Life often appears very unfair for Christians. They sincerely try to honor God. Every choice they make follows the Bible’s truth. The right way is followed even when it would cost less to do wrong. Yet Christians may continue to suffer, and even experience more hardship. Is this how the Christian life should be? Most of us think that if we do the right thing with a good attitude, then the best result will follow. But our experiences tell us that it doesn’t always work that way. Why not? Jeremiah And Joseph In my own ministry sometimes I feel like Jeremiah. He said: “You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before You. Yet I would speak with You about Your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). Jeremiah served God for over 40 years, during the largely disastrous reigns of five kings. Encouraging attempts at reform disappointingly fizzled out. Jeremiah stood against worldly kings, prophets and priests. This brought rejection by his fellows and his family (Jer. 11:18-19; 12:6; 18:18), plus threats and imprisonment (20:2; 36:26; 38:6). Sometimes he even felt rejected by God (15:15-18).
There have been times in my own life, usually after a tough few years have passed, when I looked back on difficult events now finished. Then, because I have passed through the difficulties, I may be able to feel like Joseph. He said to his own brothers who had sold him to slave traders 13 years before: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
Joseph lived through 13 years of rejection by his brothers – including slavery, false accusation, wrongful imprisonment, and being overlooked by others he had personally helped (Gen. 37:2-41:40). Amazingly, he honored God all the time and in every circumstance (Gen. 39:2-6; 39:21-23; 40:8; 41:16; 41:25; 41:28; 41:32; 41:37-40).
How can we live as God wants us to live when we face trouble and persecution – much of which comes because we are trying to honor God? For myself I have to learn, and keep in mind, what our Lord Jesus meant when He said, “Great is your reward in heaven,” because it appears in this context: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt. 5:11-12).
Persecution and suffering because of Jesus is a reason for looking away from this world and thinking about heaven. This focus puts proper perspective into our lives. There may never be recompense for being wronged in this lifetime. A Christianity that promises health, wealth and prosperity is not what was experienced by New Testament believers.
John, Stephen And Paul
John the Baptist faithfully followed God by his way of life and by preaching the need for people to repent (Mt. 3:2). Jesus saw John as the last of the great Old Testament prophets and the chosen introducer of the Kingdom of God (Lk. 16:16). Yet he was beheaded in prison. He lived and died for a future Kingdom.
Stephen was one of the Church’s first servant administrators (Acts 6:5). He was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” He crowned his ministry (his name means “crown”) by witnessing boldly (6:8-10). The opposition he faced led to his early death; but before he died he had a chance to speak to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. He boldly outlined how people were continually rejecting God’s work (Acts 7). He spoke about Jesus, but his audience refused to listen, and stoned him to death (7:57-60). Stephen died thinking about heaven, not about his suffering on earth.
Paul was a convert from Judaism to Christianity. The persecution he had inflicted on many Christians (Acts 8:3; 26:9-11) he now experienced himself (Acts 9:22-24; 9:28-29). During his preaching he was frequently in danger of physical attack (Acts 13:49-50; 14:5-6; 14:19; 17:13; 19:26-32). He was imprisoned more than once (Acts 16:22-24; 21:27-36; 23:10-11; 27:1-2; 28:16). While under Roman house arrest, he freely shared Christ with everyone who visited him (Acts 28:30-31).
The New Testament Church suffered. Jesus had forewarned His earliest disciples that this would happen while it was here on earth (Mt. 5:11-12). Early believers lived for a heavenly not an earthly reward. Our Lord was the greatest example of being governed in the present by the future. He was in the center of the Father’s will when He suffered and died on the cross. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus told us to focus our attention on heaven: “Great is your reward in heaven.” The thought of what will happen in heaven can bring smiles to our faces even when our hearts, dreams and bodies are being broken.
James And Peter
James wrote: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:2-4). Sometimes trouble comes to us not because of our sinfulness but because of our faithfulness! Having a relationship with the living God does not protect us from bad things, but it helps us know how to respond to them.
When I lived in Khartoum I sometimes went to the boat-building yards on the Nile River’s western shore. The men who worked there knew what to do with wood in order to make it useful for building boats. The wood was seasoned to strengthen it. It was cut to size to make it fit. It was sanded to be smooth. It was sealed to be waterproof. If a tree had feelings and could speak it would say, “Stop! Why are you hurting me so much?”
The answer, of course, would be this: “If you want to be useful as a boat, you must go through all these processes, painful though they are.”
When I suffer I try to remember that I have placed my life into the hands of the Master carpenter, my Lord Jesus. I can comfortably trust that He knows what is best. He is working according to a plan. The end product will be absolutely wonderful. With my mind set on this, I am secure.
Peter underlines how Christians can respond when persecution threatens them. “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pet. 4:19).
“So then” links this verse to the whole letter. Peter was writing to Christians scattered throughout the world (1 Pet. 1:1), telling them not to be surprised at their painful trials (1 Pet. 4:12).
“Those who suffer” implies that some will suffer more than others, although a measure of persecution is promised to all who live godly lives (2 Tim. 3:12).
“According to God’s will” gives great comfort. Since it is God’s will it will work out ultimately for our good (Rom. 8:28). God will take us through it, and choose when and how it will end. The events are not out of control, but in God’s control. I will become stronger, more Christ-like through it because God is the craftsman working on me. Others may be helped by seeing Him in me.
“Should” allows for right and wrong responses. There is a Christian response and an other-than-Christian response.
“Commit themselves” involves at least one step of faith, but maybe several. Concentrate on God, not the trouble. Keep placing yourself in God’s hands: “When we are persecuted, we endure it” (1 Cor. 4:12).
“To their faithful Creator” implies knowing God’s character. This is a great help while suffering. God is good, holy, kind and merciful (Ex. 15:11; Rom. 11:22; Ps. 106:1; Eph. 2:4-5). He is faithful in keeping His promises (Dt. 32:3-4). God will never contradict His own character in His dealings with anyone.
“And continue to do good” means no excuses accepted, no exceptions made. Jesus went around doing good (Acts 10:38), and so should we – even to our enemies (Lk. 6:27). He was rejected, and crucified. We should expect to be mistreated.
Scanning all of Peter’s first letter, we learn this about suffering: it is temporary (1:6); it improves genuine faith (1:7); it focuses us on the invisible God (1:8); it is promised (1:11); it is overcome by an attitude of mind (1:13); it is a personal witness choice (2:11-12); it is often unfair (2:19); God is aware of it (2:20); Christ’s example is to be followed (2:21); He did not retaliate although He could have (2:23); it is to be seen as a blessing (3:14); a right attitude toward it is a witness to those around us (3:15); right or wrong, it can be God’s will (3:17); our reaction to it shows how our spiritual lives are more important than our physical lives (4:1); it should be expected (4:12); it is fellowship with Jesus (4:13); it brings special blessing (4:14); it is a good reason to praise God (4:16).
What We Learn
Jeremiah, Joseph, John, Stephen, Paul, James and Peter were people like us. They knew the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in their lives as we do. As they obeyed Him in their daily decisions, He made them into fishers of men. These Bible people sometimes felt angry. Other times they felt alone. From time to time the Bible records some of them arguing with God over what was right and what was not.
Yet as we have surveyed some of the Bible’s teaching on this subject we notice an undeniable theme common to all of them. The pain of persecution and suffering really hurts. But we are called to endure it as Christians following our Lord. It is part of taking up our cross daily and following Jesus (Lk. 9:23). Since Jesus paid for our sins when He died on the cross, there can be no price too high for us to pay as we live to honor Him.
By Colin Salter
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org