Sermon 05/10/2020: “How to Suffer Well”

Scripture: 1 Peter 2:18-25

One of my Christian heroes—at least among Christians that I know in real life—is a man named Tracy Fleming. He’s the owner-operator of the Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy, Georgia, down on the southside of Atlanta, not far from where I pastored a church. I used to go to that Chick-fil-A every week to write my sermons. And I got to know Tracy. And I invited him to speak at our church. I don’t know how this current pandemic has changed what I’m about to describe, but over the course of many years, Tracy made a couple of trips to China each year, spending his own money, in order to train and equip Chinese Christians in some of China’s many underground churches. It was risky and potentially even life-threatening, because when he went there, he knew that he and his fellow Christians were under surveillance by the Chinese government. Tracy himself is half-Japanese—not that that endears him to the Chinese government! My point is, Tracy knew that when he went there, there was at least a small risk that he would never come back! But he went anyway! Because he loved Jesus that much!

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 told 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 indignation and said, “What makes you think that God wants to put an end to our persecution and suffering? God is using our persecution and suffering to do powerful things for God’s kingdom in China!”

Wow! Tracy said he was thoroughly humbled!

Is that true, though? Was this pastor right? Was suffering a part of God’s plan for these Christians?

When we consider today’s scripture, it’s hard to disagree with him!

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. Some English Bibles use that word. The problem is, when we modern people hear that word, we immediately think of the British and American experience of slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. That’s not what this was. It was more like what we would call “indentured servitude.” It was voluntary. If you had debts you couldn’t pay, you would sell yourself into slavery for a limited amount of time. The slaves Peter mentions here would often be well-educated and had great responsibility: they might be doctors, tutors, accountants, managers of large estates. 

But let’s not minimize it: it was still slavery. Slaves were at the mercy of their masters. They could be badly mistreated 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 Christians who are 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 the 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 became.

It was true for Peter himself! 

In Acts 5, not long after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he and the other apostles were arrested for proclaiming the gospel. The Jewish ruling council said that they could 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. This implies that they were suffering because of their faithfulness, not in spite of it. Indeed, this is a part of God’s plan for them. A means through which unbelievers would be saved.

Also, remember this: Peter is living his life already 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 our heads. That could potentially paralyze us with 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 let’s be careful… When I talk about suffering as a Christian, you’re probably thinking: “I don’t suffer very much for my faith. I live in America, thank God. I have First Amendment protections… This isn’t Communist China; I’m free to be a Christian here.” 

But if that’s your point of view, I’m going to say something that might surprise you: If you’re a Christian, you suffer more than you know because of your faith… 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 is that he was someone who 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 than 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. Whether we like it or not… whether we know it or not.

Look, we’re all suffering at least a little right now because of the coronavirus. And you say, “But that has nothing to do with our Christian faith, the way Peter is describing.” Oh, yes it does! Because there are spiritual forces at work in your life right now that are trying to use this pandemic to make shipwreck of our faith—to make us depressed; to make us afraid; to make us discouraged; to make us bitter; to sow seeds of discord and division; to fill us with resentment; to fill us with self-pity; to fill us with anger.

Even if, unlike Peter and the Christians in Asia Minor to whom he’s writing—or unlike the Christians in China I mentioned earlier—even if we don’t have flesh-and-blood enemies who are fighting against us because of our Christian faith, we still have a deadly unseen Enemy who is fighting against us. At every turn. And the more faithful we are to Jesus, the harder he’s going to fight us. 

I mean, sure… if you’re a Christian in name only, a “Christian” who’s taken the light of Christ and hidden it under a bushel, a nominal Christian who has somehow survived church for years or decades without having a personal relationship with Jesus, well, without ever having been born again, then obviously you’re no threat to the devil and his kingdom; he’s got you just where he wants you, and he’ll leave you alone. 

But you’re not allowed to be that kind of Christian here at Toccoa First; I’m trying to make it very uncomfortable for you to be that kind of Christian at Toccoa First! How am I doing?

If you’re a member or regular attender of this church, I want you to be the kind of Christian that the devil and his forces are going to attack because they’re afraid of the powerful things that the Spirit of Jesus Christ is doing through you! And when they do attack, and you do have to suffer for it, like Peter and the Christians to whom he’s writing, it will be because of your Christian faith.

So how do we handle this suffering when it comes?

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 what Paul says in Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” God knows that we’ve been hurt unjustly. Just because God permits it, and uses it for our good, for the good of others, and for 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 we’ve gossiped about and slandered; 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 reject God’s offer of salvation in Christ. 

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!

Second, 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.” Favor 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, self-pity, and bitterness?

Finally, we are mindful that God is sovereign. He’s in control. Nothing happens to us that takes him by surprise. Nothing happens to us that has the power to change God’s good plans for our lives—despite any temporary setbacks we might be experiencing at the moment. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” In verse 25, Peter quotes Isaiah 53 and reminds us of one important metaphor of our relationship with God. There are other metaphors, but this is one important one.. We are sheep, and he is our Good Shepherd.

If I am like a sheep, and he’s my Good Shepherd, what do I really know about what’s best for me? Sheep, after all, are famously dumb animals—they walk off cliffs, they get lost, get separated from the flock, they put themselves in harm’s way, they make really bad decisions all the time. It would be incredibly presumptuous for a sheep to second-guess the shepherd, to dictate to the shepherd what’s best for the sheep. 

And yet, how often when I’m upset, angry, filled with self-pity because I’m not getting what I deserve… how often am I doing the same thing?

I’m reminded of that scripture from Proverbs 3: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes…”

I want to lean on my own understanding… I want to be wise in my own eyes… I resist acknowledging him…

But Christ my Good Shepherd puts up with me… No, much more than that… he loves me, and he laid down his life to make me part of his flock. And now he fights for me… And he will keep me safe. 

And remember Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” That means he will always give me what I ultimately need to satisfy the deepest longings of my soul. Amen.

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