There is some irony in the fact that St. Peter is writing to us about suffering for the sake of Jesus. After all, isn’t this the same man that had a less than stellar record when it came to his own response to persecution and suffering during the ministry of Jesus? When Jesus first tells his disciples that he must suffer, it is Peter who tells him “no way” only to be rebuked as an instrument of Satan for doing so. When Jesus is about to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, it is Peter who hastily draws his sword and slices off the ear of a guard in an attempt to rescue his friend. And once Jesus is arrested, and Peter is accused of being one of His followers, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. If this were the end of Peter’s story, he would have absolutely no right to tell us how we should respond to suffering. But Peter is especially singled out by Jesus for a public reconciliation. And it is from this that Peter becomes capable of affirming a faith that is strengthened by suffering.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Peter 4:12-14, RSV)
Peter, known for his rash decisions and foot-in-mouth disease, reminds us that suffering for Jesus must actually be on account of Jesus and his saving work. We are all undoubtedly aware of times when we may have suffered for our own failures and failings. He writes, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” That is, if you are suffering because of what you did, count it as a result of a fallen world and our fallen nature. If you are suffering because of what Jesus did, count it as joy.
As Peter was writing this Epistle, he would have had no idea the turn the Roman Empire would soon take. Under Emperor Nero, the largest persecution of Christians in Roman Imperial history was about to begin.
The historian, Tacitus, recounted one of the more shocking accounts of Neronian persecution:
Nero set up [i.e., falsely accused] as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty, a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for a moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome.
Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed [to being Christians]; then, on their evidence, an immense multitude was convicted…
Besides being put to death, they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed.
The Imitation of Christ
It is primarily in suffering that Peter sees ourselves as imitating Jesus. Peter, who once tried to imitate Jesus’ walking on the sea of Galilee, knows how easy it is to fail (and sink) if the wrong kind of imitation is attempted. And it is thus, here, in the fourth chapter of his first Epistle, that he lays out some ideas about the “proper” way to suffer; “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” So, what did Jesus think when he suffered? We can see this in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:
And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:35-36, RSV).
Jesus pleaded with his Father, asked for a path without suffering, but ultimately gave himself up to the gracious plan of his Father in Heaven. His thinking was, “not what I will, but what thou wilt.” Even in the face of death, Jesus trusts in the goodness of his heavenly Father. We can certainly see that in the suffering of Jesus, we have an example of trusting in the promises of the Father. We can also take heart, as the author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is able to sympathize with us in temptation, especially the temptation to bypass suffering. But mostly, we can take heart that our redemption comes through suffering — specifically, the suffering of Christ. The only way to glory is through the cross. Being baptized into the death of Jesus and that suffering, we too have the promise of the glory that He earned for us. The suffering of Jesus isn’t just an object lesson, but rather the very means of our salvation.
A Grief Observed
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis’ heart-wrenching account of the death of his wife, we see a Christian suffer under the weight of what he thought was undue and unnecessary, at least on a visceral level. He writes, “But go to Him when your need is desperate when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
And later still in the same work, with a Petrine flair, Lewis also states, “We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course, it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
Lewis told stories for a living, and in these stories, the characters were tried, tested, and suffered. Crooked pathways aren’t made straight without a struggle. But writing or reading about someone else’s suffering can be an academic exercise, and we can close the book at any time. The promise that we will suffer is perhaps the hardest promise in all of Scripture, but the suffering is not, in and of itself, redemptive. Suffering is the way of a broken world. Suffering might be the result of direct actions, but it is ultimately the result of the curse. But the God of the Cross has made sense of our suffering, and there is no shortcut. It is only through our participation in the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus that any of our temporal suffering can make sense.