I have a confession to make. I don’t love surprises. Of course, I love a surprise gift or a surprise text from a friend, but I don’t love surprises that bring unpleasantness into my life: the unexpected medical bill, the conflict with a friend I didn’t see coming, the problem with a child that pops up when I’m already stretched thin.
Surprises that bring unexpected circumstances that I wouldn’t choose are upsetting because not only is the circumstance upsetting — it is even more so because I had no way to prepare for its onset. Can you relate?
In 1 Peter 4:12-16, Peter, quite interestingly, touches on this idea of surprise when he addresses persecuted believers of his day and believers today, saying:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come to you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 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.
Perhaps God inspired Peter to write these words because He knew how believers would feel if blind-sided by persecution. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter counsels believers on how to view what is happening to them and what do in the midst of persecution. He reassures them so they can endure what they are going through or prepare them for future opposition (if they are not yet experiencing persecution). We can read his words and find comfort and reassurance for our own trial.
A few takeaways:
1. Persecution is not abnormal.
When we think of what we’re called to as Christians, we often think of the great mission God has called us to, the promises, the benefits. However, many of us do not focus on the fact that we are also called to suffering. Peter reassures believers here that we should not be “surprised,” nor think it “strange” when facing persecution because suffering is part of the Christian experience.
Peter says earlier in 1 Peter 2:21: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” The “this” that Peter refers to in this passage is suffering. All Christians all called to suffering because, as it tells us in the second part of the passage, “Christ suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example.”
Yet, if we’re not aware of the truth that suffering is part of the Christian experience, we might be overcome by out-of-control emotions in reaction to the persecution happening to us. I love the wording here in the text that we are to think it not strange — because that is exactly where our minds will go. In fact, the word “strange” here means we will feel like we’re in a strange country, in a place completely alien and foreign. We might even be offended that God led us to such a place, saying, “God, where are you? How could you allow this?”
And yet, as Peter assures us, to put us at ease if this is our experience or help us prepare for what lies ahead, he says that we shouldn’t be surprised by it. As one commentator* put it, we live in a world entirely opposed to Christian ideas. If we are living out our faith, at some point, how could our lifestyle and values not collide with the world’s? The clash is inevitable and should not take us aback, but should be that which we expect and embrace.
2. We can react rightly to the persecution.
If we drop down to verse 15, Peter says this: “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief of any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.” He makes it clear that we can expect persecution when we follow Jesus, but this persecution should not come as a result of wrong behavior on our part. In addition, when persecuted, as he elaborates on elsewhere in 1 Peter 3:14-16, we have a responsibility to act rightly in the midst of the trial.
Do not fear their threats, do not be frightened. But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.
When the flames burn brightly all around us, it is easy to step away from our devotion to Christ and react out of our flesh. Yet, as Peter emphasizes, even when experiencing great opposition, we can reflect Jesus. Our actions are being watched closely by those around us and reacting wrongly in our pain could affect how a person views the Gospel. Therefore, we must — with “gentleness” and a “clear conscience” — not repay evil for evil, but like Christ, act in accordance with godly principles even when we’re mistreated.
3. We are blessed when persecuted.
Lastly, not only is persecution something we should expect in our Christian walk, we can even rejoice in the midst of it! At first, this might appear upside down to our human logic, but verses 13-14 tell us: “But rejoice inasmuch as 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, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” As this passage indicates, to the extent we suffer is the extent to which we will rejoice at his return. Christ’s return will be all the more precious to us after we have participated in his suffering because we will have experienced the worst the world has to offer and appreciate all the more redemption from our pain.
Not only that, our suffering indicates the authenticity of our faith. Others see God in us, and His glory rests on us when we act in accordance to His will. While persecution isn’t what any of us necessarily envisioned as part of our walk with Christ, we can take comfort in knowing that while the suffering doesn’t feel good in the moment, it is producing in us qualities that cannot be produced any other way. Just as suffering taught Jesus when He was on earth, suffering is a tool God uses to mold us.
Persecution Comes to Test Us
I read a blog post this week written by Kay Warren, wife of Rick Warren. She talked about how she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in 2003 and melanoma in 2004. She is a woman who has certainly walked through the fire. Her perspective is so refreshing, though. She shares that because of her suffering she has developed, among other things, a deeper walk with Christ, the increased ability to empathize with others who are suffering, and a greater anticipation of heaven. She says: “[I have found through my trials] a joy that comes not in spite of suffering but because of suffering. I am in awe of the treasures, the hidden riches of joy, I have found in the secret places of darkness.”
While she has found treasures in the “secret places of darkness” in her life, I still look at all she has suffered and think, “Why, Lord. Why does she have to suffer? Is this the blessed life?” She has written inspiring Christian books. She is an advocate for people in in Africa. She helps her husband run a successful church. Why has God allowed all the pain that He has in her life?
Yet, when we look at 1 Peter 4:12 when it says that the “fiery trial” comes to test us — it is saying that we will have situations that are tailor-made to try us — to refine and purify us and prove the genuineness of our faith. It could be persecution from others — or it could be, as Warren has experienced, fiery trials in the form of cancer or other difficulties. The very trials that look so cruel are the very things God uses to shape us, even as they cause us pain and discomfort in the moment (2 Corinthians 4:17).
To be clear, I use Warren as an example of someone who has greatly suffered and has an admirable outlook about it, but I don’t know for sure why she has suffered what she has. We can suffer for so many reasons, and all calamity that befalls us is not necessarily a result of God trying to teach us something. In fact, we can suffer because we live in a fallen world and have illness as a result, or we can suffer because Satan afflicts us.
Whatever the case, in times of suffering, we can reframe our thinking and allow God to give us His perspective on our situation because otherwise our feelings of pain can cause us to push away from God and give way to feelings of suspicion, apathy, and despair. When the trial feels too severe, the betrayal too deep, the situation too hopeless — and we’re tempted to give up — we can draw comfort from these words written in 1 Peter and know that suffering is part of our calling. To trust Him in the midst of it means to accept His will even if we don’t like it and stay close to Him in the midst our trial, trusting that the trial is helping to turn us into what God intends for us to be.
*“Christians must cease to be what they are, or the world cease to be what it is, for them to escape persecution.” — The Evangelist.
Author’s Note: I added clarification about Warren in the conclusion after publication to make it more clear that her suffering serves as an example for us, but I am not sure why she has suffered what she has. In the Bible, suffering is presented as that which is under the sovereignty of God but can come for many reasons. To oversimplify suffering can be hurtful to those who are suffering. Suffering can happen because of the fallen world we live in, the affliction of Satan, as a consequence of sin, or because of God’s discipline. The best thing we can do for others in suffering is to be present and comforting, rather than offer words of advice or assume their suffering is a result of sin or God’s discipline (unless God gives us a word to prayerfully and wisely deliver). Even in cases where our suffering is a result of sin or God’s discipline, God, in His mercy forgives us when we ask and teaches us to go a better way.
Related Bible Verses:
2 Timothy 3:12: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Luke 6:22: “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.”
Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
Ever worry that you won’t ever be able to feel joy again and get out of your current slump? Join us for the next few weeks as we look at how to experience joy in seasons of suffering. Check out previous episodes: Part 1: “Joy in the Midst of Trials,” Part 2: “Navigating Suffering When We Want to Understand,” and Part 3: “How God Gives Us What We Need to Make It Through Our Difficult Circumstance.”
Podcast Notes & Corrections:
The story of the winds given in the podcast taken from this Streams in the Desert devotional.