Saturday, December 3, 2011

Suffering Is Central to Christianity: Meditation on 1 Peter

First Peter makes it clear that suffering is central to Christianity. After the standard greetings of “grace and peace,” the writer begins right in discussing suffering. Every time he moves on to discuss other things, he comes right back to suffering. In fact, he bluntly says that when we suffer, we should not “be surprised” “as though some strange thing were happening.” Suffering is basic. Suffering is Christianity 101. It is little wonder that our primary symbol is a torture instrument: the cross.

The letter, then, says quite a bit about suffering. To begin with, it is “necessary” for us to be “distressed by various trials” because these trials will result in good things, as they are connected to our faith, to glorifying Jesus Christ, and eventually to “the salvation of [our] souls.” After all, suffering is central to the life and work, even the very identify, of Christ. Indeed, it is by his suffering that he was revealed to “the prophets who prophesied of the grace.” So in turn, “for the sake of conscience toward God,” we too are to “bear up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.” We are not to return abuse for abuse. We are not to give back evil for evil. Suffering in this way is our debt, the example set for us in Christ, and our calling. We are called to suffer. It is a blessing to “suffer for the sake of righteousness.” Moreover, sometimes our suffering will lead to righteousness, especially when we suffer in our struggles to be more like Christ. Moreover, we are not alone in our suffering. Not only has Christ suffered before us, but those all over the world who follow Christ share “the same experiences of suffering.” Also, after we “have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace” will grow us. Because of all this, the writer even goes so far as to say that “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.”

But this is a lot to accept. Rejoice in our suffering? Bear through our suffering with patience? Not return abuse for abuse? If this is possible, it is only so because of the deep spiritual insight that is the heart of the epistle, a beautiful truth: “Those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”

The gospel of suffering is good news only in a world where everyone suffers already anyway. Our suffering is not relieved for following Christ—in some cases it is made worse—but it is given meaning. Moreover, we are given examples of how to suffer well, we are assured of companions in suffering, and we are shown glimpses of what good can come out of our suffering. Most importantly, our suffering becomes part of our life in God. Read it again: “Those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.” Our suffering is not relieved but it is transformed.

The basic movement of prayer is surrendering to God—letting go of everything we are holding on to and accepting everything that God has for us. At times, this is pure joy. Usually, it is not. But my prayer is that, in our suffering, we will entrust ourselves to God.

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