The Problem of Suffering

The Problem of Suffering

Dr. James Naismith

Cheerfulness in Suffering - (1 Peter 4:12-19)

It would almost seem as if Peter had drawn his Epistle to a close with the doxology of chapter 4:11, when, foreseeing the still fiercer persecution that was soon to be unleashed upon his readers, he took up his pen again to write words of cheer and encouragement to fortify them against this fiery trial. His words have been used by the Spirit of God to encourage God’s people in many other trials and persecutions. What a note of joyfulness pervades: “rejoice,” “be glad,” “exceeding joy,” “glorify God.” Even in the fiery furnace of affliction, the Christian can “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (chap. 1:8). This cheerfulness has at least three sources:

Participation in Christ’s Sufferings (v. 13a): what an honour it is to be associated with our Blessed Lord in His sufferings — these sufferings that have endeared Him eternally to our every heart! We can never enter into His substitutionary sufferings on our behalf—these were His to bear alone; but it is our inestimable privilege to know “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10), to “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ” (Col. 1:24), and to “go forth therefore unto Him without the camp bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13:13). He who suffered so much for us calls us to suffer a little with Him. Shall we not rejoice to be a partaker of His sufferings?

Prospect of Christ’s Glory (v. 13b): “His glory shall be revealed.” What a day of rejoicing that will be! One glimpse of Him then will more than compensate for all the trials of time. Our hearts should be glad with exceeding joy now at the very thought of it. “Oh the joy to see Thee reigning, worshipped, glorified, adored!” How the thrilling prospect of gazing on Him, on all His transcendent glory, should brighten the darkest hour of this “little while!” And not only shall we behold His glory, but, wonder of wonders, we shall be partakers “of the glory that shall be revealed” (chap. 5:1). “We shall appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). Truly, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

Presence of Christ’s Spirit (v. 14). Till that day when earth’s shadows will forever disappear, we have a Comforter who abides with us in the midst of suffering, “the Spirit of glory and of God.” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, cast into the burning, fiery furnace heated seven times more than it was wont to be heated, because of their faithfulness to God, were not there alone. In the furnace with them was a fourth person “like the Son of God” (Dan. 3:25). He is still the same today. No furnace of affliction is so hot but He will be present with us by His Spirit. On the eve of His suffering, He not only predicted tribulation for His disciples; He also promised a Comforter who would abide with them forever (John 14:16). To share His reproach is a privilege in which to be ‘happy’ for it is ‘an evident token’ of the fact that the Spirit who abode upon our blessed Lord now rests upon those who follow Him in His rejection.

Verses 17 to 19 of this chapter present several difficulties, and can lead to misunderstanding if divorced from the context of the previous verses —the context of suffering, reproach and persecution for the name of Christ. Viewed in the light of the context, it becomes clear that the statement that ‘judgment must begin at the House of God’ neither refers to the Judgment Seat of Christ, nor lends support to the theory of future ‘purgatory’ — for which there is no scriptural evidence. Peter is still referring to the fiery trial of affliction which purifies the gold of the believer’s faith. If this suffering, this disciplinary judgment, is necessary for God’s people now — the “House of God,” — what an awful prospect is in store for “them that obey not the Gospel of God!” In verse 18, the word “scarcely” means “with difficulty,” and the word “saved” embraces all aspects of our salvation, particularly its present aspect of deliverance from trials, and tribulations. But for the power of God which keeps us, we should all be lost. If the righteous then are saved only with difficulty — through much affliction — and only by the preserving power of God, what hope is there for the ungodly and the sinners who leave God out of their lives? Wherefore, since suffering is in God’s will for us, we can with confidence commit our souls to His care and keeping, and trust Him to fulfil His purposes for us and guard us till He takes us home (v. 19).

Consequences of Suffering - (1 Peter 5:10)

It is surely appropriate that Peter’s final word on suffering in his first Epistle should be concerned with the issues of that suffering in the experience of the sufferer — the results which the “God of all grace,” in His infinite wisdom, and His wondrous grace, has designed for us. Notice the central clause of this verse, “after that ye have suffered a while.” The preceding section of the verse states the eternal results, and the closing section the present results that accrue ‘after’ suffering.

The present Consequences: As we quoted in our study of the first chapter of the Epistle, God has sovereign purposes in allowing suffering — for the refinement of our lives. Here these purposes are elaborated:

(a) “Make you perfect” not, of course, sinless; but fully equipped and qualified for the work to which God has called us. Suffering is part of the training in His school, fitting us for His service.

(b) “Stablish:” make steadfast. How easy it is to be discouraged even in doing the Lord’s work! So many put their hands to the plough and look back! In the school of suffering, we not only acquire fitness for service, but we learn also patience and steadfastness in service.

(c) “Strength:” In the physical realm, suffering weakens: who among us has not experienced the weakening effect of an illness, even a short one? In God’s school, however, suffering is given — to strengthen us —because it leads to greater dependence on God’s strength, which “is made perfect in weakness.”

(d) “Settle:” Suffering makes us ‘unmoveable’ as well as “steadfast” (1 Cor. 15:58). As the tree, in times of storm, plants its roots more deeply in the soil, so, in times of tribulation, we become more firmly “rooted … in Him” (Col. 2:7), more dependent on His resources, more closely drawn to Him to derive all from Him.

The Eternal Consequences: Were we only to reap the fruit of our suffering in time, it would still be worthwhile. Many of the greatest saints have been the greatest sufferers, and their sufferings have made them more saintly. But God’s purposes ripen in eternity — and what a harvest awaits the sufferer when he reaches the other side! For the God who has ‘called’ us to suffering — often unjustified (chap. 2:21), and to a life of blessing to others —often in response to evil and railing (chap. 3:9), has called us also to eternal glory. Eternal glory — the consummation of God’s desires and designs for His people; the grand climax of the working of His grace — for He is “the God of all grace;” and the blessed fruit of our little travail here in time! And how little and brief will that travail then seem! Note the contrast, “glory … after that ye have suffered,” “eternal … a while” (“a little while,” R.V.). “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).