Dealing with Suffering
by John MacArthur
Consider this quotation, which opens one of the closing chapters of a contemporary book on how to study the Bible:
Many Christians are like poor photographsoverexposed and underdeveloped. They've had plenty of input from the Word of God, but what difference has it made in their lives? Spiritual growth is a conmmitment to change. And yet, the human heart resists nothing as strongly as it resists change. We will do anything to avoid it (Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, Living by the Book [Chicago: Moody, 1991], 292).
Those observations were made in reference to applying the truths of Scripture. Application is a logical, final step in the Bible study process, but it is often mishandled or omitted altogether. As we near the conclusion of our study of suffering, I hope you'll not neglect or avoid applying what you have learned. With a difficult topic such as this one, it is especially important to ponder the issues that have an impact on your life. The primary question you need to ask yourself as you think about the possibility of facing trials and persecutions is "How will I react?" Either you will react with a positive attitude and enjoy positive benefits, or you will react negatively and compound the trouble.
DEALING WELL WITH SUFFERING
We hear a lot today in the slang of popular culture about attitudes, and much of it is negative. The mere usage of the word attitude, as in "He really has an attitude," informs anyone who knows contemporary speech that the person we're describing has a bad or even surly attitude. Similarly, if someone needs an "attitude check," that means they need to exchange their negative demeanor for a positive attitude in the midst of a challenging situation.
The Apostle Peter's first letter focuses on the theme of suffering, and in it he presents two of the four elements that constitute a proper attitude in response to suffering:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (4:12-14).
DO NOT BE SURPRISED BY SUFFERING
The first attitudinal component that will help you through the tough ordeals is to expect them. Inasmuch as we are born to trouble as fallen sinners in a fallen world of sinners, it is reasonable not to be surprised when trouble shows up. In the context of this epistle, though Peter is referring more precisely to persecution and its inevitability, it still makes the pointexpect trials. Peter is echoing the instruction regarding suffering by persecution that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (John 15-16; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 John 3:13). The words and actions of believers testify against an ungodly world. That should be expected to result in a backlash of persecution from unappreciative and offended unbelievers, although it doesn't always happen. But such a reaction toward us is part of the cost of discipleship.
Though his focus is on the persecution that comes because of our faith in and identification with Jesus Christ, Peter's use of the expression "fiery ordeal" in 1 Peter 4:12 could refer to any type of trouble. In both the New Testament and the Greek Old Testament, the word translated "fiery" is used for a furnace. In the Old Testament it referred to a smelting furnace in which metal was melted down to be purged of foreign elements. Psalm 66:10 says, "For Thou hast tried us, O God; Thou hast refined us as silver is refined." Here in 1 Peter, therefore, fiery ordeal is symbolic of the affliction that God designs "for your testing"for your purification.
First Peter 4:12 concludes with the indication trials and persecutions are not "some strange," that is out of the ordinary. Paul says all trials are "common to man" (1 Cor. 10:13). In essence Peter is saying we should not be surprised by sufferings, as if they were happening to us merely by chance. Persecution, affliction, and suffering are part of life to be anticipated and do not interfere with God's plan. They are common to all, and especially to obedient and faithful believers.
REJOICE IN SUFFERING
The second positive element Peter wants us to have in our attitude toward sufferings is to rejoice in them. This calls to mind the words of the Lord Jesus in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great" (Matt. 5:11-12). This is one of the most challenging exhortations in Scripture. And Paul affirms that the words are right when he says to "keep on rejoicing" (continuous action) in 1 Peter 4:13. We also saw in chapter 3 that the Apostle Paul demonstrated joy in the face of sufferings. This attitude is definetly present throughout Scripture and hard to avoid if we want to be diligent to all that the Holy Spirit says. And it makes sense to be joyful because of God's gracious, sovereign providence and purpose in our suffering. Even the worst suffering is working for our good (Rom. 8:28).
The gifted expositor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones helps us to distinguish carefully what is meant by the concept of rejoicing in suffering:
Why is the Christian to rejoice like this [when facing persecution], and how is it possible for him to do so? Here we come to the heart of the matter. Obviously the Christian is not to rejoice at the mere fact of persecution. That is always something which is to be regretted. Yet you will find as you read Christian biographies that certain saints have faced that temptation very definitely. They have rejoiced wrongly in their persecution for its own sake. Now that, surely, was the spirit of the Pharisees, and is something which we should never do. If we rejoice in the persecution in and of itself, If we say, "Ah, well; I rejoice and am exceeding glad that I am so much better than those other people, and that is why they are persecuting me," immediately we become Pharisees. Persecution is something that the Christian should always regret; it should be to him a source of great grief that men and women, because of sin, and because they are so dominated by Satan, should behave in such an inhuman and devilish manner. The Christian is, in a sense, one who must feel his heart breaking at the effect of sin in others that makes them do this. So he never rejoices in the fact of persecution as such (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 1 of 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959], 142-43).
Therefore we must be clear that our text from 1 Peter is not saying (nor are other passages) that believers should have an elitist or masochistic attitude regarding suffering.
Our rejoicing is not to be connected with the pain or difficulty itself, but with the ramifications of it. Peter refers to some of those in 1 Peter 4:13.
The phrase "but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ" means that we are privileged, when persecuted for righteousness, to enjoy the fellowship of our Lord's suffering. That does not mean that we share the atoning sufferings of Christ. Rather, Peter is simply saying that believers can share in the same kind of suffering that Jesus endured and for His sakesuffering for proclaiming His saving Gospel. Paul was an example of one who suffered like that and he testified to it several times in his letters (Gal. 6:17; Phil. 1:29-30; 3:10; Col. 1:24). The other apostles learned quickly how to rejoice after suffering for Jesus' sake. For them such suffering was a tremendous privilege (Acts 5:40-41), and it can be for us also, if we approach it and receive it with the right attitude.
Peter continues in 4:13 to give us even more incentive to rejoice when suffering comes: "So that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation." "The revelation of His glory" is simply another way of referring to Jesus' second coming (see Matt. 25:31; Luke 17:30). And "rejoice with exultation" gives more intensity to Peter's earlier usage of rejoice. If Christians are faithful to accept suffering and persecution as Christ did, then when He returns they will really rejoice, with an outburst that surpasses all other joys (see also Luke 6:22-23).
There is one additional reason for us to respond with an attitude of joy when we face persecution: the Holy Spirit rests upon us (1 Peter 4:14). At first glance that seems like such a simple statement of truth. But Peter's words, inspired by the very same Spirit he is speaking of, are truly awesome and profound. First, the Spirit's presence is not related to some vague, subjective feeling of blessing, typified by such exclamations as "This is such a blessing!" or "May the Lord bless you." Instead, His presence is objectivewe can be sure He is there when we suffer or are persecuted.
The people of God through history have been very much aware of this reality. Peter calls the Holy Spirit "the Spirit of glory," which emphasizes that God, the third member of the Trinity, has glory as an essential attribute, as was revealed in the Shekinah light appearing in the Old Testament. It signified the presence of God, exemplified by the burning bush, the glow on the mountain, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the desert, and the cloud that entered the tabernacle and temple.
Although the Spirit does not display Himself in that way today, His glorious presence is nonetheless real for a believer who is in the center of suffering and persecution. This must mean something more than that which is normal for believersnamely, the indwelling of the Spirit. That is true of all believers all the time (Rom. 8:9). This resting of the Spirit on the suffering Christian is a special grace of ministry beyond the regular. As we studied in chapter 2, the Spirit of glory definitely rested on Stephen at the time of his stoning. The Holy Spirit refreshed him by taking over and becoming the dominant power to lift him above the agony (read again Acts 6-7).
The helpful truths of 1 Peter 4:13-14 provide vital reasons for us to engage attitudes of rejoicing in the middle of persecution and suffering. Throughout the centuries of church history, many saints who endured persecution and martyrdom have known the realities of the Apostle Peter's words. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556; first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury; author of the First and Second Prayer Books and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England) followed in the path of Stephen and experienced the overcoming grace and strength of the Holy Spirit at the hour of his greatest crisis. He was arrested by the Roman Catholic Queen Mary in 1553 and was eventually burned at the stake because he would not renounce his Protestant beliefs. Here's how he dealt with his final suffering:
Soon an iron chain was brought, and put around Cranmer, fastening him to the stake. Then when the fagots had been piled up the sheriff ordered fire to be brought. And when the wood was kindled, and the fire began to burn near him, he was seen by all who stood there, to stretch forth his right hand...and to hold it in the flames. There he held it so unflinchingly that all the people saw it burned, before his body was touched by the fire. So patient and steadfast was he in the midst of this extreme torment, that he uttered no cry, and seemed to move no more than the stake to which he was bound. His eyes were lifted up to heaven, and he often repeated, "This was the hand that wrote it [a previous disavowal of Protestantism, an action he had since reversed],""this unworthy right hand," so long as his voice would suffer him; and as often using the words of the martyred St. Stephen, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" till the fury of the flames putting him to silence, he gave up the ghost John Foxe, Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World [Chicago: Moody, n.d.], 506).
The only explanation we can give for Bishop Cranmer's amazing composure and fortitude in suffering was that the Spirit of glory rested upon him and spiritually lifted him above the physical pain and human fear. The same Spirit is abundantly available to us, allowing us to know the power of suffering in any persecution, tribulation, or trial we may have to endure. He gives grace that is unique to the requirements of our suffering.
Two other necessary elements to a right attitude in dealing with suffering are found in 1 Peter 4:15-19. Peter writes,
By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.
The third feature we need in order to compose our response in dealing with suffering is to evaluate it. Asking God for the discernment to understand the suffering's purpose and how it contributes to placing us in the center of His will is something we ought not overlook.
Just to make sure no one is confused into thinking all suffering is God's will for believers, 1 Peter 4:15 mentions four evils for which we should never suffer. The first threemurder, theft, evildoingare quite obvious and straightforward. The fourth one, "troublesome meddler," while at first glance appearing to be rather obvious, requires closer scrutiny to fully understand it in relation to our theme.
A troublesome meddler describes the person who is always interested in everyone's business but his own. Paul refers to this type of activity several times in his letters and says we should shun such intrusive behavior (1 Thes. 4:11; 2 Thes. 3:11; 1 Tim. 5:13). In those verses it is quite clear that meddling is evil behavior. But we can also look at the term from another angle and clear away some misconceptions regarding appropriate social action by Christians.
Some interpreters believe, and I agree, that 1 Peter 4:15 is referring to political agitationrevolutionary activity that seeks to disrupt and interfere with the function and flow of the existing government. If such an interpretation is accurate, then Peter is calling for Christians to live as good citizens in non-Christian cultures. This is consistent with what he wrote in 1 Peter 2:11-19 and what Paul called for in Romans 13:1-7 and Titus 3:1-4. They should do their jobs, live peaceable lives, share the Gospel, and exalt Christ. He leaves no room for believers to become revolutionaries in attempting to overturn the government or impose Christian standards on the culture or in the workplace. Being persecuted (or prosecuted) by the government because of troublesome agitation, or receiving discipline by an employer for disruptive activities, is not suffering for the right reason. It is not honorable as a Christian to be in that positionit is disgraceful.
A relevant and current example of this kind of meddlesome activity that requires punishment, yet is seen by some professing Christians as legitimate ministry, is the extreme protest strategy of some antiabortion groups. What I am referring to are acts of civil disobedience (blocking driveways of abortion clinics and refusing to comply with orders from the police), bombings of clinics, and killings of clinic workers and doctors. The murders and attempted murders of abortion personnel are the most heinous examples of such activism. Since early 1993, at least three such cases have been prominent in the news. One resulted in the 1994 conviction of a former Presbyterian minister, who glibly told reporters that he knew without a doubt that, should he be executed, he would go directly to heaven afterward. Lest I be misunderstood, I want to affirm that I am unalterably opposed to the killing of unborn children. The Bible is quite clear in many references that God is concerned for the sanctity of life at all phases (Gen. 1:27; Ex. 21:22-25; Deut. 30:19; Job 10:8-12; 31:15; Ps. 100:3; 139:13-16; Matt. 18:6,14; Gal. 1:15). I am also very aware that many dedicated and godly Christians are involved in the pro-life movement, and they have done much good work in the last twenty years to educate people on the importance of this cause. These pro-life workers have also helped provide beneficial counseling and material assistance through a variety of crisis pregnancy service agencies.
Therefore, I am not criticizing the legitimate, valid, peaceful efforts of the pro-life, antiabortion movement. I am merely pointing out that extremist actions, performed under the guise of Christianity, are wrong. Even implicit support by believers "from the sidelines" for such actions is not biblical. Any Christian involved in activities designed to promote what is right and redress what is unjust must use scriptural discernment to decide what strategies to support. To do otherwise is to become a "troublesome meddler," one who is not suffering for righteousness' sake.
The Apostle Peter presents one final reason for believers to evaluate suffering when it comes: "For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the Gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4:17) We must be prepared for sufferings because God is chastening, testing, and purifying us as members of His church at the end of the age. In verse 7 Peter indicates that we are now living in the end times: "The end of all things is at hand." Christ appeared at the beginning of this last era to suffer, die, and judge our sins on the cross. Our sufferings began at the cross and are part of God's unfolding plan that culminates with the Great White Throne. ("Time" in v. 17 more precisely means "Season." It refers to the crucial moment or point in the history of God's revelation when judgment begins.)
The "household of God" (the church) is always in the process of being purged and purified. That has occurred throughout church history, from the first days of the church (Ananias and Sapphira; Acts 5), to the time of Peter's writing (under Nero and other Roman emperors), to Reformation times, right down to the twentieth century (in Eastern Europe and China). The process has not stopped, so we need to evaluate our own persecutions within the larger context of God's refining and purifying work in His church. There may be times when God needs to discipline us so that we may serve Him with greater effectiveness (Heb. 12:5-13). Peter knew God's order of judgment in this age, that it begins with us and eventually falls upon unbelievers in full and final fury (far different from the refining and chastening that we experience). Peter uses that contrast to give us the right perspective on the whole process (1 Peter 4:17-18; see also 2 Thes. 1:4-7). Far better to endure some suffering as chastening for sin now while the Lord purges the church than to endure in the future the eternal sufferings of the unsaved.
TRUSTING GOD IN SUFFERING
The fourth and final element the Christian sufferer should embrace in his attitude is that of entrusting himself to God. Peter writes: "Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right" (1 Peter 4:19).
The word "entrust" is a banking term that means "to deposit for safekeeping." Peter is exhorting any believers who suffer to give their souls (lives) over to the care of God. Here Peter describes God as a "faithful Creator," which reminds us that He created us and is completely capable and trustworthy in taking care of all our needs.
The apostle is assuming that his audience, having just read the preceding verses (and many having personally experienced persecution), had a basic grasp of what suffering entails. So he presents God not only as the One who is faithful but also as the One who is sovereign. He has allowed suffering in their lives according to His overall plan and purpose. Therefore it is only logical and reasonable that Peter's readers be urged to trust God through trials and persecutions. It is only reasonable that we also should maintain an attitude of trust as we endure suffering. That is similar in principle to Paul's well-known exhortation in Romans 12:1, "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual [or, rational] service of worship." Paul's words remind us again of the close connection between discipleship and suffering. It is so much easier to deal with suffering if we have already purposed in our hearts to turn everything over to the Lord. If we have an attitude of submission, obedience, and sacrificial service, we will not be concerned about the trials and persecution He may allow.
Jerry Bridges offers this additional insight regarding the challenge of trusting in God during times of suffering.
To trust God in times of adversity is admittedly a hard thing to do.... Trusting God is a matter of faith, and faith is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Only the Holy Spirit can make His Word come alive in our hearts and create faith, but we can choose to look to Him to do that, or we can choose to be ruled by our feelings of anxiety or resentment or grief.
John Newton, author of the hymn "Amazing Grace" watched cancer slowly and painfully kill his wife over a period of many months. In recounting those days, John Newton said:
I believe it was about two or three months before her death, when I was walking up and down the room, offering disjointed prayers from a heart torn with distress, that a thought suddenly struck me, with unusual force, to this effect"The promises of God must be true; surely the Lord will help me, if I am willing to be helped!" It occurred to me, that we are often led... [from an undue regard of our feelings], to indulge that unprofitable grief which both our duty and our peace require us to resist to the utmost of our power. I instantly said aloud, "Lord, I am helpless indeed, in myself, but I hope I am willing, without reserve, that thou shouldest help me." (Trusting God [Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988], 195-96. Newton quotation from John Newton, The Works of John Newton [reprint; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985], 5:621-22; emphasis in original.)
Geoffrey Bull is a modern example of one who entrusted his soul to God in severe suffering. Bull was imprisoned for more than three years by the Chinese Communists and subjected to solitary confinement, starvation, intimidation, and brainwashing. He wrote a poem in the midst of his ordeal, which asked that the Lord not allow the memory of His Word to grow dim nor let him succumb to doubt, loneliness, or fear. He further asked that God let him retain His peace and give him victory over fatigue.
The closing two lines of the poem expressed Bull's trust in the ultimate outworking of God's plan and purpose:
And Thy kingdom Gracious God,
Shall never pass away.
(cited by Paul S. Reese, Triumphant in Trouble [Westwood, N.J.: Revell, 1962], 119-20).
Taken from The Power of Suffering. © 1995 by John MacArthur, Jr. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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