Joy in the Midst of Suffering
1 Peter 1:1-9
This morning we begin a study of 1Peter (read 1:1a). Peter is the Peter who was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples—the Peter who was the first to realize that Jesus was the Messiah, who also misunderstood Jesus’ mission, who denied Jesus three times during his trial, etc. But Jesus forgave him and restored him and worked through even Peter’s failures to make him a key leader of the early Christian movement. Peter is in “Babylon” (5:13)—figurative for Rome, where he was arrested and crucified upside-down within a year or two after this letter.
Read 1:1b,2. The recipients were Christians in Turkey, to whom Peter had probably previously ministered. They were Gentiles (1:18), and are called “aliens” not because they were ethnic aliens, but because they were spiritual aliens (2:11). Persecution has spread to these churches—so Peter seeks to encourage them. Ever since, suffering Christians have found this letter profoundly encouraging.
How does Peter encourage us? By focusing our attention on God’s grace (“the overwhelming reality of what God has given us through Jesus Christ”1). This is implicit in his salutation (“Grace and peace be yours in abundance”)—God’s abundant grace will enable us to experience his abundant peace in the midst of suffering. It is explicit at the end of his letter (read 5:12). What we need most of all when we suffer is neither an exhortation to stoic machismo, nor mere sympathy—we need increased understanding of God’s grace, and deeper trust in it! So Peter opens his letter with a series of insights into God’s grace, and descriptions of how grace encourages us in our sufferings.
1:3-9 is the first of these insights(read). Peter doesn’t deny the reality of our sufferings or the grief caused by these sufferings (1:6)—but he speaks of being lifted up by joy in the midst of our sufferings (1:8). “Joy” is the delight Christians experience in trusting that we are loved by God. Sometimes this joy is very dramatic, bringing tears—like when a lover lets himself believe for the first time that his love is reciprocated. At other times it is more subtle, providing stability and security—like when a child rests in his parents’ love. Though we cannot see God, joy is ignited in our hearts by his Spirit when we trust the love he has given us through Jesus (Rom.15:13). We may not be able to put our joy into words (“inexpressible”)—but it is real and “heavier” than the weight of our sufferings (“full of glory”).
For Christians, joy in the midst of suffering is both a privilege and a responsibility. A privilege, because we don’t deserve it, but God showers it on us anyway. A responsibility, because it demonstrates to others that Jesus is real and attracts them to join us in believing in him (cf. 1Pet.3:15).
What has God given us in his love us that produces this kind of joy when we trust in it? Peter speaks here of two tremendous gifts. Let’s look closely at each of them...
God will grant us a glorious inheritance
Read 1:3-5. The main point here is that we who have entrusted ourselves to Jesus have been adopted as God’s children (“new birth”) and therefore made heirs (“inheritance”) of God’s kingdom.
In the Roman world, wealthy childless couples would adopt worthy young adults to be their children so they could pass their wealth on to them.2 But why would God adopt us? He isn’t childless, he isn’t going to die, and we are unworthy rebels who deserve God’s judgment! The only answer is “because of his great mercy” (1:3). So great is God’s mercy and love that he gave his perfect and only Son Jesus to die for our sins so that he could adopt us. He adopts us so that we can experience the “down-payment” of his love now, and so that he can pass on to us the privilege of enjoying his full love forever when Jesus returns (1:5). Such a love surpasses our understanding (1Jn. 3:1), and should blow our minds every time we think of it!
Inheritance rights were secure because they were protected by the power of Rome. Peter goes out of his way to emphasize that our inheritance is absolutely secure because it is protected by God’s power (1:5). It can never perish, spoil or fade (1:4) like all other inheritances, because God’s kingdom is eternal. No enemy can take our inheritance away from us, because God is infinitely stronger than any enemy. Even better, none of our sins can disqualify us from our inheritance, because it is based entirely on Jesus’ perfect and finished work for us, and not at all on our very imperfect work for God! Nothing could be more secure!
This is not wishful thinking—there is a solid basis for believing it. Peter says that our inheritance is “through (on the basis of) the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). Our future destiny is rooted in an event that has already happened. Jesus has been raised bodily from the dead, an event to which Peter was an eye-witness, along with hundreds of others. (This is why many world-class historians argue that Jesus’ resurrection is the best-attested event in ancient history.) And Jesus promised that those who belong to him will share in his resurrection. Additionally (as Peter argues in 1:10-12), the Old Testament prophets promise this inheritance—and their prophetic track-record is impeccable (NEXT WEEK).
Can you see why Peter says that when we focus by faith on this “living hope,” we will have joy that outweighs the pain of our sufferings (1:8)? We can have joy in the painful present to the extent that we anticipate this positive future.
I don’t like Columbus winters (S.A.D.), and I have many stressful and painful things to endure this winter. So I sit under a sun-lamp, I get outside during the rare sunny times, I put summer pictures in my bedroom, I keep track of the 1.5 minutes/day increase of day-length, etc. In various ways, I practice the discipline of anticipation—anticipating the arrival of spring that will surely come. And as I do this, though winter remains painful, my heart is strengthened in the midst of winter.
In the same way, when we affirm our adoption and anticipate our inheritance, the Holy Spirit ignites joy in our hearts that sustains us and lifts us above the weight of our current sufferings. “Do I, as a Christian... (affirm) my own real identity? My own destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer... Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask (God) that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true.” Reading and reflecting on Rev. 21,22 is a good way to begin.
God is refining through our sufferings
1:6,7 speaks of another aspect of God’s grace that enables us to have joy in the midst of suffering (read). Peter likens our sufferings to the fire used by a goldsmith to purify his gold. A goldsmith begins with gold ore that is a mixture of pure gold and dross. By repeatedly putting the ore into fire, the dross is gradually burned off and the gold is gradually purified and he can see his reflection more and more clearly in the gold.
God is like the goldsmith—not that he causes specific sufferings in our lives, but that he is working skillfully (and mysteriously) through them to refine our faith so that the character of Jesus is increasingly reflected in us. This is for our good, because we were redeemed to become like Jesus. And it is so that God may attract others to Jesus through us as they see the integrity and love that comes from faith in him.
So we can rejoice in the midst of our sufferings, not only because we will soon receive our inheritance, but also because God is accomplishing something wonderful through them. Through this “fire” he reveals the dross in our faith—the false things we depend upon for our security and identity and significance. And through this “fire” burns away this dross and deepens our trust in him alone for these needs.
For example, I may think that I depend on God alone for my material security—but I may in fact be primarily dependent on my career and income. What reveals this dross and moves me to depend more deeply on God’s love? Often, it is the “fire” of job loss or reduced income or unexpected bills.
Or I may think that I depend on God alone for my self-worth—but I may in fact be primarily dependent on certain people’s approval and praise. What reveals this dross and moves me to depend more deeply on God’s love? Often, it is the “fire” of these people’s criticism or even their rejection.
Or I may think that I depend on God alone for my significance—but I may in fact be primarily dependent on getting people to respond to my attempts to influence them spiritually. What reveals this dross and moves me to depend more deeply on God’s love alone? Often, it is the “fire” of failure in our attempts at spiritually influence.
God knows the true state of our faith, and God in his wisdom is working through the “fire” of suffering to purify it more and more. He has staked his reputation on us (which I will never understand!), and he will work as a wise goldsmith to refine our faith.
“We should not be... too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now. What do they mean? Why, simply that God in his wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet, and is dealing with us accordingly. Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience, good humor, compassion, humility, or meekness, by giving us some extra practice in exercising these graces under specially difficult conditions. Perhaps he has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Perhaps he wishes to break us of complacency, or unreality, or undetected forms of pride and conceit... . Perhaps his purpose is to draw us closer to himself in conscious communion with him; for it is often the case...that fellowship with (God) is most vivid and sweet, and Christian joy is greatest, when the cross is heaviest. Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling.”3
Have you embraced God’s purpose for your life, or are you still trying to get God to fulfill your purpose? If you haven’t embraced his purpose for your life, his “fire” will seem cruel and this will only add to the pain to your sufferings. But if embrace his purpose and give yourself into his fashioning hands, his Spirit will ignite joy in your heart that outweighs the pain of the “fire!”
If you belong to Jesus Christ, God is in control over your sufferings. Nothing comes into your life without first passing through his wise and loving hands. It may appear that everything is out of control, and you are plummeting to earth without a parachute. It may feel like your adverse circumstances are undermining and destroying your faith. But God is your goldsmith, working carefully and perfectly through these distressing sufferings to burn away the dross and purify (and deepen) your faith so that the reflection of his Son is seen more and more clearly in and through you. Each and every suffering is part of this process, burning away more and more of your “false trusts” (which only deceive and corrupt), and making you more truly dependent on and confident in the God who loves you. This is true even when you can’t see at the time what dross he is burning away. Affirm this daily, give yourself to him and his purpose daily—and his Spirit will cause joy to ignite and flare up in your heart.
Through Jesus, God promises us a glorious inheritance and accomplishes something wonderful through our sufferings. Trusting in the God who promises these gifts will give you joy even in the midst of your sufferings. But trusting in God begins with the choice to personally receive his Son Jesus as your Savior (Jn.1:12). This is how you become God’s adopted child and heir. This is how you come under God’s wise “goldsmith” care. It starts with humbly asking Jesus to give you this “new birth.” Have you asked?
1 Edmund Clowney’s commentary on 1Peter
2 “In the ancient world, adoption was a practice ordinarily confined to the childless well-to-do. Its subjects... were not normally infants, as today, but young adults who had shown themselves fit and able to carry on a family name in a worthy way.” J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 215.
3 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975), p.86.