The Problem of Suffering

The Problem of Suffering

Dr. James Naismith

Studies in First Peter

The Problem of suffering is at once (a) perennial: it has affected all generations of men and raised questions and controversies through the centuries, yet its mysteries are ever new; (b) perplexing: how many have sought and failed to find a solution to it! Philosopher and sage, psalmist and poet have all been baffled by its difficulties; (c) personal: it is not simply a philosophical problem, but at some time affects every one of us, some more than others. It has been truly said that “God had one Son without sin, but He has no sons without sorrow.”

Does the Word of God shed any light on this distressing problem, or afford any comfort to those who suffer? Undoubtedly it does. Suffering is the theme of many passages and of several books of the Bible, and many a sufferer has turned to the Scriptures and derived comfort, cheer, and courage from their pages. One of the books in which suffering is a leading theme is Peter’s First Epistle. Even the casual reader cannot fail to notice the prominent place it occupies in every chapter of this letter. Written in the first century A.D. to believers in Asia Minor who, because of their faith in Christ, were undergoing bitter persecution and still had a fiery trial in prospect, its teachings have been a source of encouragement to afflicted saints in all centuries and continents.

Among His last words to His own on the eve of His suffering, our blessed Lord uttered a word of warning: “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33). In varying measure His prediction has been fulfilled in the lives of His faithful followers at all times since. True it is that “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). In many parts of the world at this present time — in other lands, and even in parts of North America — hostility to the Gospel and to those who present it is fierce and bitter. In these circumstances, the message of First Peter is surely timely, as, indeed, it is at all times for all of us who endeavour to be faithful to our absent Lord in a world that still despises and rejects Him. Moreover, these five chapters afford comfort to all who pass through suffering, whatever its cause or character.

The writer approaches the problem from slightly different angles in each chapter, in order to comfort, warn, encourage, and exhort the readers. While certain aspects of the subject are reiterated in several of the chapters, we can perhaps discern the following main themes:

Comfort in Suffering (Chapter One); Conduct in Suffering (Chapter Two); Confidence in Suffering (Chapter Three); Cheerfulness in Suffering (Chapter Four); Consequences of Suffering (Chapter Five).

Comfort in Suffering (Chapter 1:3-7)

As early as the sixth verse of the Epistle, the Apostle introduces the subject of suffering by stating one of the great Christian paradoxes, “Ye greatly rejoice, though … ye are in heaviness.” This paradox was exemplified by the early disciples who “rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41); by Paul and Silas who sang praises in a prison at Philippi; and by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to Philippi from a prison at Rome a letter that vibrates with joy. Peter reiterates it in chapter 3:14 and chapter 4:13-14. Wherefore this joy in sorrow? The “wherein” at the beginning of verse 6 refers back to the previous verses, and these, together with verse 7, provide four sources of comfort for suffering Christians.

The possession which God has provided for us (v. 4): It is probable that many of the readers, as a result of persecution, had experienced the “spoiling of their goods” (Heb. 10:34) and the loss of their property. They, and we, are assured that whatever may happen to their earthly possessions, they have an infinitely more valuable inheritance. In contrast to everything of earth this inheritance cannot be destroyed, it is “incorruptible,” unaffected by the ravages of time and of men; be defiled, it is undefiled,” no mark can mar it, no stain can taint it, no spot can spoil it; decay, it “fadeth not away”; nor be deprived to us, “reserved, in Heaven,” the surest and safest treasury.

The Power by which God preserves us (v. 5): “Kept by the power of God.” In the midst of dangers, seen and unseen, physical and spiritual, and despite trials and tribulations, God keeps watch above His own, maintaining a garrison around them (the word “kept” is a military term used of a guard or garrison). Not only is our inheritance kept secure for us (v. 4); we are kept secure for it (v. 5). “Through faith,” faith lays hold, not only on God’s grace that saves (Eph. 2:8) but also on His power that keeps.

The Prospect which God has placed before us (v. 5): “Unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Clearly, it is the future aspect of our salvation which is referred to here. The three tenses of salvation are evident in this passage: Past (v. 3), “begotten again,” (v. 9) the salvation of the life from the power of sin; Future (v. 5), the salvation of the body from the presence of sin. What a glorious prospect to provide cheer and comfort in times of trial! Complete deliverance from the pains, problems, and persecutions that now beset us awaits when we are ushered for ever into the presence of our Lord and changed into His likeness! “Hush! be every murmur dumb; it is only till He come!”

The Purpose which God has planned for us (v. 7): God has a design for all of our lives, and trials are part of that design. Of times we may not understand His ways, they are “past finding out” (Rom. 11:33), but we can trust His unerring wisdom and His matchless love, even in the midst of suffering, which He allows for our best good. This suffering has a twofold purpose: It is a PROOF (‘trial’) of our faith. Just as examinations test the diligence and ability of the student, so the sterling quality of our faith is tested and approved by the trials through which we pass.

It is a PROCESS by which the pure gold of our faith is refined, and the dross of our lives consumed in the crucible of suffering and the fire of affliction. The trial of our faith is much more precious than that of gold; the latter, however prized by men, belongs to the category of perishable goods; faith is imperishable. The full results of this process await a future day, “the appearing of Jesus Christ.” Then shall the gold shine forth in all its beauty and lustre and will be found “unto praise and honour and glory,” “unto the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:14).

“He laid our gold in a burning fire,
Though we fain would have said Him ‘Nay,’
And He watched the dross that we hadn’t seen
As it melted and passed away;

And the gold grew brighter and still more bright,
But our eyes were so dim with tears,
We saw but the fire, not the Master’s hand,
And we questioned with anxious fears.

Can it be that it pleased His loving heart
To cause us a moment’s pain?
Ah no! but He saw through the present cross
The bliss of eternal gain.”

Ere we leave this passage, two very precious little phrases in verse 6 merit our consideration: The first is, “If need be.” Our Father will not allow His child a needless pain. We can be sure that all that He permits in grace is needful and for our eternal profit. The tears, the pains, the losses, the sorrows, and the crosses are all numbered among the “all things” that “work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). The second is, “For a season.” Like the “pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:24), the pangs of suffering are “but for a season.” The night may seem dark and long; but the Daystar is about to arise and the Sun of Righteousness shine forth to usher in the eternal day. How brief our present affliction will seem, viewed from the light of eternity, a “season” to Peter, a “moment” to Paul (2 Cor. 4:17).