A major theme of 1 Peter is how the Christian responds to suffering for their faith. The nature of the persecution Peter’s readers were facing included:
- Mocking (4:4)
- Slander (3:16)
- Injustice (2:19)
- Threats (2:14)
- Insults (4:14)
- Verbal Abuse (2:9, 23)
Slaves (2:18) and wives (3:1) who had converted to Christianity were particularly vulnerable due to their low social status. Peter calls all the believers to look to the example of Jesus who responded not by anger or cursing but with blessing (2:9). They also called to rejoice in the midst of their suffering (1:8, 4:13), for a number of reasons:
- They identify with Christ who suffered (1:11,2:21,4:13)
- Their gracious response serves as a powerful witness (3:1,16)
- Their faith is purified (1:7, 4:12)
- They will be vindicated, just as Jesus was (1:7)
- They will develop endurance (2:20)
- They experience victory in their battle against sin (4:1)
- They inherit a blessing and experience God’s presence with them (4:14)
Strikingly, Peter is willing to describe suffering for Christ as being “in God’s will” (4:19). Many Christians find the concept of suffering being God’s will for us very hard to accept, and inevitably the question will come as to what type of suffering Christians can embrace as God’s will for them. Is it only persecution for the gospel, or can other types of suffering, such as illness be embraced in the same way?
Jeremy Pierce reports in his excellent roundup of 1 Peter commentaries that Peter Davids “distinguishes between suffering from persecution and suffering from illness, taking [persecution] to be the only kind of suffering that Christians are being told to endure, since it’s the explicit context of the letter, but we should pray for God to remove illness of any sort.” Jeremy takes issue with this because it does not take into account 2 Cor 12:7-10 (Paul’s thorn in the flesh, resulting in him declaring “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”) and Acts 12:5 (“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”). Not having Davids’ commentary I’m not sure exactly what he claims or exactly what Jeremy’s pronlem with it is. Praying for removal of suffering is not mutually exclusive to enduring through suffering, and the two will often be found together in the life of a believer.
To answer this question we must distinguish between a number of types of suffering that a Christian may experience. First is suffering for the sake of the gospel, which is the specific issue addressed in 1 Peter. Peter’s point is not that we may not pray for God to remove the suffering (after all, even Jesus prayed that the cup should be taken from him), but that we should not compromise on truth or righteous living in order to escape suffering (just as Jesus went on to pray that God’s will be done rather than his own). This type of suffering can be rejoiced in, because we know God’s blessing will come upon us for faithfulness.
There is also a type of suffering experienced as a consequence of our own sinful actions, whether being injured in some way, or perhaps being punished by the authorities. If a Christian commits a crime, or breaks the rules of their workplace, they cannot expect to be blessed in some way for this. Peter actually speaks to this kind of suffering a few times in his letter (3:20,4:15). We should not try to present ourselves as heroes of the faith if we are punished for something we did wrong. A church should not claim to be suffering for righteousness if it fails to comply with tax regulations, and a missionary should not claim to be persecuted if they are ejected from a country for failing to apply for a new visa.
A third type of suffering would be that described as the discipline of God, spoken of a number of times in the Bible (Ps 94:12, Prov 3:12, 1 Cor 11:32, Heb 12:4-11, Rev 3:19). This type of suffering is not so much to be rejoiced in as to be discerned as being God’s correction on our lives. We will reap the benefit of a transformed character. Praying for God to remove this type of suffering may be legitimate, but not if we simultaneously refuse to learn the lesson he is teaching us through it.
A fourth type of suffering is tragedy and loss. Examples include bereavement, being the victim of a crime or losing one’s job. This type of suffering is often about dealing with loss, and in many cases what is lost cannot be restored again. Again we would hardly call for rejoicing in this type of suffering, but it provides a test of our faith. We can either draw closer to God and lean on him for the resources to come to terms with what has happened and trust him for the future, or we can question and blame God, and distance ourselves from him. So this type of suffering can be an occasion to come closer to God.
The final type of suffering to consider is sickness. This is the controversial one, as Christians differ as to whether sickness can ever be in God’s will for the believer. Certainly there is an element of mystery as to why not all who pray for healing receive it, when others do. But just as we would never counsel someone to avoid the doctor if they were ill, so that they could benefit from the opportunity to grow in character that comes through suffering, neither should we discourage people from earnestly praying for healing. (In fact, the latest newfrontiers magazine is devoted to stirring faith for healing, something that the Western evangelical church is distinctly lacking in. Sadly not online yet, but check here for the April-June 2007 issue).
Sickness provides the same “test” of faith that other forms of suffering bring, and so it can be the occasion for our maturing in character and growing in the knowledge of God. But that does not mean that we should welcome sickness as a pathway to holiness. There are other means provided for us for our spiritual growth. So while a person who is ill can take comfort from the fact that God can use their unfortunate condition to bring about good in their life, this is not an excuse for passively accepting it. God can also bring glory to his name through healing you, and work through you to extend his kingdom as he gives you the health to serve him.
So I will summarise with the words of James 1:1,2: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” This is the Christian response to all forms of suffering (including persecution and sickness). We know that we have a God who works all things together for our good, so we have confidence that in our suffering, he is transforming us to be more like Jesus. But at the same time we will not feel unable to petition God to remove our suffering, or to take practical steps to avoid it, as long as doing so does not involve moral compromise.