Why. Why? WHY? Nearly all sufferers ask this same question. Some in tears, some in rage, others in disbelief.
So much of our grief in this life seems pointless. The sudden death of a beloved parent or grandparent. The loss of an infant—or pregnancy—so dearly wanted. The debilitating injury or disease that hinders a productive life.
Suffering rarely makes sense from our human perspective. It was hard enough trying to understand my own suffering. It was even more excruciatingly overwhelming trying to explain to our brokenhearted 5-year-old why both our babies died. In my attempts to explain, I went back to Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden that set the whole world on a trajectory of sin, death, and decay. Today, accidents, natural disasters, diseases, and genetic disorders just “happen” because the world is now flawed. But feeling like grief strikes at random offers no comfort.
Reading 1 Peter just months after losing our second baby, I was fascinated by the thread of suffering running through every chapter. Though Peter was most likely addressing the persecution the early Christians were suffering for their faith, his words spoke reassurance to my heart in my own grief.
Though it won’t return what was lost by suffering, I believe we can be strengthened by seeking a heavenly perspective.
God May Deem Suffering Necessary
In this [living hope and imperishable inheritance] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.1 Peter 1:6, NIV
I initially interpreted Peter’s phrase “had to suffer” as “happening to fall into unfortunate circumstances.” Like the believers in Peter’s day just happened to live in a time and a place where faith in Jesus was unpopular enough to bring persecution.
Commentator Wayne Grudem disagrees, instead interpreting the phrase “may have had to suffer” as “if necessary,” meaning “if God deems it necessary.” Maybe God accomplishes His purposes in our suffering.
That is hard to swallow. Depending where you are coming from, this statement could spark various reactions, from anger at God for considering suffering necessary, to comfort that the sovereign God knows best. Whatever your response, please keep reading.
The commentator goes on to say, “Peter says therefore that Christians will experience grief only as it is necessary in the light of God’s great and infinitely wise purposes for them” (Grudem, emphasis mine). Why would suffering be necessary? What could these “great and infinitely wise purposes” possibly be?
God’s Purposes in Our Suffering
In my quest to wrap my brain around my own losses, I found the only way to reconcile this pain with my understandings of God was to believe that there was a purpose to be worked out in my losing both of my children. I didn’t know what those purposes could be, but trusting God’s purposes gives comfort and strengthens me in my grief.
I think you will find hope and perspective here as well, as we look at these three purposes of suffering.
- To Prove our Faith Genuine (1 Peter 1:7)
- To Purge us of Sin (1 Peter 4:1-2)
- To Share the Reason for Our Hope (1 Peter 3:14-15b)
To Prove Our Faith Genuine
These [griefs] have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.1 Peter 1:7, NIV
“These have come so that your faith…may be proved genuine….”
Many lose their faith in God, or turn away in anger, when He doesn’t perform according to their expectations. Maybe their faith was misplaced in God’s gifts, in his miracles, or in their ideas about how God works, instead of in God himself. When suffering comes to visit, are we going to faithfully continue trusting God, or discard a faith that didn’t serve our purposes? True faith withstands the furnace of suffering, drawing us closer to the heart of God.
Fake faith doesn’t bring glory to God. (Saying we believe something but never acting on it doesn’t bring us praise, either.) But genuine, true, pure, real faith shines brilliantly in a world of pretense.
A watching world may not believe in Jesus, but when a believer forgives and hugs his brother’s murderer, people notice. When a believer in chains unashamedly prays for the guards who brutally beat and mocked him for his faith, they notice. When a family has gone through unimaginable disappointments and loss, but bravely continues trusting God and serving others, believers and unbelievers alike take notice.
Genuine faith not only believes but acts. Genuine faith makes the Gospel seem more true and attractive to those without Christ. It glorifies God and brings us praise from God, as well.
Our faith is so precious to God that He will do what it takes to purify it like gold.
To Purge Us of Sin
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.1 Peter 4:1-2, NIV
Christ had no sin. But we do. I don’t understand fully how this works, because much of humanity has suffered horrifically, yet none of us has suddenly become perfect. Maybe the key is “arm yourselves…with the same attitude” of living not for self or sin, “but rather for the will of God.”
Here are two questions we can ask ourselves:
“Have I sinned and brought this suffering on myself?”
While not all suffering is caused by sin, some is. Certainly we are not in the place of God to determine if or when God is punishing people. But it is worth considering for ourselves, since Hebrews 12:6 speaks of God disciplining those he loves and punishing those he accepts as sons.
If God reveals sin to us, then we can repent and move forward in forgiveness. If we are unaware of any sin, then we can look for what else God might be doing.
“What is God trying to teach me?”
Death or cataclysmic loss has a way of, at least temporarily, clarifying what is truly important. I believe, if we allow it to, our suffering can point us back to God. Grief can strip away our distractions and turn our eyes to our living hope, our promised inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-4).
Suffering refines us. It might teach us to love people, not things. Suffering might teach us to humble ourselves to receive help. Or to look beyond ourselves and comfort other people who are grieving in similar situations. Loss might remind us that God holds life in his hands, not in our efforts to do all the “right” things to maintain our own health. Regardless of the lesson it teaches, may suffering align our hearts with the will of God, sanctifying us for use in His Kingdom.
To Share the Reason for Our Hope
But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.1 Peter 3:14-15b, NIV
Suffering, outside of persecution for Christ or punishment for crimes, probably has nothing to do with right or wrong. It just is. But our spiritual blessings still stand. “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer….” (1 Peter 3:12).
We are admonished not to fear—a most natural response in suffering. Because Jesus stands with us, we can be courageous in suffering—even in death and loss. Wayne Grudem suggests that, “The alternative to fear is to focus attention on someone else.” Willing ourselves not to be afraid isn’t enough. Rather, “To have such reverence in your hearts is to maintain continually a deep-seated inward confidence in Christ as reigning Lord and King….” (Grudem).
This confidence gives us the opportunity to share our hope with those who are watching. In his article “Someone Needs to See You Suffer Well,” Marshall Segal writes, “When you suffer, think about the people watching you suffer, and what they’re learning about Jesus.”
We have the opportunity, not just during Sunday morning worship, but in the pit of excruciating suffering, to “set apart Christ as Lord.” To trust him above our circumstances. To honor and obey even when life doesn’t go as planned. To continue our love and devotion to our Creator even when He doesn’t answer our prayers as we hoped.
Segal continues, “We want whatever we suffer, however big or small, to make God look more trustworthy and satisfying for anyone who might see how we suffer.”
People notice when we suffer well. Those without God have no hope. Hope in suffering brings a peace and joy that not everyone has, and that is attractive.
Suffering is hard. Rarely do we understand it. But seeking God’s perspective can help us accept our lot in life and channel our pain for good, and for God’s glory.
Suffering, if we let it, can accomplish God’s good purposes in our lives:
- To Prove our Faith Genuine
- To Purge us of Sin
- To Share the Reason for Our Hope
Let’s strengthen our hearts with these promises, these reassurances, and these admonitions. So when hard times come, we will not be shaken or destroyed by our suffering.
This look at 1Peter has inspired a lot more study and reflection. Stay tuned for further posts about suffering.
What good purposes has suffering accomplished in your life? Which of these purposes is hardest for you? What questions do you grapple with most? I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share in the comments below!
Grudem, Wayne. I Peter: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 17 Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, edited by Leon Morris, Inter Varsity Press, 2009. Olive Tree, 11 February 2020.