When suffering strikes, people’s responses are as unique and varied as we are. Anger, rage, bitterness. Withdrawal, depression, hopelessness. Softening of heart, deepening of wisdom, growing of compassion. Renewed vigor, purpose, and mission. There may be many self-help voices out there with conflicting advice, as well. How can we, as believers, respond to suffering with hope and purpose?
Truths for our Hearts from I Peter
Some of Peter’s words may be hard to take if you are questioning God’s goodness in the midst of a hard place. So before we delve into our responses to suffering, let’s remind ourselves of two wonderful truths: we can find purpose in our suffering, and God has made special promises to those who suffer.
Over a year ago, a study in 1 Peter sparked a blog series on suffering.
In the midst of my own grief, I wrote about Finding God’s Purposes in Suffering. According to Peter, our suffering can prove our faith genuine (1 Peter 1:7), purge us of sin (1 Peter 4:1-2), and be used to share the reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:14-15b).
In the second post, I explored God’s Promises for Those Who Suffer. Peter tells us that we are chosen (1 Peter 1:1-2), we have a living hope (1 Peter 1:3-5), and we will be made strong (1 Peter 5:10).
Believing that God can use our suffering for good (if we allow Him), and that His promises to us are sure, we can respond to our suffering with hope and purpose.
Responding to Suffering with Hope and Purpose
- By Following Christ’s Example
- By Rejoicing in Christ
- By Committing Ourselves to Our Creator
Respond by Following Christ’s Example
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.1 Peter 2:21-23, NIV, emphasis mine
Called to Suffer
We are misinformed if we believe that our faith will shield us from all suffering on this earth. Or that our righteousness will earn us a pain-free life. Why should we be immune to suffering?
Jesus suffered. Jesus left us an example to follow; he told his disciples that the student is not above the teacher (Matthew 10:24).
And if God allowed His own Son, the perfect and sinless Jesus Christ, to suffer, who are we to think that God should protect us from from all pain or difficulty?
Following His Steps
I’ve often imagined I’d be glad to suffer for Jesus’ name. There is honor in persecution, and even greater honor in martyrdom. But where do my sufferings fit?
Losing my babies wasn’t my choice, and it had nothing to do with obedience to Christ. Losing my babies doesn’t make me more holy. My losses seem so pointless.
Jesus left me an example. In 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary (by Tyndale), Wayne Grudem says our calling is to “suffer unfairly” like Jesus. This makes sense if we are mistreated because of our faith. In my case, however, there was no injustice. No one for me to threaten or retaliate against (besides God).
YES, part of me cries, there WAS the unfairness of ME, a healthy, clean-living, Christ-serving woman, only being able to grow twisted, broken babies who could not live outside my womb, while countless drug-addicted mothers pop out perfect baby after perfect, beautiful baby, only for them to end up neglected, abused, or in the overloaded foster care system. IT’S NOT FAIR!!!! my heart screams as I blink back tears of hurt.
Self-pity, complaining, depression, and anger feel natural when we are confronted with disappointment, grief, or pain. Yet Jesus committed no sin. He did not respond according to natural feelings, as we are so prone to do.
What can I learn from Christ? “He entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” I can entrust myself to this same God and Father who sees, who knows.
After her encounter with the angel of the Lord in the desert, the distraught and mistreated Hagar called Him “the God who sees me.” (Read the whole story in Genesis 16.)
In the end, this “God who sees me” will make all things right. If I can entrust myself to my Father, who has my best eternal interest in mind, then I can become like Christ and my faith be proved genuine (1 Peter 1:7).
Respond by Rejoicing in Christ
Peter says this:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.1 Peter 4:12-13, NIV, emphasis mine
DO NOT BE SURPRISED.
Suffering is not strange. It is to be expected.
While the “painful trial” spoken of here is likely the believers’ persecution (see verse 13), I believe this can still be applied to other types of suffering as well.
We tend to expect life to be (near) perfect. We fall into the trap of feeling we DESERVE good things. We buy into the world’s sense of justice in which “good” things happen to “good” people, and “bad” things happen only to the evil.
Then we feel like God has wronged us when something bad does happen, as if He failed to live up to his end of the bargain. But a pain-free life is not part of God’s covenant with us.
The Apostle Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4, NIV). Not “in our circumstances,” “in the good parts of our life,” but “in the LORD.” Because the Lord is good, we know His character is good and his promises are trustworthy, we can rejoice in WHO HE IS even when there is nothing happy to rejoice over in our current circumstances.
With this as our focus, our joy comes from God’s glory, not our personal comfort and pleasure. Finding joy in God’s glory is not dependent on our own circumstances or happiness, and therefore can allow us to rejoice “always.”
Respond by Committing Ourselves to Our Creator
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.1 Peter 4:19, NIV, emphasis mine
We just read about Jesus, who “entrusted himself to Him who judges justly.” In spite of the plotting Pharisees and Sadducees, he “committed himself” to His Father and “continued to do good.” We, too, are called to do this, not matter what we suffer.
Committing Ourselves When it’s Hard
In Lysa Terkeurst’s blog post, “Surviving Our Seasons of Suffering,” I was struck by these words: “We can even lapse into the mentality that we somehow slipped through the cracks of God’s good plans.”
Yes. I have felt that, and it feels like betrayal.
But commentator Grudem argues, “Christians do not suffer accidentally or because of the irresistible forces of blind fate; rather, they suffer according to God’s will” (emphasis mine).
Therefore, we need to COMMIT ourselves to our FAITHFUL Creator. Remembering His promises, the reminders of His GOODNESS can strengthen us.
Suffering shouldn’t stop us. It shouldn’t push us into our shell of hibernation, withdrawing from serving others. Nor should it cause us to reject God out of bitterness. Suffering SHOULD drive us closer to God, recognizing our dependence upon Him.
Receiving Comfort to Bless Others
When we entrust ourselves to our faithful Creator, He can comfort us.
In fact, our suffering may uniquely position us to help others going through similar trials, if we are willing to look outside ourselves.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.2 Corinthians 1:3-5, NIV
If, for whatever reason, God has willed that we suffer, may we look for His higher purposes, press into Him for comfort, and “continue to do good.”
Responding to Suffering with Hope and Purpose: A Summary
We all respond to suffering in different ways. Suffering may change us; but perhaps it also reveals what is already hidden in our hearts.
Whatever our suffering reveals about our hearts, may we carefully choose the responses that will help us grow in kindness, patience, compassion and faithfulness, rather than anger, bitterness, selfishness, or disbelief.
Some parting questions to ponder:
- How am I responding to current difficulties in my life?
- Is suffering changing me, or is it merely revealing what is already in my heart?
- What are my current responses to suffering revealing about my heart?
- What kind of person am I becoming as a result of how I respond to suffering?
- Am I growing toward God or away from Him?
Believing that God wastes nothing, may we choose to respond to our pain and sorrow with purpose and hope, not with bitterness or despair.
And by following Christ’s example, rejoicing in Christ, and committing ourselves to our Creator, may we find faith, rest, and beauty in the midst of suffering.
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.