The Art of Suffering for Christ: Reflections on 1 Peter

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The Art of Suffering for Christ: Reflections on 1 Peter

“God wants me to be happy.” Have you heard that before? Have you said that before? A growing discontent, resident in more modern pop-culture Christianity, seems more willing to “justify” engaging in ethical and intellectual immorality with the rationalism of “happiness.” But the question needs to be asked: “To what end?” What is the end-game or end result of such a pursuit of happiness? How should we define happiness? Is happiness a Christian virtue?

It seems to me, the question to ask in the light of 1 Peter is, “What sort of life does God want me live?” Peter’s response, according to his book, would be “God wants me to be holy” (cf. 1 Pet. 1:15; 3:8–9). That’s not to suggest happiness is antithetical to the gospel, but the source of our joy is in the Lord (Pss. 37:4; 43:4), whether life is materially enjoyable or not (Phil. 4:11–13). And of course, biblical holiness encompasses more than simply moralism.

Holiness is wholeness to God and it includes among other things: gratitude to God (1:3–9), receiving God’s grace to live a holy life and love one another (1:10–25), showing honor (2:17) showing hospitality (4:9), etc. This call to holiness, for Peter, involves an experience that is in glaring contrast to the modern notion of being happy, and that experience is suffering. Ellen White writes:

It is the love of self that destroys our peace. While self is all alive, we stand ready continually to guard it from mortification and insult; but when we are dead, and our life is hid with Christ in God, we shall not take neglects or slights to heart. We shall be deaf to reproach and blind to scorn and insult.[1] [Emphasis added.]

So it seems the pursuit of happiness can be fraught with selfish motives and can lead us to acquiesce to moral relativism as the circumstances of life change or personal affronts encroach on what we perceive as personal happiness.

Not only that, but Peter reminds us that “The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7). The end, telos “fulfillment, goal” of faith in Christ according to 1 Pet. 1:5–9 is eschatological (the end of time) salvation. Furthermore, in 1 Peter 4:7 the conclusion of all earthly occurrences ought to make us more sober-minded and reflective about our personal choices which includes where we believe we are headed and the methods God uses to get us ready for it.

Why the Way You Think Matters

We all struggle with some “sin which clings so closely…” (Heb. 12:1). Sometimes, in light of personal failure, it is tempting to assume a secular view of things and let clichés such as “be a free-spirit” or “it was meant to be” or “everything happens for a reason” or even Christian clichés like “Let go and let God” influence our perspective about what we face in life. In the word of God, there isn’t per se a word for “happiness,”[2] at least there isn’t one that describes the common human perception of a much-sought, highly elusive, serendipitous emotion generated by a sense of fulfillment or fate. But, Peter says if we desire to embrace life and see good days, we ought to live holy lives—moral purity in speech, moral purity in our actions, and seeking for peace (3:10–12).

Amazingly, just like answered prayer relates to how husbands conduct themselves in marriage (3:7), so here holy living is connected with God hearing prayers and hence acting for the benefit of the righteous (cf. Ps. 66:18). So, while being happy may be a byproduct of living a holy life, wanting to be happy seems almost irrelevant to growing in grace and God hearing our prayers.

In fact, Peter supposes that faithfulness to God will inevitably lead to some type of suffering. Peter acknowledges the likelihood of “suffering for righteousness’ sake” (3:14) and does so by tying together: (1) the existential goal of the Christian life “in your hearts, set apart as holy Christ, the Lord” with (2) holy living—making a defense for your hope in Christ with gentleness, respect, having a good conscience (v. 15–16a).

The purpose for a ready defense carried out in an appropriate way is given in v. 16b. Peter uses the words “when” or “whenever,” which assumes two things; (1) the likelihood that living a life dedicated to honoring Christ as holy will draw the ire of the ungodly and (2) that those who do the evil speaking are those who despise the Christian conduct of the readers.[3] This raises, among other quandaries, two things we can think about: Christian life as suffering and the ungodly response of persecution. The way we think matters because if a perceived threat to our “happiness” occurs, our tendency is to protect ourselves, making self prominent. Furthermore, it matters because if we know living according to God’s will likely draw criticism and even persecution, then we will pray for grace to always be ready to give a defense for the hope that lies within us, making Jesus central to our life.

Christian Life as Suffering

Having established that following in the footsteps of Christ will likely lead to suffering, in vv.12–19 Peter expands this notion in 3 ways:

  • Christians share in Christ’s sufferings
  • Christian suffering should be for the sake of righteousness
  • There is no shame is suffering

God is not sadistic, but His will is for us to learn in lowly humility (4:19), following the path Jesus trod. Since God is sovereign, whatever comes to us is by His consent, as it was for Jesus (Matt. 26:39). In the Hebrew Bible, God, is often said to do a thing which He only allows or permits (cf. 2 Sam 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1). So, happiness as a goal may not be in accord with God’s will for our lives because His goal for our sanctification may necessitate a depth of growth that smooth sailing doesn’t provide. In fact, Peter says “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12). Let’s think about a fiery trial. How does a trial test us? Well, in a pagan honor/shame culture, Peter knew that people would be reticent to endure suffering because their neighbors would think they were cursed rather than experiencing the good will of God.

In our time a more nefarious proposition exists. Many mega-church pastors focus on God’s blessings as the evidence of God’s favor. That in itself is dangerous but in addition, suffering is said to be simply  God’s way of “setting us up for blessings.” I say nefarious because much of the Christian world is poor and because of the political, economic, and cultural dynamics of any given country, such a proposition belittles the faith of those who do not have an opportunity for personal affluence. Which is why Peter emphasizes the reality of suffering.

Persecution by the Ungodly

For Peter and to a large extent for most of the world today to participate in the political, economic, or cultural landscape and live a faithful Christian life isn’t impossible, but it presents a plethora of challenges (and gladly opportunities to share our faith). For example, the Sabbath presents a major issue for most people outside of the medical field who want gainful employment.[4] That said, I suppose most Christians or people of faith for that matter assume their faith is genuine. How would we know?

Peter learned that crisis reveals character as much it shapes it, and he said that suffering can come in the form of fiery trials to test us. I suspect that most non-Christians believe that they are doing a good thing for what they perceive as naïve people who believe in myths and legends when they make decisions that negatively affect Christian living (e. g. passing legislation that tries to force Christians to accept their worldview, cf. 5:8). So, while we may not be sure as to the motives of the ungodly, suffering, for Peter, has a salvific element; it deepens our trust in God’s plan for our lives and teaches us to cast all our care on Him for He cares for us.

Click here to read the Sabbath School Lesson for this week, “Social Relationships.”

Click here to read more commentaries on this quarter’s Adult Sabbath School lesson.

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Notes.

[1] Mount of Blessings, 16.

[2] In the Hebrew Bible the closest word is ashre, which is more blessed than happy (Ps 1:1).

[3] For those interested in the more technical linguistic aspects of this section see Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 235–37.

[4] When I became a Seventh-day Adventist I had to leave the job I was because I wouldn’t work on the Sabbath.

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About the author

Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.