The Inexplicable Life

Humility, Hope, and Love in Suffering

The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference | Indianapolis


Woven through the entire letter of 1 Peter is the repeated call for a condition of heart, and a way of life, that only makes sense if we are absolutely sure we will have a great reward in heaven. Peter calls us again and again to think and feel and act in a way that can only be explained by an unshakeable, all-satisfying hope beyond this life.

And, of course, I don’t mean the hope for material wealth, or pain-free health, or reunion with loved ones, or perfect leisure, or futility-free productivity in the age to come — all of that is true, but not central or primary. The ultimate reward that makes sense of the life Peter calls us to live is the reward of being with God enjoying his beauty.

This is the main thing Jesus died for. And this alone can make sense of the counter-intuitive life Peter calls us to live. In 1 Peter 3:18 — one of the most important verses in the Bible, I think — Peter says, “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” This is why he died for us. “That he might bring us to God.” Not for punishment, but for pleasure. Psalm 16:11: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” That is what Christ died for. That is our final reward. That is our ultimate hope. All else is overflow and secondary. If you don’t want God as your supreme satisfaction, then you don’t want heaven and you don’t want what Jesus died to give.

But if you do — if Jesus is your inexpressible joy, as 1 Peter 1:8 says — then this letter will make sense to you, and the way of life Peter calls for will be possible. This is a mindset and a way of life that can only be explained by an unshakeable, all-satisfying hope beyond this life.

The Only Explanation Is Hope

Have you ever been troubled by 1 Peter 3:15 the way I have? “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Why would they ask that question? Why would they look at our lives and ask about hope? Because the life Peter is calling for can only be explained by a hope the world does not know. Here are four examples:

1. In 1 Peter 1:6–7, Peter calls us to rejoice in suffering. What makes sense of that? Hope beyond this life!

. . . so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Note the incomparable reward of glory and honor at the coming of Christ.

2. In 1 Peter 3:5–6, Peter calls Christian wives to “do good and not to fear anything that is frightening.” What makes sense of that?

This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.

The Christ-exalting fearlessness of a Christian woman is only explained by hope that goes beyond this world — hope in God.

3. In 1 Peter 3:9, Peter commands us, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless.” What makes sense of that? The hope of everlasting blessing.

“Because to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”

Returning good for evil, when it may cost us our lives in this world, is possible because we put our hope in a blessing beyond this world.

4. In 1 Peter 4:13, Peter calls for the counter-intuitive behavior: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” What makes sense of that? The goal is “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

So, I say again: Woven through this entire letter is Peter’s repeated call to think and feel and act in a way that can only be explained by an unshakable, all-satisfying hope beyond this life — the hope of being with God, seeing and sharing his glory.

Suffer and Serve

And what is that peculiar way of thinking and feeling and acting that only makes sense in the light of hope beyond the grave? It is a joyful, humble willingness to suffer wrong and serve, rather than return evil for evil.

  • 1 Peter 2:20 — “What credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”

  • 1 Peter 3:14 — “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.”

  • 1 Peter 3:17 — “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

  • 1 Peter 4:1 — “Since Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”

  • 1 Peter 4:19 — “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”

This is the strange, counter-intuitive way of life Peter calls for that causes people to ask a reason for the hope that is in us: a joyful, humble willingness to suffer wrong and serve, rather than return evil for evil. Another name for this is love.

An Other-Worldly Mindset

So, when we come now to the final chapter of 1 Peter, this other-worldly mindset and this other-worldly hope are are the two threads that are woven through Peter’s final thoughts.

First, a quick overview to see that this is so. And then we will walk more slowly through the text and look more closely.

Humble Leadership

In verse one, Peter presents himself not as an apostle as in 1:1, but a fellow elder alongside the elders in the churches. “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder.”

This is a humble thing to do. He is modeling the humility and joyful readiness to serve that he is about to call for. It’s rooted in the fact that he has seen Christ suffer and serve like this, and he is expectant that he is going to share in the coming glory.

Verse 1b: I exhort you as . . . a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed.

Then he calls for that kind of service from the elders in verses 2b–3:

  • Verse 2a: not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;
  • Verse 2b: not for shameful gain, but eagerly;
  • Verse 3: not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

How does this make sense in a world where the very stuff of leadership is coercion and money and power? Answer:

Verse 4: “When the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

Hope beyond this life — that is why it makes sense.

This way of sacrificial, joyful, humble leadership makes sense because of the hope of glory at the coming of Christ. “You will receive the unfading crown of glory.” The life of true biblical eldership only makes sense in the light of eternity. If it is explainable in natural terms, something is defective.

Lowliness and Servanthood

Then in verses 5–7, Peter takes that same mindset and applies it to all of us. You see that in the word “likewise” at the beginning of verse 5: “Likewise — that is, just as the elders are called to be humble and serve you as examples rather than lording it over you so — you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.”

How can that make sense in a world where humility and lowliness and servanthood do not get you a political nomination and do not get you a job — a world where self-promotion and self-exaltation are woven in to the fabric of Roman and American culture? Answer:

Verse 5b–6: It makes sense because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Humility Leads to Exaltation

What grace? Don’t we already have grace? Yes, we do. But there is a future grace — more grace — that is coming to believers who clothe themselves with humility toward each other. And what is that?

Verse 6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

This is why this such a strange, humble, self-effacing attitude, that is willing to suffer and serve rather than return evil for evil, makes sense. It makes sense because just over horizon of this world, all the lowly nobodies who suffered in obedience to Christ will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Matthew 13:43).

Think of it. There are hundreds of thousands of faithful Christians around the world in very difficult circumstances, and only a handful of people even know they exist while they joyfully endure the hardships of following Christ.

There is going to be a great reversal. It is only a matter of time. Followers of Jesus do not need the reward of this world. We don’t need to be treated well. We don’t need to prosper. Like those elders in verses 2 and 3, we don’t need to be coerced in order to serve gladly. We don’t need riches to be happy in the ministry. We don’t need power in order to feel a sense of significance because we have set our hope not on the exaltation of this world, but on the exaltation and glory of the next. And there is no comparison.

The Lion Who Devours

Then in verses 8–10, Peter tells us how to deal with the roaring lion of the devil who wants to devour us.

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

The devil here is not pictured as a sly snake who sneaks up on you and bites your heel. He is a roaring lion. Why roaring? Lions roar when they are hungry and angry. This devil is not trying to sneak up on you. He is trying to terrify you. Make you afraid. Fill you with anxieties. Keep you off balance and nervous.

How does this roaring lion devour people? Verse 9b explains: “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” This lion is roaring and biting and clawing by causing people — Christians in particular — to suffer.

His aim is to destroy Christians through suffering. He aims to make us doubt the goodness of God or the presence of God or the power of God or that God cares. This is how the horrible roar works. The claws. The teeth.

And Peter tells us (v. 9a), “Resist him, firm in your faith.” Does this mean that if you are successful, the claws never cut? That the teeth never sink in? No. It means that when the claws cut and when the teeth sink in, don’t stop believing! Don’t stop being humble. Don’t stop returning good for evil. Don’t stop rejoicing. Don’t stop loving. That is successful resistance to the roaring lion, even if it costs you your life.

Really? Keep on returning good for evil? When the adversaries are agents of the devil? When they go on reviling and threatening us? Really? Keep on blessing? Keep on doing good? What could make sense out of that response to the lion? Answer: Verse 10: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

Resist the lion with unwavering joy and humility and love. Keep on doing good to those who hate you. How? By believing verse 10 with all your heart. Keep on hoping in this — this eternal glory, this promise of total restoration and confirmation and strength everlasting, unshakable, established glory. This future beyond the suffering of this world — that is the key.

Future Hope Endures Present Trouble

So, to the elders (vv. 2–3): Don’t Lord it over your people. Don’t uses them for money. Don’t begrudge their needs. Serve them eagerly, willingly, joyfully, humbly. How? Verse 4: In the rock-solid hope that “when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

To all of us (vv. 5–7): “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another. . . . Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God.” How? Verse 6b: In the hope that “at the proper time he will exalt you.”

And to the sufferers: (vv. 8–10): Resist this roaring lion in his power to attack with suffering. How? Verse 10: In the rock-solid hope that “after you have suffered God will bring you to his eternal glory, and restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. Everything good that you lost will be restored in that glorious day.

So I say again: Woven through this entire letter of 1 Peter, including chapter 5, is the call for a condition of heart, and a way of life, that only makes sense if we are absolutely sure we will have a great reward in heaven.

That condition of heart and way of life is a joyful, humble willingness to suffer wrong and serve, rather than return evil for evil.

And that reward in heaven is a crown of glory and exaltation in the presence of the all-satisfying God. All wrongs against us set right. All patience under mockery vindicated. All shame in this world taken away and replaced with honor. All pain removed. All losses restored. All brokenness mended. All humiliation exchanged for garments of glory. All slander revealed to be false before the whole world. All anonymity in quiet faithfulness replaced with global fame among the millions of the redeemed.

In this letter, God calls us to a kind of heart and a kind of life that makes no sense in this world — joyful, humble willingness to suffer wrong and serve, rather than return evil for evil. It only makes sense if we are sustained by the hope of glory.

Your Motive and the Devil’s Authority

Which leave us with two questions (there are more, but I will only deal with two) that I would like to try to answer in closing.

  1. How can it be loving to be motivated by your own desire for vindication and glorification? Why isn’t that selfishness?

  2. Is the devil really in charge of suffering? When we suffer, is it simply the devil roaring and clawing and biting? What about God? What’s he doing when the devil roars?

Selfish Desire?

How can it be loving to be motivated by your own desire for vindication and glorification? Why isn’t that selfishness?

Listen again to 1 Peter 3:9: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” And 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

Peter motivates us to humble ourselves and to bless our enemies by saying “so that he may exalt you” — that you may obtain a blessing. Why is this not selfishness? How can this be love?

I’ll give five reasons, and as we move from one to five, they become increasingly decisive.

  1. In the age to come, we will not exalt ourselves. We leave it totally in the hands of God whether he will be pleased to give us that reward.

  2. When the reward comes, it will be all of “grace,” not merit. 1 Peter 5:5: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God is not paying us a debt. God owes us nothing. It will all be free grace.

  3. The exaltation and the glory that we want is not an exaltation over anyone else (unlike James and John when they asked for the highest places over the other apostles). It is an exaltation out of our misery — out of being maligned and slandered and persecuted. It is vindication that our message has been true. The aim is not to say, “I told you so,” with a sneer. The aim is the establishment of the truth. What we have spoken is true and glorious. These last two are decisive:

  4. There is nothing morally inferior or defective about wanting reward for our behavior, provided that the reward is ultimately more of Christ as the supreme joy of our souls. The reason that is not morally inferior, but is in fact a great virtue, is that Christ is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Christ. It is no virtue — and no honor to Christ — to say, I am going to suffer for Christ and it makes no difference to me whether it leads to knowing and enjoying Christ better. That is not a virtue. That is self-sufficiency cloaked as sacrifice.

  5. Finally, it is loving to sacrifice for others with a view to reward, if our aim is that, in the sacrifice, we would win others to come with us into the reward. 1 Peter 2:12 is critical: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

Our motive in returning good for evil is never that we get the reward and they don’t. Our aim is always: I am joyfully willing to suffer in doing good to you as you do me harm so that you might see how satisfying my God is and be drawn with me into the reward of my sacrifice.

The aim of Christian suffering with joy is to show the all-surpassing value of Christ, and to win as many people as possible to go with into his all-satisfying glory. Grace is not a zero-sum game, as if there is a limited amount, so that if I get some, you get less. It’s the opposite. Your sharing in it through my service enlarges mine. A shared joy is a doubled joy!

So, when Peter over and over again motivates sacrifice by the promise of eternal glory, he is not ruining love; he is making it possible. He’s empowering it.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Now our last question: Is the devil really in charge of suffering? When we suffer, is it simply the devil roaring and clawing and biting? What about God? What’s he doing when the devil roars? Here’s 1 Peter 5:9: “Resist the devil, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.”

It’s plain that Peter means that Satan is causing this suffering. Suffering is Satan’s roar. This is exactly what Jesus said in Revelation 2:10 to the church in Smyrna:

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

So Satan can throw you in prison and keep you there until you die. And Peter would add from 1 Peter 5:10 that after you have suffered in prison and died, “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” So don’t give up your faith. Trust him unto death. You will be raised from the dead. You will be glorious.

But that’s not the whole story, is it? We know it’s not. Satan is not the ultimate authority behind our suffering. Satan caused Job’s suffering, but he had to get God’s permission to do it (Job 1:12; 2:6–7). And Job saw the plan of God behind Satan: “‘Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).

Peter has the same theology of God’s sovereignty in our suffering.

  • Consider 1 Peter 4:19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”

  • And 1 Peter 3:17: “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

  • And 1 Peter 1:6–7: “In this [hope] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, [necessary for what?] so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Yes, Satan roars in our suffering. And his roar is all the louder because he knows he cannot act on his own. He can do no more harm to God’s people than God designs for the refining of the gold of their faith. He roars with anger and frustration that his evil aim to punish God’s elect ends up purifying their faith — the very thing he wants to destroy!

He Will Not Fail You

So I don’t send you home with a simple formula for when to accept being slandered and when you confront it; when you turn the other cheek; when you endure mistreatment as a believer, and when you rebuke and admonish; when you spank a child, and when you are lenient; when you confront your husband about a shortcoming, or when you forbear; when you endure discrimination against yourself for your faith at work, and when you plead for justice; when you move to a dangerous place for Christ’s sake, and when you leave a place because of danger.

But instead of a formula, I do send you home with the resounding message of 1 Peter in your ear: that you think and feel and act in a way that only makes sense if you are absolutely sure we will have a great reward in heaven — a way of life that can only be explained by an unshakeable, all-satisfying hope beyond this life. It is a way of life, as 1 Peter 3:15 says, that will cause people to ask about the hope that is in you: a joyful, humble willingness to suffer wrong and serve, rather than return evil for evil.

How? Because you know — through the death and resurrection of Christ, God has made you know — that a crown of glory awaits you. You will be exalted at the right time. “God has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, and, after you have suffered, he will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).

You know he will because 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” And in verse 11, he says, “To him belong the dominion forever and ever.”

Total care and absolute dominion — he will not fail you. He cannot fail you. The glory of your future is absolutely certain. This is the grace of God! Stand firm in it (1 Peter 5:12).