Tried by Fire

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 Peter 3:13-21; 4:12-16

One of the less popular subjects of Christian teaching but one which the New Testament devotes a great deal of attention to is how Christians face up to suffering and what it means when they confront it.

Much of the letter of First Peter is concerned with the subject of suffering. Suffering for our faith is an idea that many Christians today find slightly embarrassing. When is the last time you were arrested and thrown in jail for being a follower of Jesus Christ? How many of us have been beaten or persecuted because we are Christians? In many places those kinds of things happen as frequently today as they did in the first century world, and Peter’s words about Christian suffering are completely relevant. Just this past week I received a phone call informing me that a Words of Hope worker in a foreign country had to flee for his life, leaving everything behind him (including his family) because of police beatings, intimidation and threats. His only crime was being an active witness for Jesus Christ his Lord.

But for many of us living in our comfortable society it’s difficult to identify with what Peter says when he talks about being persecuted for our faith. Oh, maybe we can come up with an awkward situation or two, or remember perhaps being embarrassed because of our Christian testimony, but hardly anything that would fall into the “fiery trial” category that Peter writes of.

Suffering As a Christian

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of that in my everyday experience. In fact, I sometimes find myself half wishing that I did live under the threat of physical, literal persecution, jail, concentration camp, torture and the like. At least then everything would be clear-cut, although I wonder just how heroic I would be if it came to that.

But before we go too far in fantasizing about persecution, let’s remember that all of us do face suffering for Christ, even in our own peaceful cultures. It may be more private. It may be a little less heroic, but it is nonetheless real. The suffering we face often comes in the form of laughter, with the world’s pressures upon us to conform to its value system and people’s scorn for us if we dare to speak out against sin or stand up for Jesus in some public way. It may seem like very minor suffering. But remember Peter’s greatest failure did not come when he faced a physical attack in the Garden of Gethsemane, but rather when he faced a serving girl’s embarrassing questions in the courtyard of the high priest.

The suffering that Christians face, other than outright literal persecution, might come in the form of the penalties that the world inflicts upon righteousness. For example, the financial price you might have to pay for being honest, or the professional price you could pay for maintaining your integrity in the workplace or for treating people with compassion and fair play. It could be the price in popularity it costs you for keeping yourself morally pure.

Even in Peter’s day this was by far the most common type of suffering. It’s not usually dungeon, fire and sword that believers face. It’s usually other more subtle kinds of threats. In fact, Peter refers here in chapter 3 to those who “speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ.” That’s the sort of thing we’re most often up against. Suffering for Christ includes every loss or hurt you take as a believer, because you are a believer.

What our enemy cares most about in stirring up persecution against us is to get us to compromise our allegiance to Christ, to drop out of the race of faith, to clam up when we should speak up and bear witness to the name of Jesus. If the threat of imprisonment, beating and violent death can accomplish that, fine. But if peer pressure and subtle ridicule is enough, all the better. The main thing for us is to understand what’s going on whenever we face suffering, and, in the face of it, to stand fast. To help us do that is Peter’s purpose in writing.

The Effects of Suffering

In the middle chapters of his first epistle Peter drives home to his readers some of the effects of Christian suffering.

. . . if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you . . . yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed. . . . If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

1 Peter 3:13-16., 4:12-16, niv

Christian suffering is not a meaningless exercise in pain or embarrassment. Rather, it yields specific positive results both in those who suffer and in those who observe the sufferers.

Effects on Those Who Suffer

First, consider the effect that suffering for Christ can have upon us if we are called to face it. Such suffering, says Peter, makes us “blessed” (3:14). “Blessed are those who suffer for righteousness’ sake!” Jesus said. Why is that? Elsewhere in his letter Peter describes several things that suffering in the name of Christ can do for us:

  1. Suffering separates. It distinguishes true Christians from false ones, the genuine believer from the counterfeit (1:6-7). Do you remember how in chapter 1 Peter compares suffering to the refining process that reveals faith, tests it and purifies it. In Jesus’ parable about the soils, the seed that fell on the rocky ground sprang up quickly, but because the plants had no roots they soon withered and died. Suffering is like that scorching desert sun in Jesus’ parable it shows whose faith is real and whose is shallow and temporary.
  2. Suffering strengthens. It builds our faith by stretching and testing it. There is a comprehensive command tucked away in 1 Peter 3:15 that says it all: “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” That is the one thing we must do. That is what defines a Christian. A Christian is somebody who has set apart Christ as Lord and has submitted his or her life unconditionally and unreservedly to the lordship of Jesus Christ. That commitment begins in the heart, in our innermost selves, with the belief that Jesus really is Lord (that his claims are true; he is the Lord) and then with the decision to follow him (with his claims upon me; he is my Lord). But then the commitment has to be lived out. It can’t remain just inside us in our hearts. We must be willing to acknowledge our Lord before the world, even if that brings abuse. The fact is, our strongest commitments are going to be to those things for which we have had to pay a price, for which we’ve suffered.
  3. Suffering encourages us. “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (I Peter 4:14). Suffering is a confirmation to us that we really do belong to God, and it draws his presence to us like the tabernacle in the wilderness drew the cloud of God’s glory.
  4. Finally, suffering draws us closer to Jesus himself. What we are really doing whenever we bear abuse for his sake is participating in his own sufferings. We actually are joined to him in such a way that our suffering becomes Jesus’ suffering. By this kind of suffering we are increasingly conformed to the likeness of Christ. We are getting closer and closer to him. And there is no greater joy than that for any Christian believer. So we can rejoice, not only because suffering enables us to follow our Lord more closely and to be more like him, but because the way in which he is leading us goes on to glory (1 Peter 4:13; cf. Romans 8:17).
  5. Effects on Others

    Then, there is the effect which our suffering for Christ, with Christ, and like Christ can have on other people. If we do bear our hardships, our reproach, in a Christ-like way, then those who are mistreating us may even become ashamed of their behavior (1 Peter 3:16) and we will have the opportunity to bear witness to them (verse 15). “Always be ready to give a reason for the way you’re behaving,” says Peter, “for the hope that is within you.” In other words, the sight of Christians bearing wrongs patiently can cause amazement in unbelievers and can create an opening for the sensitive presentation of the gospel. There is no more powerful witness to the world than when Christians meet persecution the same way Jesus did humbly, patiently, forgivingly and lovingly.

    One large qualification needs to be added. We had better be sure that we are suffering innocently must “keep a clear conscience” (3:16), making sure that if we do have to suffer it is for doing food and not evil (verse 17; cf. 1 Peter 4:15). Don’t be ashamed when you suffer, Peter encourages, but also make certain that you have nothing to be ashamed of. So be very careful that if you must suffer, it is as a Christian and for being a Christian. If you do that, you are blessed.