Suffering well, like doing anything well, requires careful preparation.
“One of the major causes of devastating grief and confusion among Christians is that our expectations are false,” writes Don Carson. “We do not give the subject of evil and suffering the thought it deserves until we ourselves are confronted with tragedy” (How Long O Lord?, 11).
No one falls into the stunning ability to be “sorrowful” and yet, at the same time, “always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) without first patiently, even tenaciously, seeking God. If we want to suffer well, we need to learn where to stand, and where to look, when our storms come — and we do well to learn before they come.
We don’t need all the answers when suffering strikes. In fact, we won’t have all the answers. We only need to know a few truly great promises and a few proven paths other faithful sufferers have walked, and crawled, before and beside us.
Three Lessons for the Valley
The apostle Peter wrote his first letter to help Christians suffer well, with more than a dozen lessons for the valley. While their specific suffering is not necessarily common to all Christians, it is common to many Christians around the world, and the wisdom and hope here speak just as powerfully into every kind of suffering Christians experience. For now, let’s focus on three paths to strength, stability, and hope in 1 Peter.
1. Imagine what waits for you.
Before we can truly experience the good God has for us in suffering, we have to see our suffering on earth in the light of what is waiting for us in heaven.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:3–4)
“When suffering falls, expect God to use you to care for someone else in some new and more meaningful way.”
Before Peter sympathizes with their suffering — and he does sympathize with their suffering (1 Peter 1:6) — he draws them heavenward. Suffering has a way of making the difficult circumstances of the present seem ultimate, as if our whole existence is summed up in this awful moment. But for those with a living hope, suffering is never ultimate. Suffering may indeed linger and harass us until death comes, but then, for all who hope in God, pain itself will suffer swift extinction. If we were more familiar with heaven, we would experience suffering differently.
Randy Alcorn has known his share of suffering, both personally and most recently in walking his wife through a terrible war with cancer. He endures with her by imagining all that is kept in heaven for him.
Anticipating heaven doesn’t eliminate pain, but it lessens it and puts it in perspective. Meditating on heaven is a great pain reliever. It reminds us that suffering and death are temporary conditions. Our existence will not end in suffering and death — they are but a gateway to our eternal life of unending joy. (Heaven, 460)
We all will suffer, some of us more severely than others — but only for now. “After you have suffered a little while,” Peter says, “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10–11).
Heaven will restore all you have lost, and more — never to be lost again. Heaven will finally and fully confirm what God has only started in you and through you here on earth. Heaven will strengthen you until you forget what it was like to feel weak. Heaven will establish you, forever free from sin and suffering, in the painless and thrilling presence of God. After you have suffered for a little while.
2. Receive the preciousness of refining.
We may be able to say we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” — because that’s what Christians are supposed to say — but that miracle doesn’t happen in a heart unless God shows us some of the good he does in suffering.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 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. (1 Peter 1:6–7)
“Does anyone experience real joy in suffering that does not savor the preciousness of refining?”
Does anyone experience real joy in suffering that does not savor the preciousness of refining? Suffering strips away other blessings to help us see what, if anything, is holding us back from God. What has subtly displaced him as our refuge? How have we slowly begun to compromise with the desires of the flesh? In what ways have we wandered from the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14)? The shadows of suffering light the long road of sanctification like nothing else.
Satan wants suffering to hang like a fog over our fight for holiness, cloaking temptation and hiding our transgressions, even from ourselves. He wants suffering to be nothing more than an excuse. God wants it to be the fire that proves and builds our faith in him.
3. Lean into one another all the more.
Suffering can sever us from thoughts of heaven, making today feel ultimate, and suffering can isolate us from one another, leaving us feeling more and more alone. Instead of withdrawing from one another, however, Peter encourages precisely what suffering people might be prone to neglect: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly” (1 Peter 4:8).
You may feel more vulnerable in suffering, but isolation, as safe as it may seem, is not self-protection. You may assume you are less able to share and serve, but what if suffering actually made you more able? The apostle Paul blesses the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). You may have the impulse to get away and focus on your own grief and healing, but God comforts us, strengthens us, heals us, and makes us whole, not off in a corner by ourselves, but as a part of a body. Lean into the people God has given you, and all the more when you feel weak, fragile, and beaten down.
“Keep loving one another earnestly.” The loving charge is a thread through Peter’s letter:
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
“Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:7).
“If we were more familiar with heaven, we would experience suffering differently.”
When suffering comes, we often have less strength and energy, but our love for one another does not rest on our strength. If it does, it is not truly love. And it will not glorify the God who uses us all the more when we are weak (2 Corinthians 12:9). When suffering falls, leaving you weak and worn out, expect God to use you to care for someone else in some new and more meaningful way.
You Are Not Alone
If you are in Christ, and you are suffering more than those around you, you are not as alone as you might feel.
Even in the first century, Peter wrote, “Resist [the devil], firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). Think about how many more now have suffered with Jesus, like you, since he wrote those words. Think about how many more faithful Christians are suffering throughout the world even today, as you read this — churches suddenly shut down in China, believers beaten and disowned by their own families in Iraq, Christians targeted and killed by terrorists in Kenya. Peter says we will find strength to persevere in our suffering by watching the armies of saints, across oceans and over centuries, endure the same and worse because God was and is with them.
And God is with you. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7). You’re not only surrounded by endless testimonies of faithful sufferers, but you are loved, and cared for, by a God whose Son suffered to have you. “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. . . . He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21, 24).
He was wounded to heal you. His nails sealed the promise of heaven for you. His tears drenched your suffering with meaning, and hope, and even joy. His blood bought you a family, more than can be counted, bound together by a love that cannot be measured. Jesus suffered to show us, whatever we might suffer, how to suffer well.