We start this new week with an email from a listener named Shannon. Shannon is wondering if personal suffering is paradoxical for those of us who put so much stress on joy — in other words, for Christian Hedonists. Here’s her email: “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for the APJ podcast. My question is about 1 Peter 4:1–2. There appears to be a point of arrival when we no longer live for human passions but for God’s will. As a Christian Hedonist, do you see an irony that my sinfulness will cease only after I have suffered for a certain amount of time, thus showing my life is not to live for my own sinful pleasure but to pursue God as my greatest treasure? Is suffering a paradox for Christian Hedonists?”
I hear two distinct issues to deal with here. One is whether Shannon is interpreting 1 Peter 4:1 correctly, and the other is whether suffering is indeed appointed by God as a means by which sin is rooted out of our lives, therefore making suffering a means by which we come to enjoy Christ more fully as our supreme treasure. If this is all true, then we’re going to embrace suffering as Christian Hedonists, she essentially says. And she regards that as kind of paradoxical.
Let me try to take those one at a time because they really are separate issues.
Peter Alongside Paul
First, a few words about the meaning of 1 Peter 4:1, where Peter says, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Now, I’m not infallible, as everybody knows, and I have good friends who interpret this verse differently than I do.
They have written commentaries and studied this more than I have, and they say that arming yourself with the same way of thinking as Christ who suffered means that you resolve not to sin, even if it costs you suffering. And if you do that, it is evidence that you have, in principle, ceased from sin and are willing to endure the maligning referred to in 1 Peter 4:4. It’s kind of complicated, but it goes something like that.
But I have a hard time laying that interpretation on the text and seeing it clearly. Here’s what I think Peter meant, and folks will have to study this for themselves. Just so you know, the criticism that my interpretation usually gets is that it looks like I’ve just taken it from the apostle Paul. And that’s not fair, as the criticism goes. That’s cheating. You can’t run over to Romans 6, grab an interpretation, and then come back, squishing it into 1 Peter. I get that, and if I thought that’s what I was doing, I would back down.
But I don’t think that’s what I’m doing, because what Paul says in Roman 6 is a remarkable parallel to what Peter says in 1 Peter 4. In Romans 6:6–7, Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” That’s Paul’s quote, and that’s very close to Peter saying, “Whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1).
So Paul is saying that when Christ suffered and died, we Christians — by union with him through faith — also suffered and died, and that this death with Christ was a decisive death blow to our life of sinning. We are an essentially new person in Christ, and the mark of the newness is that we hate our sin, and we make war on it, and we put it to death by the Spirit. Now, that’s essentially what I think Peter means in 1 Peter 4:1, but not because Paul said it so well, but because Peter’s context points in this direction.
Peter in Context
Just a few verses earlier, in 1 Peter 3:18, he says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” So Christ’s suffering (to which 1 Peter 4:1 refers) in this verse is his death. He suffered unto death. He “suffered once” — that is, he was “put to death in the flesh.”
So when 1 Peter 4:1 says, “Christ suffered in the flesh . . . whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,” the natural meaning is, “Christ died.” Therefore, whoever has died with him, I interpret, has ceased from sin.
Now, what makes that connection even more plain, I think, is 1 Peter 2:24, where Peter says, “He himself [that is, Christ] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin.” That’s a really amazing parallel both to Paul in Romans 6:6 and to Peter in 1 Peter 4:1. Christ died for our sins that we might experience his death as our death and thus die to our sins — that is, be set free from the dominion of sinning. So I don’t think it’s unique to Paul at all to say, as Peter does in 4:1 (and paraphrases in 2:24), “Christ suffered” — that is, he died.
Therefore, have the mindset that, because you died with him, the effect of that death with him was that your old sin-loving self died, and now you have ceased from your bondage to sin and are launched into a life of warfare in which sin will not have dominion over you.
“My bent toward sinning received a mortal blow when Christ died for my sin and I died with him.”
Now, that’s why I don’t think Shannon is right to say that 1 Peter 4:1 teaches, in her words, that “my sinfulness will cease only after I have suffered for a certain amount of time.” I think the point is that my bent toward sinning received a mortal blow when Christ died for my sin and I died with him.
So even though I don’t think she set this up correctly, now we turn to the second issue, where she’s on track. That happens a lot of times. You see something in a text, you don’t get the text quite right, but the conclusion you draw is pretty good. Here’s the second issue — namely, whether suffering is indeed appointed by God as a means by which sin is rooted out of our lives and is therefore a means by which I come to enjoy Christ more fully as my supreme treasure.
And Shannon’s way of saying it is that this would be a paradox for a Christian Hedonist — that is, for somebody like me, who believes that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. So she thinks that would be a paradox because, namely, sin diminishes our greatest and longest joy — joy in Christ as our supreme treasure. Therefore, a Christian Hedonist should welcome God-appointed suffering as a means of killing the very thing (sin) that robs us of our greatest joy (Christ). That’s the paradox.
I think that’s basically right. She’s onto something there. One of the reasons God appoints suffering for his children is to wean us off of reliance upon the world, whose pleasures are deceitful and rob us of the greatest pleasures at God’s right hand. And we could show this from a lot of places in the New Testament — passages like 2 Corinthians 1:8–9 and 2 Corinthians 12:7–10.
But let me just glance briefly at Hebrews 12:6–11, which begins by saying, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” — that’s like a spanking, like the suffering he brings into our lives. Then notice how the passage ends: “‘The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons” — loved sons. So God brings suffering into the lives of his children, and it is a sign of his love, not his wrath. It’s for our good, our joy, our holiness.
“God knows what measures of displeasure are needed to kill the sins that rob us of the greatest pleasures.”
The writer goes on to say, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful [yes it does] rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” So he contrasts the painful, unpleasant experience of suffering — that’s the discipline of the Father — with the peaceful and pleasant fruit of righteousness.
So yes, Shannon is right in principle. I don’t think this is the point of 1 Peter 4:1, but it is the point of many texts in the Bible. God loves his children, and he knows better than any human physician what measures of displeasure are needed to kill the sins that rob us of the greatest pleasures — namely, the ones in God’s presence, with Jesus as our greatest treasure.