Joy Through the Fiery Test of Genuine Faith
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Christianity Is a Life of Painful Joy
The Old Testament commands us to delight ourselves in the Lord (Psalm 37:4) and to serve the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:2) and to rejoice before the Lord our God in all our undertakings (Deuteronomy 12:18).
Jesus commands us, "Rejoice and leap for joy for your reward is great in heaven" (Luke 6:23), and he tells us, "These things I have spoken to you that my joy might be in you and your joy might be full" (John 15:11).
The apostle Paul commands us, "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). He tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22). He says that he is a worker with us for our joy (2 Corinthians 1:24) and that he lives for the advancement and joy of our faith (Philippians 1:25), and that God loves a cheerful giver.
And on and on. And so it is with the other writers of Scripture. The message is: Christianity is a life of tremendous and abiding joy.
Now Peter picks up this great theme in verse 6 and shows us two great reasons for joy, and in the process, why it is painful joy. The first one we have spent two weeks on already. The second one is new in verses 6 and 7.
Two Reasons Why Christians Can Be Joyful
1. The Promise of a Great Future
Let me just remind you of the first reason since that's what Peter does at the beginning of verse 6. He says, "In this you greatly rejoice." The word "this" refers to the first reason for great joy. It refers back to what we've seen in verses 3–5.
- Verse 3: God caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection from the dead.
- Verse 4: God is keeping an inheritance for us in heaven that can't perish or soil or fade.
- Verse 5: God is keeping us for that inheritance.
There's an inheritance and there's an inheritor. And the first basis of our joy is that God is keeping both: he is keeping the inheritance perfect for us; and he is keeping us in faith so that we will in fact not make shipwreck of our faith and lose the inheritance.
Then in verse 6 Peter says, "In THIS you greatly rejoice." The first reason for our joy is the great future God promises us and his unswerving commitment to keep it for us and us for it. In other words, our joy is based on the happiness of our future with God and the certainty that we will make it there. Christian joy is almost synonymous with Christian hope. That's why Peter says in verse 3 that we were born again into a living hope; then verses 4 and 5 describe the content of that hope; and then verse 6 begins, "in THIS you rejoice." In this you have living, vital, life-changing hope; and in this you rejoice. Our hope is our joy.
2. A Design for Our Distresses
The second reason is that God has a design for our distresses in this life. This is what verses 6 and 7 are about—God's design for our distress.
But now don't misunderstand me. The second reason for joy is essentially the same as the first one, namely, hope. But the difference is this:
- In verses 3–5 the point is that the inheritance is out there waiting for us imperishable and unfading, and that we are being kept for it, so that no matter what distresses we face we can look beyond them to the sure future that is coming and take heart. It is going to be worth it all.
- In verses 6–7 the point is different: namely, that the distresses themselves have a part in getting us ready to enjoy the inheritance to the fullest possible measure. We don't just look beyond the distresses to the sure hope; we look at God's design in the distresses—and see how God is working the distresses together for our good.
So Christianity is a life of tremendous joy first because we have a great and fail-safe future to look forward to beyond all our distresses, AND second because God has a design to increase our joy in that future by means of all our distresses.
Let's look at this design in verses 6 and 7.
God Has a Design for Our Distresses
First, where do I get the idea that our distresses are designed by God for our good?
I get it from the phrase "if necessary" in verse 6 and the word "that" (or "so that") at the beginning of verse 7. Verse 6 says, "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials." What kind of necessity is this? Who or what is making the distress of these trials "necessary"?
The answer is God. Peter makes it plain that Christian distress only happens if God wills it. For example, in 3:17 he says, "It is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong." You might suffer for doing what is right; you might not. The ultimate choice is God's. "If God should will it so," we will or we won't. Or again in 4:19 he says, "Let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right."
In other words, Peter is teaching that the sovereign will of God governs all the distresses that happen to us and, therefore the design in them is not ultimately the design of evil men or the design of Satan (which are real enough!), but is a design of God.
So when Peter says in verse 6, "If necessary, you have been distressed by various trials," he means, "If God deems it necessary."
But why would God do that? This leads us to the word "that" or "so that" at the beginning of verse 7. This gives the reason why God would deem it necessary that we be distressed by various trials: "that [or so that] the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
What this verse does is spell out the design of our distresses. The design is that our distresses would refine the genuineness of our faith the way fire refines gold so that when Christ comes back, the quality of our faith would win praise and glory and honor.
So there is a design in your distresses as a Christian. God wills them, and he does so for your good.
Then Does God Will Our Suffering and Distress?
Now I know that this raises a painful and troubling question. We are not playing games here. We are talking about your and my real life this very day. Does God will the break up of your marriage? Does God will your cancer, your homosexual orientation, the rebellion of your child, the loss of your job, the threatening chaos in Russia and Congo and Somalia and Guinea? I will give you my answer, which I believe to be the biblical one, based on texts like 1 Peter 3:17 and 4:19.
The answer is No, God does not will it, and Yes, he does. No, in the sense that he does not delight in pain for its own sake; he does not command sin or approve of sinning. But Yes, he does will that these things be, in the sense that he could prevent any of those things but sometimes does not, but rather guides them, because of higher designs than the destructiveness of sin or the deceitfulness of Satan or the painfulness of suffering.
When Christians suffer for doing right, sin is happening to them. But 1 Peter 3:17 says that sometimes God wills that this happen. He does not endorse or approve sinning, but he can and does will that sinful acts come about for his own holy designs. When Christ was murdered on the cross, it was sin, but God willed that it happen: "It was the will of the Lord to bruise him" (Isaiah 53:10). And by that will we are saved.
Five Elements of God's Design in Our Distresses
Now if there is a divine design in our distresses, we must ask what that is. Because knowing this is a means of tremendous joy in and through our distresses.
Peter mentions at least five elements of God's design in our distresses.
1. Various Trials
In God's design, our distresses are made up of various trials.
Verse 6b: "if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials." The NIV says "all kinds of trials." The point is that the variety of ways that we experience distress is great. So in God's design it is "necessary," he says, to use a wide range of trials. There is not just one kind of trial in view here. God paints with many colors. Many dark and many bright. And in the end the canvas of your life will be glorious, if you entrust your soul to a faithful Creator (4:19).
2. Brief Distresses
In God's design, my distresses are brief.
Verse 6 again: "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials." Brief is very relative, isn't it? If you say, "He can hold his breath a long time," you mean two or three minutes. That's long for breath-holding. But if you say, "He's been a pastor of the church for a long time," you mean perhaps 15 or 20 years.
So it is with the phrase "little while" in this verse. Compared to others and compared to a lifetime on earth, your distresses may last a long time not a little. But compared to eternity—compared to the inheritance imperishable, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you—they are only for a little time. Peter shares James' perspective on this life: "You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away" (James 4:14). Compared to the length and greatness of the future God has planned for you, all the distresses of this life are very little in deed (cf. 5:10).
3. Grievous Trials
In God's design, our trials are grievous.
They are distresses. The word in verse 6 ("you have been distressed by various trials") means grieved, sorrowed. Mark this well. It's not double-talk when Peter says, "In this you are rejoicing, though now for a little while in this life you are grieved." You are rejoicing though you are grieved. We know this is not a mistake, because Paul said he experienced this very thing. In 2 Corinthians 6:10 he says he lives "as sorrowful [same word] yet always rejoicing."
In God's design for our trials there is a place for real, authentic grieving and distress. But this experience is fundamentally altered from the way the world experiences these things. We see a design in it all. And so our root stays planted even though the branches thrash in the wind. And the leaves remain green and the fruit keeps growing because our roots go down by the stream of God's sovereign grace—and we trust him for a good design.
4. Like Refining Fire
In God's design, our distresses are like the fire that refines gold from its impurities.
Verse 7: "that the proof [or genuineness] of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
When gold is melted in the fire the impurities float to the top and can be removed. When the refining fire is over, the gold is even more valuable. So it is with your faith in God. You have faith. You trust his promises. But there are impurities in it. There are elements of murmuring and pessimism (I speak from painful experience). And there are tendencies to trust money and position and popularity alongside God—dirt mingled with the gold of faith.
These impurities in our faith hinder our fullest experience of the goodness and greatness of God. So God designs to refine our faith with the fires of trial and distress. His aim is that our faith be more pure and more genuine. That is, that it be more utterly dependent on him and not on things and other persons for our joy.
One of the best illustrations of how this works comes from the experience the apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 1:8–9 Paul described this very refining design of God in his distress. "We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life [that's the fire]; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead [that's the gold]."
God took away from Paul an ordinary prop of safety and let him feel an almost overwhelming sense of human abandonment. This was the fire of 1 Peter 1:7. Not because God didn't love Paul. But because God saw Paul's faith as gold worthy of refining.
5. Our Faith Receiving Praise, Glory, and Honor
Finally, in God's design, the result of this refining is that our faith will receive praise and honor and glory.
Verse 7: "that the proof of your faith . . . may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
When Jesus appears in glory, two things are going to happen. His glory will be magnificently reflected in the mirror of our faith. He will be the trusted one and the hoped-for one and the rejoiced-in one. So his glory will shine in our faith and hope and joy. And the more pure and refined the gold of our faith, the more clearly his beauty and worth will be reflected.
But since God exalts all that exalts him, he will give praise and honor and glory to our faith. He will say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." He will give us (as Peter says in 5:4) "the unfading crown of glory" (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:5).
And we will see finally that the design of God in our distress has been the extraordinary joy of sharing in the very glory and praise and honor of God himself.