How To Suffer for Doing What Is Right

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.

As I ponder paragraph after paragraph in 1 Peter one of the overwhelming impressions I get is that it makes a difference to be Christian. I recall talking about this with some InterVarsity student workers at Stanford University a few years ago. Tom and I were out there together looking at the impact of Christian Hedonism on that chapter and the whole Bay Area.

Radical Christianity 

I remember one of the students saying how incredible it was to him that Christianity could be viewed by many students as a belief-system that could be added onto their present lives with little change. Studies remained pretty much the same. Leisure remained pretty much the same. Use of money remained pretty much the same. Goals after graduation remained pretty much the same. Students simply said, "I can believe that," and added it on to what they were already committed to. It didn't seem to make a difference.

One of the reasons I use the word "radical" as often as I do to describe the kind of Christianity that I am pursuing is that I need some kind of language to differentiate the real thing from this "add on" kind of Christianity that is not real and confuses thousands about what the real thing is. Radical Christianity, real Christianity, makes a difference.

Peter is writing his letter about that, and we get another picture of it in today's text.

The Context 

Remember the context. Verse 9: you are an elect nation, and a people for God's own possession. Your reason for existence is to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."

Verse 11: Therefore you are strangers and aliens in this world and your goal is to live such a life that people would glorify God. So verse 9 and verse 11 give the same goal for Christians: live in a way that shows God. But a Christianity that makes no visible difference simply cannot show God. It is not true Christianity.

Then Peter starts to give some examples of what true Christianity looks like in the hostile world of his day. Last week we saw how he showed Christians to relate to the state (vv. 13–17). Today he takes up another tough situation: what if you are a servant with an unbelieving master or even a crooked and abusive master? What does radical Christianity look like in that situation?

Christian Servants with Unbelieving Masters 

Peter tells us what it looks like.

  • Verse 18: Christian servants are submissive with all respect to their masters.
  • Verse 19: Christian servants bear up under sorrows when they suffer unjustly.
  • Verse 20: Christian servants do good and when they suffer for it, they bear the suffering patiently.
  • Verse 23: Christian servants do not return evil for evil; when reviled, they do not revile back or threaten.

In other words Christians are not defiant or rebellious or insolent. They have a spirit of meekness and submission and compliance—even when their masters are unreasonable and abusive.

What Does This Have to Do with Showing God? 

Now we should ask: What does this have to do with showing God? How does this "declare the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light"? How is this a kind of life that will cause people "to glorify God on the day of visitation"?

The first part of the answer is that this heart and this demeanor are utterly contrary to fallen human nature. In fact I would venture that in dozens of hearts in this room right now strong feelings of resistance are rising against this call for meekness and submission and compliance—even to unreasonable and abusive masters.

By nature we hate to give the impression of weakness. We hate to look like someone got the advantage of us. We hate to let false accusations against us stand. We hate it when unreasonable and abusive people seem to have the last say. Tremendous powers within us recoil and push us toward retaliation.

So what Peter calls for here is utterly contrary to our fallen human nature. That's the first thing to say when we ask: What does this demeanor have to do with showing God? If we triumph over our own fallen nature and live at this amazing level, it is strong evidence that something more than nature—outside nature, above nature—is at work in our lives.

Five Ways This Lifestyle Shows God 

That is, in fact, what Peter says is the case. He tells us five times that this amazing kind of life, so contrary to human nature, is owing to our connection with God. God is being shown, because God is the key to this utterly counter-natural way of life. In other words for these people Christianity DID make a difference. A radical difference. The root of their fallen nature is severed by the axe of God. They now are living from radically different premises, different values, different priorities, a different focus altogether.

Notice the five times that Peter connects to God this radical freedom from our old, natural spirit of retaliation.1

1. Conscience Toward God

Verse 19: "For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly." We do not endure sorrow and unjust suffering out of the fear of man or even out of our own weakness. Those are irrelevant. We bear it "for the sake of conscience toward God." That is, we take God into account. We look to God and not to our circumstances. God is the unseen factor for the world. They will never understand our behavior when we live to God. Why don't you fight back? The Christian servant answers, "My conscience is bound to God." We will see more clearly in a minute what difference that makes.

2. Favor with God

Verse 20: "For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God."

I think what Peter means here is that God delights in behavior that reflects utter reliance on his grace when the supports of the world are knocked out. When a Christian, out of "conscience toward God," looks to God for strength and courage and hope and peace in a time of suffering; and as a result bears the suffering patiently, God sees it as a tribute to his grace. God is shown in it. And when God is shown God is pleased.

3. Called by God to Suffer

Verse 21a: "For you have been called for this purpose." Here the point is that this kind of non-retaliating, gracious, submissive behavior is owing to a call from God. "You have been called for this." Suffering unjustly in this world is not a coincidence for Christians; it's a calling. "To this you were called."

He says it again in 3:9, " . . . not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing."

Suffering with patience shows God because it is an answer to his calling; it is obedience to our vocation.

4. Christ as Our Example

Verse 21b: "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps."

Enduring unjust suffering patiently shows God because it makes the suffering of Christ real to people. People can see that this is the way Jesus was. And if you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). So this kind of demeanor shows God by showing Christ his Son.

5. Entrust Yourself to God Who Judges Righteously

Verse 23: "While being reviled, He [Jesus] did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously."

Here is one of the most important keys to how patient endurance of unjust suffering shows God. When you endure unjust suffering "for the sake of conscience toward God," you are not saying justice doesn't matter; you are saying is that God is the final judge and will settle accounts justly. My abuser will not have the last say. God will have the last say. This is why I don't need to. I defer to God. As Peter says, "I entrust myself, and not just myself, but my cause and my accusers, and the whole situation and the justice that needs to be done—I hand it all over to God."

So my compliance is not an indifference to justice. It is a way of saying that the safest place for retaliatory justice is in God's hands, not mine. The powerful cry of my heart that I get my rights is handed over to God. If I am to be vindicated, it will be God who vindicates me "when he has tried and purged me duly" through suffering.

Three Comments of Application 

Let me close with three brief comments of application.

1. God's Will and Suffering

Does God will the unjust suffering of his people?

I think this text assumes that God sometimes wills for his people to suffer unjustly. I see that in verse 21: "you were called to this." But lest you doubt that, Peter says the same thing more explicitly several other places. For example in 4:19, "Let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right." And again in 3:17, "It is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong."

God wills this because he knows the best way for us to bring glory to him—sometimes by miraculously escaping suffering, and sometimes (more often) by graciously bearing suffering, that we do not deserve from men, because we trust in God.

God often wills that we suffer unjustly and that we bear it by his grace and for his glory.

2. Justice for Wrongdoing

Where is justice for the wrongdoing of abusive masters?

There are two answers. One is: justice is in God at the last day. God will settle all accounts justly. No one will get away with anything. Those who hold Christ and his people in derision and do not repent will one day cry out for the rocks and mountains to fall upon them rather than face the wrath of the Lamb (Revelation 6:16).

The other answer is that God has given a measure of his authority for retaliation in this age to the state as his minister for keeping order and peace in society. 1 Peter 2:14 says that God ordains kings and governors to "punish evildoers and praise those who do right." So God wills that governments punish those who cause Christians (or anyone else) to suffer unjustly. We may legitimately labor for such a government. But the God-given rights of the state to retaliate and punish does not nullify the God-given calling of the individual Christian to endure unjust suffering patiently. God's glory shines partly through his dispensing of justice through the state. But it shines much more through the patient, God-centered suffering of his people.

3. The Excellencies That Are Shown

Finally, what is it about God that is shown through our patient, non-retaliating endurance of unjust suffering?

1 Peter 2:9 says that our lives are to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light." So what are the excellencies of God that shine through this kind of meekness and endurance and patience?

It is a very long list. We can only give a start down the list.

  • When we suffer unjustly and patiently with our trust in God, we are surrendering some very precious things (health, comfort, ease) and so we are show the excellency of God's superior preciousness (1 Peter 2:7).
  • When we suffer with patient faith in God, we surrender much of our claim to be protected and cared for on earth and so we show the excellency of God's superior shepherd care for us (1 Peter 2:25; 5:7).
  • When we suffer with patient faith in God, we go without the glory of fighting back and winning; and so we show the excellency of God's superior glory that he will share with us some day, and the justice of his throne that will one day settle all accounts (1 Peter 2:23; 4:13; 5:1, 4).
  • When we suffer with patient faith in God, we seem to take a tremendous risk with our life—the only life most people believe we have to enjoy—and so we show the excellency of God's faithfulness and trustworthiness (1 Peter 4:19).
  • We seem to throw way our one chance for happiness by not fighting for more comforts here; and so we show the excellency of God's power to raise us from the dead as a faithful creator and one who has all dominion in the universe (1 Peter 4:19; 5:11).
  • Finally, when we endure unjust suffering meekly by trusting in God, we acknowledge that we are still sinners and are not earning anything by this patience. And so we show the excellency of God's great grace (1 Peter 5:10).

So when your time comes, keep these great words in mind from 1 Peter 5:10,

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever.

  1. It may be that there are six instances if "with all respect" in verse 18 is a reference to respect for God. Pointing in this direction is the fact that the preceding verse says we are to "fear God" and a related word is used in verse 18, "in all fear." So verse 18 may well mean, Submit to your earthly master out of the fear of God. This would parallel verse 13: Submit to every human institution on account of the Lord.