Connections 05.07.2017: Suffering with Christ

1 Peter 2:19-25

The connection of faith and suffering disturbs me. Some verses—especially in letters attributed to Jesus’ apostles (I’m looking mostly at you, Paul!)—make it seem that faith and suffering go hand in hand:

• For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. (1 Pet 2:19)
• …we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance…. (Rom 5:3)
• I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18)
• For [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…. (Phil 1:29)
• Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God…. (2 Tim 1:8)
• Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 2:3)
• For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. (1 Pet 3:17)

None of these are particularly encouraging, but that last one makes me shudder a bit when I read it at face value: “If suffering should be God’s will….” God’s will? Well, sign me up for the Christian faith!

Friends, I’m not sure that suffering is ever God’s will. Does God let humans suffer the consequences of our choices? Yes. Does God let humans suffer the calamities (natural disasters, criminal activities, sickness, poverty) that befall us in a broken world? Yes. Does God will the suffering—that is, does God actually make it happen? I don’t know. I hope not.

As a parent, my goal is to help my kids avoid suffering. I try to teach them the better paths so they make choices that protect them. I try to keep them healthy with good foods and exercise. I try to stimulate their minds with creative activity and leisure time. In spite of all this, they have certainly made poor choices and had to endure the consequences. In spite of all this, there are some defects in the makeup of their bodies that cause things like eczema and crowded teeth. In spite of all this, they will eventually face the loss and difficulty of illness, financial struggles, heartache, and death.

We have choices in life. We also live in a world that is imperfect and even broken. But does God wish for us to suffer? Looking at the life of Jesus, I simply can’t believe that of God. Jesus saw suffering and had compassion. He witnessed pain and tried to relieve it. He told all of us to go into the world and do likewise, even as he faced his own suffering among friends who were unsure how to show their compassion for him and relieve his pain.

So why do Paul and the other letter writers focus so much on suffering for Jesus? I think it’s because they were suffering so much personally and needed encouragement in situations where compassion and relief were improbable and maybe impossible. Rather than a discouraging picture of what it means to follow Christ—that we must suffer greatly and be glad for it—I believe these verses are a powerful picture of hope amid the darkest moments—that we must suffer sometimes, but hope remains.

Suffering and Christianity don’t hold hands, grinning and bearing life together. Instead, Christianity sees suffering and has compassion. Christianity sees suffering and offers relief. When those two things aren’t possible, Christianity keeps marching forward in spite of suffering, clinging to the hope of security in Jesus that outshines all else.

Discussion

1. Have you ever heard people say that their suffering is God’s will? If so, how did you feel about that?
2. Have you ever believed that your personal suffering was inflicted by God? If so, how did that view affect your relationship with God?
3. Has anyone ever offered you a different idea about God’s hand in suffering? If so, what was that view and how did it help or hurt you?
4. What do you think Jesus believed about suffering, and how do you support your answer?
5. Do you know anyone who is suffering right now? If so, how can you follow the way of Jesus and have compassion and offer relief? What difference might that make in how they view God?

Reference Shelf

Obedient, Suffering Christ, 2:21-25

“For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered on your behalf, leaving behind an example for you so that you should follow in his footsteps; who ‘committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth’; who when reviled did not revile in turn, did not threaten when he suffered, but handed himself over to the one judging justly; who bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that by dying to sins we might live to righteousness; by whose wounds you may be healed. For you, like sheep, were wandering, but you have now returned to the shepherd and overseer of your souls.”

We begin with a deceptively simple grammatical question: what is the antecedent of “this” in the first line of 2:21? The “this” in v. 21 appears to repeat the “this” of v. 19: “For this is to your credit, if through a consciousness of God someone endures sorrow, suffering unjustly.” Verse 20 repeats “this is credit with God,” linking God’s favorable attitude with a person’s suffering unjustly after doing only good. Here is the complication: does 1 Peter mean that believers are called to suffer—in the sense that it was Christ’s destiny to suffer—or does the passage mean that if one must suffer, a Christian is called to do so as Jesus did? In other words, is suffering necessarily part of following Christ, or an unfortunate part of the deal for some Christians in some settings?

Three considerations make the first option—that suffering is part of a Christian’s calling—more likely to have been what 1 Peter intended in this verse. First, there is the little word “also” in the second clause of v. 21. “Christ also suffered on your behalf ” means that the example Jesus set for the readers is not just in how he suffered, but in that he suffered. Second, 1 Peter chose to make slaves the first specific example of how all Jesus’ followers are to subordinate themselves to all people. As argued above, slavery included suffering as an unpleasant fact of existence. Thus in this part, where 1 Peter is describing Christ as a model not just for slaves but for all believers, all believers must consider the slave’s life with its inevitable suffering as their paradigm. Third, the two images in the last part of v. 21 stress the close parallels between the experiences of Christ and the readers. In “leaving behind an example for you,” the author chooses a term (hypogrammon, “example”) that literally means the patterns for the letters of the alphabet that children traced over in order to learn their ABC’s. With “so that you should follow in his footsteps,” the author calls the readers to walk where he walked and not just how; note that he comes back to this image at the end by calling the readers formerly wandering sheep who have now returned to the shepherd.

“You were called to this” begins the passage, but the flow of things quickly turns to focus on Christ rather than on the audience. In order to explain the “example” and the “footsteps” Christ left behind, the author turns to Isaiah 53, the incomparable poem about God’s servant who suffers both innocently and redemptively.

Richard B. Vinson, et al, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010) 127–28.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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