Monday, July 26, 2010

Suffering that Pleases God (1 Peter 2:18-20)

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I had a preaching professor once who said that if you preach on suffering, you will never lack an audience. Indeed, suffering seems to be one universal constant in the human experience. Suffering is our daily reminder that things are not right in this world. For this reason, skeptics and cynics will say that if there really was an all good, all powerful God, then there would not be all of this suffering. Since there is so much suffering, of such a great degree, and so seemingly unequal in its distribution, then God must not exist, or else He is not all good, or else He is not all powerful. If He exists, and if He is all good, He would want to eliminate suffering. If He could not, then He is not all powerful. So goes the argument known as “the problem of evil and suffering.” When asked why we believe in an all-good, all-powerful Creator, we will often say, “Look at the universe.” Interestingly, C. S. Lewis once admitted that when he was an atheist, if you had asked him why he didn’t believe, he would have responded, “Look at the universe we live in.” In his mind, the chaos and disorder, the suffering and the evil that existed in the world seemed to suggest that there was no god. But looking back on those days of unbelief many years later, Lewis said, “There was one question which I never dreamed of raising. … If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?” Lewis said, “In a sense, (Christianity) creates, rather than solves the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”

This is exactly what we claim isn’t it? That God is real, He is all-knowing and all-powerful, Jesus is Lord, and, yes, there is unimaginable suffering going on in the world. To some, this is an insurmountable paradox. But to those of who are the followers of Christ, these are the inescapable realities of life in a world corrupted by sin. Sin is at the root of suffering, and God has acted to kill the problem at the root through the death and resurrection of Christ. There is coming a day when we will live free of sin’s presence, and in that day we will also enjoy the absence of sin’s effects on our lives and on our society. Until that day, there will be suffering, because there will be sin, and much of that suffering will be seemingly unjust. God is not unconcerned with suffering, nor is He unable to do anything about suffering. God is sovereign over all that occurs in life, and He has a purpose in all suffering, even when we do not know what that purpose is. In some cases, God is able to bring glory to Himself through our suffering. In our text today, Peter addresses this very issue – suffering in such a way that God is glorified. Is it possible for God to pleased in our suffering? Because suffering is a result of sin, God is not pleased with the fact that we suffer, but as we will see in this text, it is possible for God to pleased with us in the midst of our suffering. Twice in this text we read concerning unjust suffering that “this finds favor with God.” We might recoil from the thought of our suffering finding favor with God, but the passage does not indicate that all suffering is pleasing to Him. There are certain occasions, however, when our suffering finds favor with him.

I. God is pleased when we suffer through difficult obedience (v18)

It does not escape our notice that the passage before us today is addressed primarily to “servants.” The term used here is not the general one used throughout the New Testament for those who serve others, but it is a specific term referring to the household slaves of the Roman world. By definition, slaves had no personal rights, and were viewed as the property of their masters. Some were treated well by their masters, while many were treated harshly. Underlying the treatment of slaves was the assumption that they were somehow less than human. Aristotle said that “a slave is a living tool,” while Varro, a Roman nobleman, wrote that the only thing distinguishing a slave from a beast or a cart was that the slave could talk. The writers of the New Testament did not see their task as revolutionaries, overturning social systems. Rather they understood that the gospel, rightly-applied, transforms individuals first, and transformed individuals change the world. Therefore, they never address the system, just the people inside the system. So, Peter, and elsewhere Paul, speaks to the Christian slaves instructing them to live out their Christian faith within the system of slavery. Several times in Paul’s letters, masters are addressed the same way: to treat their slaves as real people, and when they are believers in Christ, to treat them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Over time, the institution of slavery in the ancient world was eventually revolutionized as Christians within the system were transformed by the power and the word of God. At the time Peter was writing, however, that transformation had not taken place. Many Christians found themselves enslaved to others, and some were treated better than others by their masters.

Peter’s words to these enslaved Christians is the same as it is to all people when it comes to the Christian perspective on authority. He exhorts them to be submissive to their masters, just as all of us are to be submissive to authority figures, whether kings or governors, or any other authorities. This attitude recognizes that God is sovereign over our station in life, and that no authorities exist except those which God has allowed to exist.

Now, none of us are slaves, but all of us are under human authority figures of some kind, whether in government or in the workplace, or in any other way. And sometimes, we are treated well and fairly by those authorities. Other times, we are treated harshly and unfairly by them. Slaves in the ancient world faced those same realities. And you will notice that Peter does not say here, “Masters, make sure you are nice to your slaves.” He has no word for masters here. Perhaps there were none in the church at that time. Instead, he says, “Servants (or slaves), be submissive to your masters … not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.” The Greek word translated here as “unreasonable” is the word skoliois. You have heard of the medical condition scoliosis, which is a curving of the spine. The Greek word means “crooked” or “curved,” and when applied to people, it referred to those who were dishonest or wicked. So here God’s word commands those who are under the authority of such people as this to submit to them anyway.

The principle here echoes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” It is easy to submit to those who are good and gentle toward you. You don’t need the empowering of the Holy Spirit and a Gospel-transformed life to do that. Jesus said even tax collectors and Gentiles, the proverbial epitomes of unrighteousness in that day, are able to love those who love them back. But in order to submit to those who are “crooked” toward us, harsh and wicked, those who oppose and persecute us, we have to depend on resources that are not our own. We must have the empowering of the indwelling Holy Spirit to do what would otherwise not come naturally.

This is difficult obedience. But remember that the issue here is not merely obedience to the human master or authority figure. The issue is obedience to God, who commands us to do this. That is why Peter says it is to be done with all respect. Literally, this would be translated with all fear. The Greek word is phobos, same word that is used in 1:17, where he says we are to conduct ourselves in fear. The obvious intention is that it is for the fear of the Lord that we do this. We submit to harsh masters because God has commanded us to and empowered us to. In worshipful fear of Him, we choose to obey Him even when it is difficult.

Martin Luther said, “Let the master be as he may, I will serve him, and do it to honor God, since he requires it of me, and since my master, Christ, became a servant for my sake. … If God should command you to wash the devil’s feet, or those of the worse wretch, you are to do it, and this work would be just as much a good work as the highest of all, when God calls you to it.” We must not fear that suffering always means that God is not pleased with us. In some cases, particularly when our obedience to Him leads to suffering at the hands of difficult people, God is pleased with us and our suffering rises to Him as a fragrant offering. It finds favor to suffer through difficult obedience.

II. God is pleased when we suffer for His sake (v19).

Everyone suffers in life. Not everyone suffers for the same reason. There is physical suffering that we experience because we live in bodies that are corruptible and dying because of sin’s effect on humanity. For this reason, we are subject to everything from colds to cancer, arthritis to AIDS, hernias to heart attacks. Some experience natural suffering as a result of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like. These things happen because the curse on sin has ruptured the created order and subjected the world to all kinds of disasters. Some suffer because of sin, either their own sin or the sins someone commits against them. And then there are those who suffer for no other reason than that they belong to Christ. God is not pleased with all manners of suffering; but He has told us in His word that suffering for His sake, because we belong to Him and are faithful to Him, finds favor with Him. Peter says here in verse 19 that we find favor with God when we suffer for the sake of conscience toward God.

Often when we talk about salvation, we focus only on the fact that Jesus died to remove our sins. While this is of infinitely great importance, it is really only half of the Gospel. The other half is that God has credited us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That means that He views us as bearing the perfect righteousness that Jesus demonstrated in His sinless life. Now, this means that wonderful privileges are in store for us – the temporal blessings God lavishes on us here and now, and the eternal blessings that are awaiting us in heaven. But, if God treats us the same as He treats Christ, then we can expect that the world will treat us as it treated Christ also. And that may not be the best news you hear today. Jesus experienced unjust suffering throughout His life, culminating in His death on the cross. And He promises His followers that we cannot expect better treatment at the hands of this fallen world than He experienced. In John 15, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”

He also said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Notice He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you if people insult you and persecute you … because of Me.” He said, “when.” We have many precious promises in God’s Word, and this is one we often wish wasn’t there perhaps. We have the assurance that we will suffer for the sake of God in Christ. Paul said to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

In greater or lesser ways, throughout a Christian’s life there will come dilemmas when standing for Christ will mean suffering, while compromising our convictions will lead to an easier path. We must remember when we stand at that crossroads that the Bible promised us these days will come, and great men and women of faith have stood this test at great personal cost throughout history. We must remember that Jesus said it would happen and that we would be blessed when it does. And Peter tells us here that when we suffer because we follow Christ, when we suffer for the sake of our conscience toward God, this kind of suffering finds favor with God.

III. God is pleased when we suffer for doing right (v20)

Have you heard the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”? Perhaps some of us have been on the receiving end of suffering for doing what we thought was the good or right thing to do. And then there are times when we suffer because we deserve it. We reap what we sow, and the consequences of our own sin or wrongdoing catches up with us. Now it may seem that God would be pleased when people suffer for wrongdoing, and not pleased when we suffer for doing right. Certainly there is some measure of truth in this. God is glorified through justice being done and wrongs being made right. And certainly God takes no pleasure in the occurrence of unjust suffering. But in cases of unjust suffering, where someone is suffering for doing right, God can be glorified in the actions and attitude of the believer who chose to do right, even knowing that it may bring suffering as a result.

There are some things we just never have to pray about. One of those is the choice to do right or do wrong. We know, when faced with the options of doing what we know is right or sinning by disobeying God, that sin is never the choice God will bless. If you suffer because you did something wrong, God is glorified in justice being done, but not glorified in your actions that led to the suffering. But often, our choices are not so clear-cut as choosing to actively do right or actively do wrong. Sometimes our choice is between doing what is good, doing what is better, and doing what is best. These are difficult decisions to make, and we need to pray about that so that we have God’s wisdom in weighing the choices and making the one that will bring the most glory to Him. Still, at other times, our choices are to do right or to do nothing. Perhaps we calculate that there is risk in doing right, possible suffering to endure if we choose to do right, and this paralyzes us into a state of inactivity. We deem the risk too great, the fear of the unknown insurmountable. So, we do nothing. And God does not bless that. He is not glorified by that.

God is glorified when we do right, in spite of the outcome. When we do right, even if suffering will follow, this finds favor with God. This does not mean that we are to be cavalier and throw caution to the wind. There are calculations to make. Does doing something good come at the expense of doing something better? Does the short-term good, nullify the long-term good? All of these considerations need prayer and biblical meditation, and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. But the point here is to say that if we take a risk and do something good, something right, something that honors God, and suffer because of it, our suffering in that event will find favor with God. We need not fear that such suffering is an indicator that He did not approve of what we did. He may even use our suffering in those situations to magnify the glory He brings to Himself through our actions. Are you faced with a decision? If it comes down to doing right versus doing wrong, that is easy. We know we are to do right. What if it comes down to doing good versus doing nothing? If we opt to do nothing on the chance that we are avoiding suffering then perhaps we need to rethink our decision. Perhaps we need to take the risk and do right, and accept the suffering that comes. If our decision comes down to choosing between good, better, and best, then we need to prayerfully consider the short and long term ramifications, pray for the Spirit to guide us and empower us, exercise biblical wisdom, seek out godly counsel, and then by all means act as we feel led of the Lord. And if suffering should come as a result, so be it. At least we are suffering for doing good, which finds far more favor with God than suffering for doing wrong or suffering for doing nothing.

Now finally, …
IV. God is pleased when we endure suffering with patience (vv19-20)

We do not ever want to give the impression that our righteous and loving God takes pleasure in seeing anyone suffer, especially in seeing unjust suffering. Because of His great love, He is filled with mercy and grace toward humanity, the bearers of His image in the created order. This is why, even when it comes to the suffering of the wicked, God is moved with pity. In Ezekiel 33:11, He says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his evil way and live.” God has made a way of salvation available to us all through the cross of Jesus Christ so that none of us will experience the suffering that our sins deserve. Christ has received the suffering our sins deserve in His death, so that we might be able to turn from our evil ways and live. So even when our suffering is the result of something we have done wrong, we have still not received the full measure of what we deserve. Christ received the full measure of what our sins deserve, and expressed the agony of that dark wrath as He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The suffering we still experience in life is a result, in one way or another, of sin’s lingering effects in this fallen world. And when we suffer unjustly, we must not say that God is pleased with the bare fact that we are suffering. Still, in the midst of the suffering, He can be pleased with us when we face the suffering with patient endurance.

Peter says in verse 20, “What credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?” The implied answer is that there is no credit in this. You got what you deserved in that case, and you very well should patiently endure your consequences. Such patient endurance under those circumstances is evidence of repentance and contrition. But Peter says that when we suffer for doing right, and patiently endure that suffering, this finds favor with God. It is not the suffering itself that God takes pleasure in; for what would that say about our God? Rather it is our response to that suffering that brings Him pleasure, namely when we patiently endure it. In verse 19, he speaks of the righteous person bearing up under the sorrow of unjust suffering. That is a vivid way of depicting this kind of patient endurance. You can envision the ancient image of Atlas holding up the world on his shoulders, bearing up with strength and courage. The wording here indicates that we are under this burdensome weight of suffering and sorrow, but we find strength and courage to stand under it. This strength and courage comes from the Lord, who supplies our every need through His indwelling Spirit. On our own, we do not have what it takes to bear ourselves up under the sorrow of that unjust suffering. We do not the ability to patiently endure. But God can produce this in us if we yield ourselves to the Spirit’s power in those moments. And as we do, God is glorified in us in the midst of our unjust suffering.

How is God glorified in this? There are several ways. First, patiently enduring unjust suffering demonstrates our confidence in God’s sovereignty. When we react to our own unjust suffering with impatience and anger, it is as if we are saying that this matter has gotten out of God’s control and we must take control of it for ourselves. But nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, is ever outside of God’s sovereign control. Patient endurance when we suffer for doing right makes a bold statement to those around us that we believe God is in control and we trust Him. Second, and related to the first, is that when we patiently endure unjust suffering, we testify to our faith in God’s faithfulness to us. We say with our actions and attitudes in those situations that we believe God is good and that He loves us and that He will not bring us more than we can bear with His power. We proclaim that we believe that God will act in His time and in His way, and when He does, it will be perfect. He does not need us to get ahead of Him and undermine what He desires to do according to His perfect will.

Another reason why there is “credit” in patiently enduring unjust suffering, why it finds favor with God, is that it demonstrates the transformation of our lives into the image of Christ. How do you know how well you are progressing in sanctification? God desires to make you more like Jesus; how do you know how far He has brought you? Do you find your hair growing longer, and a beard developing on your face? Are you suddenly more drawn to robes and sandles for your wardrobe? No. Can you tell how well you are progressing spiritually in times of prosperity and abundance? Perhaps, but it seems that most often we find the sanctifying work of the Spirit most clearly displayed in our suffering. Jesus experienced more suffering than any of us ever will, and ALL of it was undeserved. A good bit of our suffering is often deserved; but when we suffer for doing right, we can measure our response to those situations according to how Jesus handled those situations. And when we find ourselves become more able to patiently endure those things, we become aware of how far the Spirit of God has brought us into the likeness of Christ. Not only do we discover that, but others do as well. Consider your non-Christian family member or friend who has known you since before you followed Christ. Can they see any transformation in your life when you react to suffering the same way you did before? But when they observe that you meet those situations with patient endurance, they know that something is happening in your life that is not happening in theirs. Not only do they witness the Spirit’s transforming work in your life; they begin to envy it. Suddenly, you are being the salt of the earth that Jesus called you to be, creating a thirst in the unbeliever for the Living Water that only Jesus can provide.

There is no special favor from God in enduring suffering that you deserve when you do wrong. But when you endure with patience the suffering that is unjustly experienced when you do right, this finds favor with God and He is pleased with us in the midst of our suffering.

As we conclude, let’s summarize for a moment. Because there is sin, there will be suffering. Only when there is no more sin will there be no more suffering. For the believer in Jesus Christ, that day is coming. We have been forgiven of sin and made righteous by faith in Him, believing that His death received the suffering that our sins deserve, and by His resurrection, we have the assurance of life beyond death in His presence for eternity. There, there will be no suffering. Until then, there will be suffering, and sometimes it will be unjust. We may suffer for no other reason than that we follow Christ. We may suffer because we did something good. But the fact that we suffer does not mean that God is not pleased with us. We suffer because we are human. And in the midst of that suffering, we can please God; we can glorify Him; and we can find favor with Him. This happens when we suffer through difficult obedience; it happens when we suffer for His sake; it happens when we suffer for doing right; and it happens when we suffer with patient endurance. Luther said it this way:

"If I should experience at the same time great injustice and suffering, what is that compared to the fact that Christ, my Lord and Redeemer, who never committed any sin, did the greatest, yea, the inexpressible benefactions of the world, and was so scandalously rewarded for it, that He had to die on the Cross between two malefactors as a blasphemer of God and as a rebel? He suffered for the sake of his good deeds, and the severest pain…; Him will I imitate. … Whoever is a Christian must also bear the cross; and the more you suffer wrongfully, the better it is for you; wherefore you should receive your cross from God cheerfully and thank Him for it. This is the right kind of suffering that is well-pleasing to God."

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