peter 1:15, 16). He expects that these believers will be wrongfully accused. When this occurs, those around them will observe their godly character and be convicted (2:12, 15).
A holy life can also provide an opportunity to tell others about Christ. Peter states that because of our good behavior, people will ask us about our faith (3:15). When this occurs, we are to be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in us. Peter does not advocate giving our defense when we are being persecuted per se, but rather as a result of people observing our response to persecution. In fact, both Peter and Paul say we are to bless those who persecute us (v. 9; cf. Romans 12:17). Are we willing to do this?
Our accusers will ultimately be put to shame when we are vindicated based on our good conscience (1 Peter 3:16-18). God will judge their ungodly behavior in contrast to ours (4:4, 5). Peter mentions the judgment of both believers and unbelievers that will occur when Jesus Christ returns, an event he anticipates as coming quickly (v. 7). However, he also stresses that this judgment is ongoing, based on God’s knowledge of our actions (1:17).
Peter’s conclusion is that believers should choose to face suffering with a holy lifestyle because they trust the One who allows them to experience suffering (4:19). Refusing to acknowledge God’s goodness and sovereignty leads to doubt and despair, as well as bitterness. God’s children should react to suffering by asking Him to help them have an exemplary character in the face of their ordeal.
Andrew Brunson, pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, was in captivity in Turkey for more than two years until he was convicted and then surprisingly released on October 12, 2018. He refused to disrespect those who had arrested him, saying only, “I love Jesus and I love Turkey.”
Purifying and refining
Peter compares our present suffering to a fire (1:7; 4:12). While we can question the fairness of God in the midst of it, this fire is designed to remove impurities from us in the same way that a goldsmith uses extreme heat so that the dross smelts out from gold. We must not see ourselves as self-righteous. The result is that our faith is revealed to be more precious than gold, proving we are God’s children.
Peter focuses on the attitude of humility as a key character quality God wants to develop in us as a result of suffering. He highlights the humility of Jesus in submitting to the unjust punishment inflicted on Him (2:22, 23). In the same way, we are to be humble-minded and gentle (3:8, 15; 5:5, 6).
Peter and James both mention God’s opposition to the proud (5:5; cf. James 4:6). Peter and James both note that Satan tempts us to be proud and that Satan seeks to destroy us in this way. For this reason, we need to resist the temptation to be proud either of our status in this life (particularly in our ministry, 1 Peter 5:2-4) or of our spirituality. Humility should characterize those who are facing suffering, knowing that God allows this suffering in our lives.
Another important attitude Peter notes as a byproduct of suffering is faith in God’s sovereignty. Peter calls our attention to God’s dominion now and in the future (4:11; 5:11). As the God who is all-powerful over His creation, He has the right to decide what He permits to happen to it. Therefore, His purpose is to allow suffering to strengthen, confirm, and establish those who go through it (v. 10). God does not send us suffering to weaken our faith, but rather to strengthen it. He wants to remove our selfish nature and doubts about Him, and He permits us to suffer so that we will entrust our bodies and lives to Him in the face of opposition (1:21; 4:19). Are we willing to do this?
The combination of our humility before God and people and our faith in God’s sovereignty result in His taking us through the fires of suffering and establishing us in the faith. Our view of suffering is transformed because we have gone through a metamorphosis. The willingness to testify to their love for Christ even to those persecuting them was demonstrated by Early Rain Church in Chengdu, China. According to the Christian Post, church members took evangelistic literature to the police station to share with the officers after twenty members were arrested for holding a service in a public park June 6, 2018.
Change your view
No one actually chooses to go through suffering. Yet it is an expected part of our lives, whether we endure it for our faith in Christ or because our bodies are deteriorating. God’s design for us is that we follow the three keys outlined in 1 Peter.
All of this requires that we shift our focus from ourselves and our current circumstances onto God and His plan for us. His design is to make us more like Christ, and He will stop at nothing to make this happen.
We can rejoice, then, with Peter that our challenges and sufferings are used by God in ways that we cannot imagine, but that make us more like Jesus Christ. Let’s give God thanks that He allows only that suffering that He knows benefits us. And let’s continue to pray for those going through extreme suffering because of their faith in Christ.
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10, 11).
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.