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1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The Problem with the Problem of Suffering

The question is often asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The author of First Peter seems to turn this question on its head, asking instead, “Why wouldn’t bad things happen to good people?” Peter upends this philosophical conundrum because of the cross-shattered lens through which he looks at the world. Like seeing through a fractured pair of eye-glasses, Peter cannot help but look at the world through the lens of the cross and resurrection of Christ. For Christians, asking the “Why suffering?” question doesn’t make sense to Peter because he views the cross and resurrection as fundamental to everything God does in the world—suffering is not something to be avoided at all costs, but something to move through in the pattern and power of Christ’s suffering. [1]

The cross is the “founding trauma” of the Christian movement, and for the new creation that is such a fundamental reality for Peter. [2] Jesus is the supreme sufferer, chosen for this task “before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet 1:20). But he is also the master sufferer, the one who sets an example for all to follow (2:21), especially those to whom Peter writes who are facing local persecution, derision, defamation, and exclusion (2:12; 3:13-18). [3] Peter frames his audience’s experiences of suffering by showing how they are a participation, a fellowship (koinonia, 4:13), in Christ’s pattern of suffering and rejection by the surrounding culture (2:4, 7).

In linking their suffering to Christ’s, Peter is showing them that their present suffering is not all that current or new, even though it feels that way. Indeed, their suffering is quite ancient, it was conceived before the foundation of the world, discovered by the prophets, and carried out by Christ before they came to believe (1:10-12, 20; 3:18). Why do righteous people suffer? Because that is the way the self-giving love of the crucified Son made and revealed the world to be (4:19).

But this initial frame is incomplete without the second frame that Peter sets for his audience.

If the suffering of Christ (and hence that of Christians) stands at the beginning of time, then the resurrection and the eschatological glory which marks its full flourishing stands at the end. The letter’s constant refrain of suffering is constantly met with the promise of Christ’s victory at the end of all things. Jesus will bring the suffering Christians hope when he is “apocalypsed” (NRSV: “revealed”, 1:13). He is the rejected one who is God’s most precious and exalted one (2:4; 3:21-22). He is the judge of the ones who reject and cause the suffering of Christians, but he is also the one who chooses and values those whom the world excludes and devalues (2:9, 13). When Jesus comes in glory at the end of all things, his victory over suffering and shame will extend to all those who endure suffering and shame for his name in the present.

Therefore we see that for Peter the world and its history exists between two foundational realities: the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, which happened mysteriously before the beginning of time, and the resurrection of Christ, the victory of which happens in the fullness of time at the end of all things. These two realities define everything that happens in the world, and in the life of the believers to which Peter writes. [4]

One more thing is required to see this week’s lectionary passage clearly. I have already laid out the “frame” where suffering stands at the beginning and resurrection glory answers from the end. Standing squarely in the middle is holiness. Peter wants his audience to understand well the story in which they find themselves so that they can then live out the pattern of Christ’s holiness: his patient suffering bent toward the hope of resurrection life, or to put it another way, the hope of restoration and resurrection from within the trials and difficulties of life. This hope assures a different pattern of life than those who only wish to avoid suffering or those who have no hope of future resurrection restoration (1:14-17; 2:9, 12; 4:1-4). Holiness is not contingent upon a person’s ability to perform a moral code perfectly or adhere to social standards of a religious group, though these are not unimportant things. Rather, the holiness that Peter urges for his people comes from being sure of the story one is in, or rather sure of the One whose story it is.

All of these themes ring clearly in this week’s lectionary text from First Peter. Christians are not to be astonished that they are undergoing trial as if it were something foreign, rather they are to regard their suffering as intimate because it is part and parcel of their fellowship with Christ’s life (4:12-13). They are to rejoice in the face of their suffering because, like Christ’s suffering, theirs will be met with eschatological resurrection joy when Christ is “apocalypsed” (NRSV: “revealed”, 4:13). If they are excluded and if life is made difficult for bearing the name of Christ, they are to regard this as a necessary outcome of their sharing in Christ’s story: their holiness is due to sharing Christ’s story because his Spirit rests on them (4:14). This godly suffering is contrasted to the suffering of ungodliness, which reminds them to endure their suffering by remaining in the story of Christ, not stepping outside to retaliate or accrue honor or resources at others’ expense (4:15-19).

Peter continues this theme of suffering, glory, and holiness in the next chapter, after a brief set of instructions to the community’s leaders (5:1-5). He urges his audience to endure suffering humbly, as if under God’s hand, so that God’s hand may exalt them “in due time,” a euphemism for the eschaton. Being under God’s hand during suffering should be seen here as protective rather than harsh, this is being shielded not “under the thumb” of the divine. The words “humble” (tapeinothete) and “exalt” (hypsose) are words that are also found in the Christ hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:8-9). There it is Christ who “humbles” himself and is “exalted” by God. Showing affinity with the pattern of Pauline theology, this Petrine admonition urges Christians to follow their leader in downward mobility trusting the faithful God to lift up the humble.

Finally, Peter urges his audience to pursue the holiness of God offered to them in the present by turning to God when they are anxious, and to stand firm within the pattern of Christ when they face the affliction of their adversary the devil. The devil as the cause of some suffering adds another layer of complexity to the picture of pain Peter paints (more on this shortly). The “little while” of suffering may seem darkly humorous in the painful present, but Peter’s point is made when the “little while” of suffering (which may cover most of one’s earthly life) is met with the “eternal glory” of Christ who, at the end of time, will complete the endless and abundant work of restoring, supporting, strengthening, and establishing those called by his name (1 Pet 5:10).

Preaching the Text

Preachers encounter this text during Eastertide. Therefore, it may be a helpful text to remind a congregation that resurrection life in the present is not free of suffering. Rather, the reality of Easter meets our suffering with the redeeming, restorative, supporting, strengthening presence and grace of the God of resurrection. By now, Easter Sunday may seem a distant memory as the great celebration of that Holy Day has given way to “normal life.” Peter’s message is both a realistic depiction of life’s many challenges and a reminder of resurrection hope.

Another helpful aspect of this text is its approach to suffering even when one has been faithful. Just because one follows Christ faithfully doesn’t mean everything works out smoothly. Peter’s is not a Prosperity Gospel. Christians can suffer for doing right. Holiness does not preclude pain. Many of our brothers and sisters in areas where Christianity is costly know this well. But one does not have to be “persecuted” to know this reality intimately. Having just gone through a painful episode in my own ministry, I can testify this kind of thing doesn’t always make sense. That’s not Peter’s point. Peter emphasizes that holiness means belonging to Christ the sufferer, but there is no promise that everything will magically fall into place. This is the kind of holiness that John Wesley prayed for in his famous covenant prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full, let me be empty,

let me have all things, let me have nothing. [5]

A dangerous prayer to pray when one is praying to a crucified Savior. Suffering will not always make sense, everything may not always “happen for a reason” but Peter’s reminder is that no matter the circumstance you can always have fellowship with Christ the sufferer who brings his resurrection power to bear in the most surprising ways.

It follows, then, that the preacher must avoid flattening out the complexity of Peter’s account of Christian suffering so as to give a pat answer to what oftentimes remains mysterious this side of the eschaton. For Peter, God does not “give us suffering” for God’s curiosity or to “teach us a lesson” or to move pawns on a chessboard. Rather, it is God—who, in Christ, made the first offering of self-giving suffering—who draws the suffering of Christians into the crucified Christ’s orbit, so that it aligns with his holiness and shares in the glorious hope of his resurrection. There is nuance here that will not be properly addressed as a tidy sermon seeking an “answer to the problem of suffering.” This is not an obvious fix or solution, but something that can only be revealed (“apocalypsed”) at the end of all things. God’s answer of resurrection glory to the death rattle of a crucified Messiah is anything but obvious and straightforward.

[1] See Thomas Merton, Opening the Bible, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1970), 77: “The problem of suffering resides in our mistaken determination to get rid of all suffering.” [2] David M. Carr, Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 156-173. [3] Carr, Holy Resilience, 209-224, argues that most Christian suffering in the late first century, when this letter was written, was sporadic and local, but that the name Christian did begin to be associated with troublemaking and lawlessness in the wider Roman mindset. [4] This schema is summarized well in the letter in 1:11: “the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory.” [5]