Thursday, April 15, 2010

Facing Our Trials With Joy - 1 Peter 1:6-9

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For several decades, a disturbing trend has been developing under the umbrella of American Christianity that seems to have reached a pandemic state in recent years. I am referring to what is called “Prosperity Theology.” According to this movement, if you are following Christ faithfully, you will be wealthy, happy, and healthy; therefore if you are not wealthy, happy, and healthy, then you are either not following Christ, or else you lack faith or spiritual maturity. And if you were to survey the number of so-called Christian books and television ministries, you would find that a vast majority of the most popular ones are teaching this very notion. But the sad reality is that the New Testament makes no such claims. Rather, the Bible explicitly states that the followers of Jesus will endure much hardship and suffering in this world, much of it in direct proportion to their faithfulness and spiritual maturity. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In the world you have tribulation.” Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Those are pretty clear statements if you ask me. If we teach or believe that following Jesus means a life free of suffering, then not only do we violate the clear teachings of Scripture, but we also do spiritual harm to our souls and the souls of others. When the reality of suffering strikes them deeply, as it certainly will, they will be disillusioned, depressed, and devastated. It seems that the only people who really prosper on Prosperity Theology are the teachers of this heresy, who thrive on the contributions that flow toward them from the pockets of vulnerable people who can ill-afford it. Better for them, and for us, to be grounded in the truth of God’s Word, lest we be taken by surprise and overwhelmed by the suffering we will certainly face in this world. Peter tells us here that instead, we can meet life’s trials with joy. For many that may seem like an impossible contradiction; they tend to think that you can have joy or you can have hardships in life, but not both—at least not both at the same time. But what God’s Word tells us here is that it is possible to rejoice in life’s trials. More than possible, for many Christians it is certain that they will do so. So why? Why will we, why should we, why is it possible for us to face our trials with joy? Some of the reasons are found in these verses.
I. We rejoice in trials because of the nature of our joy.
Peter begins this text by saying, “In this you greatly rejoice ….” What is this? It refers back to what was stated in the previous section, vv3-5. Here we found a package of blessings that has been given to the followers of Jesus by God’s grace. It includes the new birth, our living hope, our imperishable inheritance, and our eternally secure salvation that have been purchased for us by Christ through His death and resurrection and imparted to us through faith in Him. These are the foundation for our joy. It is “in this” reality, that these blessings are ours in Christ, that we “greatly rejoice.” These blessings are primarily future-oriented and heavenly-focused, but here in verse 6 Peter brings us back to the present, earthly realities we find ourselves in. It is a stark contrast. The future promises the Christian “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away, reserved in heaven” (v4), but the present promises only the distress of “various trials” (v6). But it is the vision of what is to come that helps us to endure the present realities with joy. If we had no glimpse into what lies ahead for us as the people of God, then the hardships of this life would hardly be bearable.
Our joy is fixed in the knowledge the heavenly blessings that are ours in Christ. And nothing we endure in this world can take those away from us. As Peter said in vv4-5, this inheritance is reserved for us, and we are being protected by divine power for it. If our joy is too firmly affixed to the things of this world, we are in for certain disappointment. They will break, they will rot, they can be taken away, stolen, or lost. The heavenly blessings cannot. So, we must not make our present state of health, our financial stability, our material possessions, or our social status the gauge of joy in our lives, for they are fleeting. As we so often sing in Edward Mote’s glorious hymn from the 19th Century, “The Solid Rock”: In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil. The imagery Mote is referring to is the Holy of Holies, that inner-most sanctuary of the tabernacle and temple where the presence of God dwelt. And he reminds us in that hymn that in this life there will be turbulence – high and stormy gales – but our ship will not capsize for we are firmly anchored in the presence of God through our faith in Christ.
I had a dear friend in Bible College who came from a very poor and humble background. He didn’t have much to his name apart from his calling to preach the gospel. But on more than one occasion, when one of his few earthly possessions was lost or broken, I witnessed him shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh well, it will all burn one day.” Nothing on this earth apart from the Word of God and the souls of men will last forever. So, these earthly blessings, precious though they may be to us, must never become the source of our ultimate joy. The nature of our joy is that it is fixed on eternal matters that none of this life’s hardships can take away from us. For that reason, the text not only begins with a word about joy that is based on eternal matters, it ends that way too. In vv8-9, it is the reality of Christ Himself and the salvation that is ours for eternity that is the basis of our great rejoicing, with joy inexpressible and full of glory. We can rejoice in the midst of life’s hardships because our ultimate joy is not found in the things of this life. It is found in Christ and in our eternal relationship with Him. This is the nature of our joy that enables us to face trials with joy.
II. We rejoice in trials because of the nature of our sufferings.
We are told here in v6 that life in this world involves “various trials.” The word Peter uses here is used in some contexts to indicate “multicolored.” Indeed, we are faced with a wide variety of hardships in life. I have shared this before in other settings, but always like to just review the various areas of suffering that we encounter: 1) Moral evil, wherein someone makes a sinful choice to harm us directly or indirectly in some way, or wherein the consequences of our sinful choices cause suffering for us and others; 2) Physical suffering, which involves pain, injury, disease, and ultimately physical death because our physical bodies are corrupted by sin and are wearing out as we live; 3) Natural disaster, wherein storms of all kinds, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural forces inflict loss and suffering on people; 4) Suffering for righteousness sake, wherein we undergo trials for no other reason than that we stand for Jesus Christ. Those four categories encapsulate every instance of suffering imaginable. Every hardship we face is classified in one of those or the other, perhaps in some rare cases, straddling the lines of two or more. And though many of Peter’s readers were experiencing this fourth kind of suffering—suffering for righteousness sake—none of them were exempt from any of these “various trials.” Nor are we. But our ability to rejoice in suffering is not the result of being able to diagnose it in one of these categories. Our joy comes from understanding the nature that all of them share.
First, notice that our sufferings, no matter their source, are temporary. We rejoice, “even though now for a little while,” we are “distressed by various trials.” Notice those words: for a little while. This past Tuesday morning in Ames, Iowa, the oldest person in America died. Neva Morris was 114 years and 246 days old. Now, let’s just take her for an example. Suppose that every single day of Neva Morris’s life had been filled with suffering … all heartache, and no joy at all. That’s 114 years of suffering; can you even imagine? Now, I don’t know if she was a believer in Jesus, so I won’t speculate on her eternal destiny, but let’s say for argument’s sake, she went to heaven. How long do you think she would be in heaven before she realized how brief those 114 years were? How long would she have to gaze on the face of the risen Lord Jesus Christ before she conceded that all her sufferings in this life were like the morning dew that is here one minute and gone the next? Bede, the 8th Century monk, wrote, “Once we have entered our eternal reward, the years we spent suffering will seem like nothing at all.” But all of life is not suffering ONLY is it? No, life is hard, but it is punctuated throughout with momentary experiences of delight. And those moments come to us as reminders that sorrow and suffering doesn’t last forever. It has an expiration date. Robert Leighton, the great Scottish preacher of the 17th Century, said this: “Because we willingly forget eternity, the moment looms large in our eyes. But if we look at it correctly, how little we would be concerned about our present condition on earth.” Surely, some of us may experience more hardship than others in this life, but for all of us who are in Christ by faith, it is all just temporary. It’s for a little while.
Then notice that our trials may be necessary. Peter is writing, but remember, he is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and he says here that we greatly rejoice in our eternal blessings in Christ, “even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials.” Now, the word if is an important one. It does not mean that all the suffering we face is necessary, nor does it specifically mean that any of the suffering that a particular Christian faces is necessary. But it does mean that some of it may be necessary. Surely God is able to prevent suffering, but He often does not prevent it. In some cases, as Peter will say in 3:17, God may even will that some suffering occurs, and sometimes those cases will seem unjust to the sufferer. But God is not unjust. He has a purpose and a plan in all that He wills to occur. And sometimes suffering is a necessary part of His will.
I have already stated that some suffering is simply a matter of cause and effect. God created the world with a built in set of consequences for sin. Much of that, such as the corruption that works within our physical bodies, was set in motion by the first sin. The natural disasters that often wreak havoc on the planet may be residual effects of the global flood in the days of Noah which involved a massive geological and atmospheric upheaval as God poured out judgment on the wickedness of the world. Some is merely the result of sinful choices people make, directly or indirectly. Included in this category of the cases of unbelievers persecuting Christians for their faith. But why would God not will that all of this be stopped? Why would He make the suffering in any of these cases, especially this latter one, a necessary part of His will? Some matters will be a divine mystery until we enter heaven and find all our plaguing questions either answered in the light of His glory or else fade from view altogether. But some of our questions are answered in the divine revelation of God’s Word, and that is the case here.
We are told here in verse 7 that some of the suffering we endure as we follow Jesus is for the purpose of proving the genuineness of our faith. But for whose benefit is this proof? It would be folly to say that the testing proves the genuineness of our faith to God. He already knows us intimately, inside-and-out, and needs no proof of the sincerity of our faith or the lack thereof. But it is often the case that we ourselves do not know the genuineness of our own faith. As Jeremiah said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). You and I don’t even know the depths of our own souls, and so in proving our faith, God is allowing us to see our true standing from His perspective. Many of us can testify to undergoing some trial, and looking back on it in disappointment over how poorly we handled it. Some of us have found that we are handling difficult circumstances better the longer we walk with Christ. And in these moments, God is showing us how He is developing our spiritual maturity, and in some cases, how far we have to go! Think of Abraham when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Did God know if Abraham loved Him more than Isaac? Surely He did. But Abraham did not even know this about himself, until God proved his faith in that very trying moment. Suffering can be a spiritual mirror that God uses to show us our own reflection, in order to show us the true condition of our souls.

But also there is another audience for this proving that God does through our suffering. The people around us are watching our lives to see if Jesus Christ makes a difference in how we live through hardship. It is one thing to stand before them while our lives are going well and theirs are going poorly and say, “Oh friend, you really need to turn to Jesus!” But when the roles are reversed, and they are in happy prosperity while we are burdened with a great load of care, can we show them in that moment that Jesus makes a difference in how we suffer? Can we show them that Christ is so priceless a treasure to us that we can rejoice in Him even though all around us is falling apart? There are times when it is necessary for us to suffer so that God can prove to the world that our faith in Christ is genuine, and that faith in Him transforms us in a radical way. Think of David, who fasted and prayed through the sickness of his newborn child, but when he learned that the child died, he ate, cleansed himself, and went to worship God. When his companions asked him why the change of heart from one moment to the next, David replied, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, 'Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.' But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:22-23). The genuineness of his faith was proven to those around him through this suffering. So God may use our suffering to prove the genuineness of our faith to others.

Then we might also say that in some cases, God uses our suffering in order to prove the genuineness of our faith to Satan and his demons. Satan is not all-knowing. He doesn’t know the depth of our faith, but he operates to undo us all, assuming that we can be easily led astray from the Lord. And sometimes God allows us, even wills us, to undergo suffering so that the genuineness of our faith may be proven to the hostile spiritual forces. Think of Job. Remember that Job 1 tells us that Job’s suffering was God’s idea. Satan had been roaming about on the earth, perhaps doing as Peter will say in 1 Peter 5:8, prowling around like a lion seeking someone to devour. And it was God who said, “Have you considered my servant Job?” But Satan suggested that Job only feared the Lord because God had protected him from harm. And at this, God allowed Satan to have his way with Job, in order to prove to Satan that Job’s faith was genuine. So it seems to me that while we often emphasize Job’s confidence in God, a more important reality is God’s confidence in Job to withstand the unprecedented and unrivaled suffering that was inflicted upon him by Satan and to come through it with his faith in God still in tact. Have you even thought that God may be using the hardships you are experiencing to prove to Satan that you belong to Him and that your faith in Him is steadfast?

Job understood that what he was experiencing was a test, and was able to proclaim, “When He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Interestingly, that is the same imagery that Peter uses here in our text. He says that our proven faith is more precious than gold. In talking about joy and suffering, Peter is contrasting things of heaven and things of earth, and that contrast continues with the comparison of faith and gold. To most people, gold is the most valuable commodity that earth has to offer. But from heaven’s perspective, genuine faith is more valuable by far. Like gold, faith is purified in the refiner’s fire. Precious metals are heated to the melting point and the impurities separate and are skimmed away so that what is left is only the pure substance. Martin Luther said, “Just as the fire does no harm to the gold, devours it not, neither diminishes it, but only serves it, for it takes from it all dross, so that it becomes indeed pure and genuine, just so does the fire and heat of persecution and all opposition (and we might add all other suffering as well) indeed grieve us and cause us pain beyond measure, so that those who are thus tried become sad and for a time impatient; yet their faith will thereby become pure and genuine, like refined gold.” Yet, even gold will eventually perish. Peter says here that it is perishable, and in 2 Peter 3:10, he will say that all the elements of the earth will be destroyed with intense heat on the final day of judgment. But in that day, genuine faith in Christ will be shown to be imperishable, and will last for eternity.

And in that day, all of the hardship we have endured with joy in this life will be transformed into “praise and glory and honor” when we see Christ face to face, at the moment of His revelation. Prior to that day, we do not see Him with our eyes; we behold Him by faith. But when faith gives way to sight, we will praise Him, give Him glory and honor for all that He has done for us, and others will praise and glorify and honor Him as well. In fact, along the way, some may even turn to Christ before that day because of the joy they see in your life that is anchored in Christ in the midst of the storms you travel through. So recognizing that our trials in this life are temporary, are sometimes a necessary part of God’s will to prove the genuineness of our faith, and will eventually result in praise, glory and honor being given to Christ forever enables to hold fast to joy in the midst of the suffering we endure here and now.

Now our final point here in this text:
III. We rejoice in trials because of the nature of our Savior.

Sometimes, suffering enters our life like a Tsunami. All appears hopeless and everything that can be is shaken from its moorings. The temptation in that moment is to say, “Where is God in all this?” And the answer is that He is right where He has always been – sovereignly enthroned as Lord over it all. He was there on the darkest day of earth’s history when sinful men nailed the Holy Son of God to the cross, and He is there on the darkest day of your life. And in fact, in those moments, you also are exactly where you have been ever since your first turned to Jesus by faith: right in the palm of His hand. Is God a liar? Absolutely not! Has He promised you that you will never suffer in this life? He has not. But has He promised you that as His child He will never leave you nor forsake you? He most certainly has. And His word is truth!

Peter says, “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice.” How is that we can rejoice in Him and love Him when we cannot see Him? How can we believe in Him when it seems at time that He is absent? The fact is that we would neither love, nor believe, nor rejoice in Him had we not already discovered His infinite love for us and His faithfulness to us, His trustworthiness, and found Him to be the source of all true joy in this life and the life to come. Our love, our belief, and our joy is merely as response to the divine initiative He has taken in our lives to draw us close to Himself through the cross of Jesus. And the fact that we love, and believe, and rejoice, in spite of never having seen Him with any eye other than the eye of faith, means that we are blessed beyond measure according to Christ’s own promise. In John 20:29, Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

So we rejoice in Christ in the midst of life’s trials because of His love, His faithfulness, and the joy He supplies to us. On this basis, we love Him, we believe in Him, yes, and we rejoice in Him with joy unspeakable and full of glory. And we rejoice knowing that the day of His revelation is coming. The day is coming when we will see Him face to face, and on that day, as a result of our faith in Him, we will, as Peter writes in v9, obtain “as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” We endure these days with joy, because our eyes are fixed on that day. And we know that in that day, because of His perfect justice, all wrongs will be made right; and because of His grace, He will receive us unto Himself if we have trusted Him to save us.

I don’t know what you may be going through today, but I can imagine that all of us are in the same boat. We are either experiencing suffering of some kind to some degree, or we have just come through a season of suffering, or we are getting ready to enter into such a season. I am neither a prophet nor a psychic, but I know that those things must be true based on what God’s word teaches us about living in this fallen world. And I also know that it is possible for us to endure such sufferings with joy. Our joy is not rooted in the circumstances of this life, but in the eternal realities of the blessings we have received in Christ. Our joy is possible because we understand that these trials are temporary, they may be necessary for proving the genuineness of our faith, and they are producing praise and glory and honor for Jesus. Our joy is firmly fixed in the nature of Jesus Himself, the One whom we love because He first loved us; the One in whom we trust because we have found Him faithful; the One whom we have found to be the source of all real joy; and the One who will right every wrong in the day of His appearing. Life will bring the suffering; Jesus will provide the joy for those whose hearts are fixed steadfastly on Him.

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