Sermon 07-02-17: “How to Suffer Well”

August 3, 2017

Like so much of 1 Peter, today’s scripture is about unjust suffering. As I point out in this sermon, we American Christians likely won’t face much suffering for our faith, yet our fear of suffering often prevents us from witnessing boldly to our faith. The difficult truth, as Peter makes clear, is that God sometimes wants us to suffer and to do so being “mindful of God.” What does that mean and how can being “mindful of God” help us to suffer well? This sermon answers this question.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:18-25

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Some of you know or have met Tracy Fleming, the owner-operator of the Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy. He’s a friend of our church; he’s spoken at our Men’s Club a couple of times, and of course I know him from hanging out at that particular Chick-fil-A. For many years now, Tracy has been taking multiple trips to China each year, spending his own money to train and equip Chinese Christians in many of China’s underground churches. It’s a risky venture for him, because when he goes there, he knows that he and his fellow Christians are under surveillance by the government. He knows that each time he goes there he knows that he might not come back.

Tracy told me about a conversation he had with a Chinese pastor there, who described to him the intense persecution that he and many of his fellow pastors and Christians were facing. Tracy said to him, “I’ll be praying that the Lord will put an end to the persecution and suffering of you and your fellow Christians.” And this pastor looked at Tracy with a flash of anger and said, “What makes you think that God wants to put an end to our persecution and suffering? God is using this persecution and suffering to advance God’s kingdom in China.”

Tracy said he was thoroughly humbled!

Is that true, though? Was this pastor right? Could God want these Chinese Christians to suffer—because God was using their suffering to advance his kingdom?

When we read Peter’s words about suffering in today’s scripture, it’s hard to disagree with this pastor!

Our scripture begins: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.”

These “servants” to whom Peter refers were literally slaves. I’ve spoken before about how slavery in the first century was different from the slavery that we think of from our American experienceit was more akin to what we would call “indentured servitude.” But it was still slavery. Slaves had no rights. They could be badly mistreated by their masters and no one could do anything about it. In fact, Peter is writing during a time of great persecution of Christians. Many pagans were already afraid of Christians, and if pagan masters found out that their slaves converted to this strange new religion, well… it could mean great persecution and suffering for their Christian slaves.

Peter knows this. And if persecution and suffering come, what are these Christians supposed to do? Peter says they are supposed to endure it—not out of cowardice or fear, but for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also suffered unjustly—in order to save the lost. God loves even slaveholders and wants to save them too. And these slaves can be used by God to do that.

And you might say, “We’re not slaves or indentured servants today. What does this passage have to do with us?”

And my answer? Everything. It has everything to do with us!

Why do I say that? Well, notice in verse 18, Peter begins by addressing Christians in a particular situation—“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect”—but then, in the very next verse, listen to what he says: “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” He says “when one endures”—that means anyone, not just slaves. So he’s giving a general principle here that applies to all Christians everywhere. Not only that: he goes on to say in verse 21: “to this you have been called.” And what does “this” refer to? It refers to unjust suffering.

All of us Christians, Peter says, should expect to suffer unjustly in this life. Why? Ultimately because God wants us to. He has called us to suffer. It’s part of his plan for us. He’s using it for his glory and his purposes. See, we often think that when suffering comes our way, it disrupts our lives. The Bible says, by contrast, that it’s an important and necessary part of our lives. We believe that suffering intrudes on our happiness. The Bible says, by contrast, that there’s a resilient kind of happiness and joy that we can have even in the midst of suffering. We often think—without saying it out loud—that more faithful we are to God, God will “repay the favor” and will cause us to suffer less. The Bible, by contrast, shows us one example after another of saints whose lives become much more difficult the more faithful they become.

Peter’s own experience bears this out: In Acts 5, not long after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he and the other apostles are arrested for proclaiming the gospel. The Jewish ruling council says that they can no longer preach about Jesus. Peter says, “We must obey God rather than men.” And what happens next? He and the other apostles are beaten. And then Luke writes, “Then [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” Worthy to suffer dishonor. Plenty of other Christians may have been unworthy to suffer, but these disciples, because of their faithfulness, were considered worthy to suffer. It implies that the more faithful they were, the more they would have to suffer.

Also, remember this: Peter is living his life with a death sentence hanging over his head: Jesus told him, on that beach in Galilee after his resurrection in John 21, that at some point in the future Peter himself would be crucified, just as Jesus was crucified. Peter saw firsthand his Lord dying this most painful, brutal death. He knows this is in store for him. That would be terrible to have that hanging over his head. That would potentially paralyze us in fear. Yet Peter has found something that helps him not only to cope with it, but that helps him to live his life with joy in the face of suffering.

I want that, I need that, in my own life, don’t you?

Now, one of the reasons that we rightly celebrate the 4th of July this week is because our nation was founded, in part, on the principle of religious freedom. That’s a great thing that enables us to worship as we please, without interference from our government. We also have freedom of speech. Unlike Peter, no one’s going to arrest us and beat us for proclaiming the gospel. For the most part, we don’t experience persecution for our Christian faith. Not officially, at least. And I wouldn’t dare compare the persecution that does come our way with the persecution that Christians are experiencing right now, all around the world—including in China, like I mentioned earlier.

And yet… when we are faithfully following our Lord, even in a land in which religious freedom is guaranteed by law, we can expect to encounter resistance—in the form of ostracism or ridicule. I saw this fifteen years ago when I was an engineer. About half of my job was spent on the road, traveling from one Coca-Cola plant to another. Mostly, I programmed and trouble-shooted machines that put Coke cans in 12-pack cartons. And I often worked alongside mechanics, one of whom was an outstanding witness for Christ. His name was Clay. He witnessed through his lifestyle, which meant he didn’t cuss like the rest of the guys. He didn’t go to the hotel bar every night like the rest of guys. He didn’t gossip like the rest of the guys. He didn’t put other people down like the rest of the guys. And he witnessed through his words.

People knew why Clay was different; they knew what made him different. And these things made Clay an object of ridicule and scorn among some of his fellow mechanics. I heard their derision—firsthand. Some of these guys hated Clay. And it was completely unfair and undeserved! And if Clay was aware of it, he didn’t let it show; he didn’t let it bother him; he didn’t get angry; he didn’t fight back.

But I loved Clay. He was a pleasure to work with. And I told Lisa about him fifteen years ago—about what a powerful witness he was for Christ.

The truth is, I wasn’t bold enough to witness like Clay did back then. I hope I would be now. But I knew what these guys were saying about Clay. And I wanted them to like me. I just wanted to blend in. And not stick out. I wanted to go along to get along.

And I guarantee that many of you are in the same boat. You’re afraid to witness, not because the government is going to arrest you and torture you for doing so, as governments do all around the world; not because witnessing will harm your career or livelihood, as being a Christian does in so many places around the world; but because someone might say an unkind word about you. Or someone might think you’re weird and judge you for it. Someone might think less of you. Too many of us are afraid of suffering even a little because of our faith. And so we don’t do what Clay and so many others do: we don’t witness.

I mean, here we are, on 4th of July weekend, celebrating freedom of speech and freedom of religion—and yet, too often we don’t take advantage of our freedoms to be a witness for Christ!

We are a church who desperately needs not simply to plant flags out front because we want to show our community how much we love our country—which is good, because we do. But even more we are a church who need to plant a flag for Jesus Christ in Hampton, Georgia, so we can show our community how much we love them. We love them too much not to share with them the good news of Jesus Christ! We love them too much not to let them know that he can forgive their sins. We love them too much not to let them know that he died for them in order to save them from hell!

We love them too much to keep this good news a secret. And too many of us are doing that because we’re afraid to suffer for our faith—even a little!

We’re not even being good Americans because we’re not using the freedoms that so many men have fought and died to secure for us over these past 241 years!

So as we celebrate our freedoms, let’s actually put those freedoms to the test—and share with others this life-changing, soul-saving love and grace of Jesus Christ! Regardless of the consequences!

By the way, four years ago, I was in the greeting line after our 11:00 service here at Hampton, just outside the front doors. And guess who was standing there? My old friend and brother in Christ, Claythe mechanic I was telling you about. Some of you know him. He lives right here in Hampton. He goes to a nearby Baptist church. Lord, give us the courage to witness like him!

But whether we suffer unjustly because of our faith in Christ, we will suffer unjustly in this life. You know that, right? And in my experience, our suffering will be worse when we are being faithful to Christ. Remember Paul’s words in Ephesians 6: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The interesting thing about Paul’s words is that Paul was someone who seemingly wrestled constantly against flesh-and-blood. He was constantly getting into trouble with human rulers and authorities who violently opposed him and his ministry at every turn. And yet this same Paul could say that he wasn’t really fighting flesh-and-blood people: the war was much larger, much deeper, much more difficult that that. Paul understood that he was really at war with Satan and his army of demons. He understood he was fighting in a spiritual war. And he says that we are, too.

Even if we’re fighting with people, there are spiritual powers behind that fight, and they’re working through the fight to make shipwreck of our faith—to make us depressed; to make us discouraged; to make us bitter; to sow seeds of discord and division; to fill us with resentment; to fill us with anger.

Does this sound familiar? Do you ever feel these angry feelings when someone mistreats you?

If you’re married you do. If you have kids you do. If you are a kid who has parents parents you do. If you have a boss you do. If you are a boss you do. If you have a job you do. If you’re an active member of a church you do.

Anger is the kind of sin—that’s right, I said sin—that all of us agree is sinful—except in this one particular case. We justify our anger so easily. “I have a right to be angry… because this person treated me so badly!” “I have a right to be angry… because this thing in my life happened, which kept me from pursuing my dream!”

I passed a billboard on 19/41 the other day, when I was on my way to a meeting in Atlanta. It said in large letters: “Have you been hurt? Call the law offices of so-and-so. He’ll bring you relief!”

I wanted to call him and say, “I have been hurt a lot! And I get hurt all the time, and it’s unfair, and it’s undeserved, and I get angry—I can’t help myself—and I relief, and I need healing.”

And I bet you do, too.

How do we handle it? How do we handle suffering?

Peter gives us a clue in verse 19: “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.”

Mindful of God. What is it about God that we are to be mindful of when we experience unjust suffering that will help us deal with it?

First we are mindful of the fact—as I’ve said earlier—that God is sovereign. Nothing is happening to you that isn’t part of God’s plan for you. God is using your suffering for his purposes, for his glory, and for your good. In other words, God has good reasons for letting you experience this suffering, whether we know what those reasons are or not. But Peter tells us back in chapter 1 that when Christ comes again, the reasons for our suffering will be made clear—and we will praise God for them.

Second, we are mindful that when we are able to endure suffering the way Jesus did, it pleases God. This is what it means in verse 20 when it says that our faithful endurance is a “gracious thing in the sight of God.” One commentator said that it makes God smile. Don’t we want to make God smile?

Third, we are mindful that when we endure suffering the way Jesus did, God will reward us. This is implied in verse 19, which says that our faithful endurance “brings God’s favor.” This is another name for a reward, which, if not given in this life, will be given in heaven. Is the thought of a heavenly reward enough of an incentive to motivate us endure suffering with faith, hope, and love, rather than anger and bitterness?

Fourth, God knows that we’ve been hurt unjustly. Just because God permits it, and uses it for our good and his glory, doesn’t mean that God is O.K. with the wrong that’s been done. God is perfectly committed to justice. God sees every injustice that we’ve suffered; every time we’ve been mistreated; every time that we’ve been abused; every time we’ve been sinned against. God will ensure that these sins against us are punished—either on the cross of his Son Jesus or in hell for those who don’t place their faith in Christ and are still under God’s wrath. No one escapes God’s justice in the long run. And everything we’ve suffered in this world will be more than compensated in the world to come. That’s a promise from God!

We rightly celebrate today those words that Thomas Jefferson wrote—with a little help from John Locke:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

We are blessed by God to live in a nation that ensures that we have these rights under the law. As Christians, however, let’s not confuse our rights under the law with our standing before God. Before God we have no rights: we only have privileges that are paid for by the blood of his Son Jesus. Our lives are not our own. They belong to God alone.

And unless we understand this truth, suffering will never make sense to us; we’ll never view it as anything that could be good for us; we’ll never believe God’s Word that suffering can be redemptive. And we’ll be angry and bitter. God wants something better for us than that.

[Close with Romans 14:7-8.]

5 Responses to “Sermon 07-02-17: “How to Suffer Well””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    This is a really good sermon on how to view “suffering for your faith”. However, as you point out, most of us are not being called to endure great suffering. There is a risk that some might think that this makes their lives less valuable to God. This is not true. God actually calls for us to enjoy Him and to worship Him with great gladness, joy and celebration. We are to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. Be especially encouraged to do this if there is little or no suffering in your life. But, also remember those who are suffering and reach out to them with whatever support you have available.

    As one saint used to say to me, “Life is short. Enjoy all the blessings God has bestowed on you, but remember to share them with others”.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Grant, I agree with you to the extent that we should not “seek out suffering” so we can be “more valuable” to God. However, I recall the verse, “All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Also, “Blessed are you when men persecute you.” So there does seem to be some level of “correspondence” between vigorously living out our faith (including witnessing to others) and receiving some “suffering” by way of “persecution.” I am not saying this must be “dramatic” or “hurt a lot,” but scripture would seem to support an expectation of suffering (at least in general–not every scripture needs to apply equally to each person all the time, I don’t think).

    As a minor example (appropriate, seeing as my “living out” is not particularly noteworthy), when I write letters to editors espousing a Christian position on some issue or another, I frequently get some “push-back.” In one noteworthy instance, someone claiming to be a Christian left a message on my home phone recorder calling me a “Christian A-hole.” Not any big deal, but my point is that the world and the devil really don’t like Christians espousing and living out Christian principles, and we can expect some “persecution” of one type or another when we do.

    Also, even if we have a more “exceptional” circumstance in America, consider how true Peter’s words are in numerous other countries of the world, where simply being a Christian leads to social ostracism, imprisonment, and death. So I think Peter’s words are a “general across the board” encouragement when we are “worthy to suffer persecution for his name,” as with the Apostles vis-à-vis the Sanhedrin.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree with this, Tom. I hope I made that clear in the sermon: We should expect at least a little suffering, if only a mild form of it in our environment. In that regard, I’ve experienced resistance to the gospel and, indeed, persecution (again, in a mild form). Of course, we also face spiritual warfare, especially as we resolve to live more faithfully for Christ. Suffering happens either way—because of human beings or demons (or both).

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    I think that’s spot on Tom.

    But, think about the “big news” of our time. It’s how Silicon Valley technology is changing the world. Software, robotics, self driving cars, elimination of 80% of today’s jobs with technology in 20 years, etc, etc. Nowhere do you see much discussion of the moral impact of this. Without a meaningful relationship with God, how will “future people” cope with all of this.

    Add to that the zeal of radical Islam and the insanity of nuclear weapons and I’m kinda glad my life on Earth is drawing to a close……..

    It’s going to be crazy. Unless, He returns…….

    Guess I’m sounding a little kooky this morning, but it’s been on my mind lately.


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