Why We Can Rejoice in Suffering

It might seem strange to you that 1 Peter is one of my favorite biblical books — since it’s mostly about suffering and how to live in a hostile culture, while I am a card-carrying, full-blooded, unwavering Christian Hedonist. But it isn’t strange for people who have lived long enough to realize what Paul Brand, the missionary surgeon to India wrote in his book The Gift of Pain:

I have come to see that pain and pleasure come to us not as opposites but as Siamese twins, strangely joined and intertwined. Nearly all my memories of acute happiness, in fact, involve some element of pain or struggle. (Christianity Today)

I have never heard anyone say, “The deepest and rarest and most satisfying joys of my life have come in times of extended ease and earthly comfort.” Nobody says that. It isn’t true. What’s true is what Samuel Rutherford said when he was put in the cellars of affliction: “The Great King keeps his wine there” — not in the courtyard where the sun shines. What’s true is what Charles Spurgeon said: “They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.”

Christian Hedonists will do anything to have the King’s wine and the rare pearls — even go to the cellars of suffering and dive in the sea of affliction. And so you can see that it is not strange that we love the epistle of 1 Peter — a handbook for Christian persecution and martyrdom.

A Story About a Joy-Seeking Missionary Family

When Bernie May was the head of Wycliffe Bible Translators he visited a young family in a Muslim nation. They had been there three years working with a people group of one hundred thousand people and no knowledge of Christ. This couple had three children under five years old.

“Keep on rejoicing — not in spite of your affliction, but even because of it.”

The baby was covered with pox marks, some of which looked infected. He asked if the child had chicken pox. “No, those are ant bites,” the mother said. “We can’t keep the ants off him. Eventually, he will become immune to them.”

In a moment of honesty she confessed she felt guilty because she was suffering from stress. Stress! She and her young husband came there from mid-USA. Now they live in a place where the temperature is above 100 degrees most of the year. The children are covered with bites; a war is going on close by; their helpers are in danger for being their friends; many in the villages are suffering from hunger and disease; they can’t even let their supporters know what they are doing so that they can pray for them since they are in a “critical” area — and she feels guilty because she is under stress.

I told her she had every right to feel stressful. I had only been their three days and I was already beginning to come unglued. Yet this dedicated young couple are laughing and joking and filled with the joy of the Lord.

First Peter is a letter mainly about how to be like that. Today’s text, in fact, commands us to be like that and gives at least six reasons why we should be and can be.

Keep on Rejoicing: Six Reasons to Do So

The command is found in verse 13: “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.” Keep on rejoicing. When you are thrown in the cellars of suffering, keep on rejoicing. When you dive in the sea of affliction, keep on rejoicing. In fact, keep on rejoicing not in spite of the affliction but even because of it. This is not a little piece of advice about the power of positive thinking. This is an utterly radical, abnormal, supernatural way to respond to suffering. It is not in our power. It is not for the sake of our honor. It is the way spiritual aliens and exiles live on the earth for the glory of the great King.

“Count it all joy when you meet various trials,” is foolish advice, except for one thing — God. Peter gives six reasons why we can “keep on rejoicing” when the suffering comes. They all relate to God.

1. Not a Surprise but a Plan

Keep on rejoicing because the suffering is not a surprise but a plan.

Verse 12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you.”

It isn’t strange. It isn’t absurd. It isn’t meaningless. It is purposeful. It is for your testing. Look at verse 19: “Let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.” “According to God’s will.” Suffering is not outside the will of God. It is in God’s will. This is true even when Satan may be the immediate cause. God is sovereign over all things, including our suffering, and including Satan.

By why? For what purpose? Compare verses 12 and 17. Verse 12 your fiery ordeal comes “for your testing.” Verse 17 says, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” The point is that God’s judgment is moving through the earth. The church does not escape. When the fire of judgment burns the church, it is a testing, proving, purifying fire. When it burns the world, it either awakens or destroys.

Verse 18: “And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?” Believers pass through the testing fire of God’s judgment — not because he hates us, but because he loves us and wills our purity. God hates sin so much and loves his children so much that he will spare us no pain to rid us of what he hates.

So reason number one is that suffering is not surprising, it is planned. It is a testing. It is purifying fire. It proves and strengthens real faith, and it consumes “performance faith.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn had long been impressed with the patience and longsuffering of Russian believers. One night in prison in Siberia Boris Kornfeld, a Jewish doctor, sat up with Solzhenitsyn and told him the story of his conversion to Christ. The same night Kornfeld was clubbed to death. Solzhenitsyn said that Kornfeld’s last words were, “lay upon me as an inheritance . . . It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good . . . Bless you, prison, for having been my life.”

We have strong hope, therefore, that the sufferings of our own day will bring purity and life to many. Suffering is not surprising, it is purposeful.

2. Evidence of Union with Christ

Keep on rejoicing because your suffering as a Christian is an evidence of your union with Christ.

Verse 13a: “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.” In other words your sufferings are not merely your own. They are also Christ’s. This is cause for rejoicing because it means you are united to Christ. Joseph Tson, a Romanian pastor who stood up to Ceausescu’s repressions of Christianity, wrote,

“Suffering is not outside the will of God. It is in God’s will.”

This union with Christ is the most beautiful subject in the Christian life. It means that I am not a lone fighter here: I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings. (“A Theology of Martyrdom”)

Keep on rejoicing, because your sufferings as a Christian are not merely yours but Christ’s and they give evidence of your union with him.

3. A Means to Attaining Greater Joy in Glory

Keep on rejoicing because this joy will strengthen your assurance that when Christ comes in glory, you will rejoice forever with him.

Verse 13b: “[As you share the sufferings of Christ] keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of his glory, you may rejoice with exultation.” Notice: keep on rejoicing now, so that you may rejoice then. Our joy now through suffering is the means of attaining our joy then, a thousand-fold in glory.

First, there is suffering, then there is glory. First Peter 1:11, “The Spirit predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glory to follow” (see 1 Peter 5:1). Paul said, “If we suffer with him we will be glorified with him.” First the suffering, and then the glory — both for Jesus and for those who are united to him.

If we become embittered at life and the pain it deals us, we are not preparing to rejoice at the revelation of Christ’s glory. Keep on rejoicing now in suffering in order that you might rejoice with exultation at the revelation of his glory.

4. The Spirit of Glory and of God Resting on You

Keep on rejoicing in suffering because then the Spirit of glory and of God rest upon you.

Verse 14: “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

This means that in the hour of greatest trial there is a great consolation. In great suffering on earth there is great support from heaven. You may think now that you will not be able to bear it. But if you are Christ’s, you will be able to bear it, because he will come to you and rest upon you. As Rutherford said, the Great King keeps his finest wine in the cellar of affliction. He does not bring it out to serve with chips and on sunny afternoons. He keeps it for extremities.

If you say, “What is this?” — the Spirit of glory and of God resting on me in suffering — the answer is simply this: you will find out when you need it. The Spirit will reveal enough of glory and enough of God to satisfy your soul, and carry you through.

Seek to be holy; seek to bring truth; seek to bear witness; and do not turn aside from risk. And sooner or later you will experience the Spirit of glory and of God resting upon you in suffering.

5. Glorifying God

Keep on rejoicing in suffering because this glorifies God.

Verse 16: “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God.”

Glorifying God means showing by your actions and attitudes that God is glorious to you — that he is valuable, precious, desirable, satisfying. And the greatest way to show that someone satisfies your heart is to keep on rejoicing in them when all other supports for your satisfaction are falling away. When you keep rejoicing in God in the midst of suffering, it shows that God, and not other things, is the great source of your joy.

I mentioned Paul Brand earlier — the missionary surgeon to India. He tells the story of his mother who was a missionary in India and who did something that symbolizes a life devoted through suffering to the glory of God and not self. Dr. Brand writes,

“Our joy now through suffering is the means of attaining our joy in glory.”

For Mother, pain was a frequent companion, as was sacrifice. I say it kindly and in love, but in old age, Mother had little of physical beauty left in her. The rugged conditions, combined with the crippling falls and her battles with typhoid, dysentery, and malaria, had made her a thin, hunched-over old woman. Years of exposure to wind and sun had toughened her facial skin into leather and furrowed it with wrinkles as deep and extensive as any I have seen on a human face . . . Mother knew that as well as anyone — for the last 20 years of her life she refused to keep a mirror in her house. (Christianity Today)

Twenty years of ministry without a mirror. Do you get it? She was the mirror. God was the light and the glory

6. God’s Faithfulness to Care for Your Soul

Finally, keep on rejoicing because your Creator is faithful to care for your soul.

Verse 19: “Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”

The degrees of suffering and the forms of affliction will differ for every one of us. But one thing we will all have in common till Jesus comes: we will all die. We will come to that awesome moment of reckoning. If you have time, you will see your whole life played before you as you ponder if it has been well-spent. You will tremble at the unspeakable reality that in just moments you will face God. And the destiny of your soul will be irrevocable.

Will you rejoice in that hour? You will if you entrust your soul to a faithful Creator. He created your soul for his glory. He is faithful to that glory and to all who love it and live for it. Now is the time to show where your treasure is — in heaven or on earth. Now is the time to shine with the glory of God. Trust him. And keep on rejoicing.