A consistent theme in the first epistle Peter wrote is that suffering will come and when it does, there is a way to face it that will honor God. This holds open the possibility that we can suffer in a way that dishonors our calling as believers. Looking at what Peter said helps us to know how believers should respond to suffering.
The Example of the Lord Jesus
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” (1 Peter 2:18-19)
Injustice is prominent today, and indeed, there are many examples of unfair treatment and inequity in all kinds of ways. It was true in Peter’s day as well. He acknowledges it as well as the case where believers suffer unjustly. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle is speaking of those who are servants, who are under authority. The word here is not that used of bondservants or slaves, but of a household servant. Slavery was common in the ancient world, but even if it is not our situation today, there is no one who is not under some authority.
Just prior to this advice to servants, Peter said “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (2:18). The point is such subjection may bring unjust suffering, but how we respond to it is important. Our witness is on display in the way we endure unjust suffering. How are we to do it? Peter says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
When they beat and abused him, Jesus did not open his mouth; he did not curse his tormentors. When they nailed him to the cross, he did not invoke God’s wrath upon those who did this to him. As he was dying, he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In his suffering and death, Peter says, the Lord Jesus provides the pattern for how Christians are to endure unjust suffering.
Suffering for the Testimony of Christ
In chapter 3 of the epistle, Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (3:9). The apostle counts on bad behavior from those who do not belong to Christ. It’s a given that believers will be reviled, that the world intends evil against us. Do not be surprised by this! As it was true in Peter’s day, it is true today. Many centuries of Christian history have insulated us against this truth. When laws and human institutions acknowledged God, it was easy to think society was, in some way, “Christianized.”
It isn’t a bad thing if the world today begins to resemble that of the first century. It peels back the veneer, especially in the West, that we live in a Christian society. When biblical writers use the word “world,” they most often mean that which is opposed to God. This has not changed. Peter is keen to advise believers, while we cannot control circumstances, we can control how we respond to ill-treatment, to reviling, even to persecution.
Recall in the book of Acts, early on in their ministry, the Sanhedrin subjected the apostles to a beating. This is the same body that had pronounced a sentence of death against the Lord Jesus. How did the apostles respond? “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:31) They rejoiced at suffering, considering it an honor to suffer because of their association with the name of Jesus. We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of this witness.
If you have never heard of Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand, they are a modern example of suffering for the testimony of Christ. Imprisoned for many years in Romania, their captors tortured and beat them regularly, and Richard was close to death several times. Their patient example of loving their oppressors, praying for them, and trusting the Lord through unspeakable suffering was a powerful case of suffering well.
When we do not respond with evil, we obtain God’s blessing, and we represent the Lord Jesus well. In fraught times such as we live in, it is important for Christians to remember this and to make it our goal.
Is Suffering an Anomaly?
Some people have the idea that living a Christian life means suffering is not normal. Indeed, if we’re suffering, then something must be wrong. But this is false. While our sin can bring grief and pain, that’s not the same as the suffering Peter has in view here. In 4:12, Peter tells his readers, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Peter says two important things here. Firstly, this response should not surprise us. It is neither strange nor extraordinary. To be a believer in the Lord Jesus is to declare oneself opposed to the world and its direction. Should it come as a surprise when the world responds in opposition?
Secondly, Peter says this is to test us. Testing and trial are a refining process. Peter wants his readers to recall how he began his letter in 1:7. “You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire.” In metallurgy, the process of refining is to remove impurities, sometimes called dross, in order to have a purer result. This is what Peter calls the “tested genuineness” of faith. As the hymn “How Firm A Foundation” says,
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie
My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine
It’s easy to affirm these things when we read them in Scripture. When we experience our own suffering, it challenges us to reckon upon these truths in a way we can’t anticipate until we require grace to do so. Christian, be encouraged that if you are suffering, God is at work. It is neither abnormal nor a sign of God’s displeasure. On the contrary, it is evidence of adoption—that we belong to him. He is refining your faith. He is purging your dross. His goal is that one day, this will “result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:7)
Matt Ferris lives in Wheaton, Illinois and is involved in Bible study ministry in his local church. He is also active in children's ministry and has written a number of hymns. His books include Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life and Losing Religion, Finding Jesus: Moving beyond Cultural Christianity. He and his wife have been married since 1987 and have four adult children and six grandchildren. He blogs at gentlemantheologian.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrismattic.