Connecting with God: “Making Sense of Suffering” – 1 Peter 4:1-11

no senseI have discovered that many things in life simply make no sense at all. They truly don’t. I suspect I am not the only one who has been watching polls of Americans and wondering if they have lost all political instincts, but it isn’t only in politics things seem to be “hard to understand.” Consider these examples from the news:

A few years ago AT&T fired President John Walter after nine months, saying he lacked intellectual leadership. He received a $26 million severance package. Perhaps it’s not Walter who truly lacked intelligence.

An Illinois man, pretending to have a gun, kidnapped a motorist and forced him to drive to two different automated teller machines, wherein the kidnapper proceeded to withdraw money from his own bank accounts.

A few years ago, a man walked into a Topeka, Kansas “Kwik Stop” and asked for all the money in the cash drawer. Apparently, the take was too small, so he tied up the store clerk and worked the counter himself for three hours until police showed up and grabbed him.

Police in Los Angeles had good luck with a robbery suspect who just couldn’t control himself during a lineup. When detectives asked each man in the lineup to repeat the words, “Give me all your money or I’ll shoot, the man shouted, “That’s not what I said!”

In Modesto, California, Steven Richard King was arrested for trying to hold up a Bank of America branch without a weapon. King used a thumb and a finger to simulate a gun, but unfortunately, he failed to keep his hand in his pocket.

One of my favorite examples of things that don’t make sense came from some dear folks, new to boating, who were having a problem. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get their brand new 22 ft. power boat going. It was very sluggish in almost every maneuver, no matter how much power was applied. After about an hour of trying to make it go, they putted to a nearby marina, thinking someone there could tell them what was wrong. A thorough topside check revealed everything in perfect working condition. The engine ran fine, the out drive went up and down, and the prop was the correct size and pitch. About that time, one of the marina workers decided to test a theory. He jumped into the water to check underneath and he quickly snapped out of the water, choking as he came up because he was laughing so hard. Under the boat, still strapped securely in place, was the boat trailer.” (original author unknown).

I think we can all agree that many of the things we read in the news day to day, truly make no sense at all. Yet, there is something that many people find even HARDER to make sense out of and harder to swallow in the serious side of life; that is human suffering. All laughing aside, suffering is a serious matter, and a significant stumbling block to people keeping them from following God. It was Warren Wiersbe who made the astute observation in his study on the Book of Job that our enemy uses physical suffering to encourage us to become impatient with the will of God in our lives. The same tactic is also at work holding people from a walk with God. I have heard many who do not know God say things like: “If God is good, why do good people suffer?” Still others in the family of God will say, “If we are believers and God loves us, why do we suffer?”

Does God use suffering? Is there a point to the pain in our broken world?

Biblically speaking, suffering has a purpose in a fallen world – and it has a purpose in our lives. In fact, it has a number of purposes, based on the writings of Peter to early believers. There is little doubt that suffering and pain have a way of separating the “sunshine soldier” from the “persistent patriot” – but there is much more than God using it to show a “who’s who” lineup. Suffering teaches patience that deepens our walk in ways that are hard to quantify in simple terms. We should take a few minutes and listen to some tough words about painful things, with a view toward grasping God’s work in us. Here is the point:

Key Principle: Suffering and trouble can be used by God to produce growth in me. Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean it isn’t good for me.

When Peter began writing about the subject in 1 Peter 4, he wasn’t writing to novices on the subject. The migrant workers of the central Turkish plateau knew much about loss and trouble, pain and problems. Peter began with a word about the One Who knew suffering before any of them. He wrote that…

Suffering was something Jesus did – so it is something we should certainly expect.

4:1 “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose…”

First, the opening “therefore” is a tip that what Peter said before was essential to understanding what he was about to share. Don’t forget the end of chapter three was the exciting truth that Jesus has ascended to sit beside His Father. His work was accepted, but it came at a high price of suffering. Jesus suffered for us – and that was part of His Father’s plan to reveal His love for us!

Second, it is worth recalling that Jesus suffered in the flesh in very real terms. What do I mean? Some in the early church struggled with the notion of Jesus’ physicality and some believed He was merely a “spirit” that “appeared” to men. That isn’t what God’s Word teaches. Jesus bled when cut. He was emotionally and physically vulnerable to pain. That thought is hard to grasp, but comforting to know when considering powerful and personal pain.

Third, pain and suffering IS something we can and should prepare for in our lives. Don’t expect to get off earth without your share of troubles and pains! The last part of the verse makes that very clear. Peter said: “Arm yourselves for that purpose.” What arms are available? How do I learn to use them to prepare? When and where should I employ them? All these are valid and valuable questions.

Suffering is something that teaches us a valuable lesson – life isn’t supposed to be “self-service”.

I don’t believe the rest of verse one and all of verse two were as necessary to the first century believer as I am wholly certain is true for the believer today. We live in different times and have a different set of ears to hear these words. Listen as we finish the opening sentence of Peter after he told the believers to arm themselves for the coming pain…

4:1b “…because he [the believer] who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.

Peter made three points here:

The believer who has faced powerful suffering sets aside an agenda of pleasing him or herself and grasps how short and fragile life really is. Everything is open to you when your body is healthy and your mind is racing ahead on yourself. Young life is exhilarating but not truly as serious and deep as a life with some powerful pain lessons. That doesn’t make you a shallow and inconsequential person, just a young and inexperienced one. Pain deepens your life in ways you may not be able to imagine. It is the pain of loss that makes precious moments sweeter.

I was standing along the Via Dolorosa not long ago and came upon a mother sitting in the doorway to the church of the Spasm. She lost a child to illness, and she was a broken women. The shop keeper nearby had become accustomed to her crying and sobs. I noticed her pouring a little milk in a dish for a wandering kitten… She knew what it meant to feel alone and vulnerable, and she acted in kindness. Suffering taught her to care.

The second point Peter made was this, suffering reminds us to reset our value system. When we encounter true pain, momentary inconvenience drops off the radar screen. The fact is that many of us get too worried and upset about things that are not all that important. We let things get “under our skin” that just shouldn’t.

The other day I flew from London to Miami on a ten-hour flight. It was a day flight, which can be difficult because it means that people don’t sleep, and it makes the flight seem much longer. I had a very nice stewardess who did everything she could to make me comfortable, along with the ER doctor who was sitting beside me. When I got off the flight in Miami I had to transfer luggage to a new carousel for customs and border control, and I met a women who said she was behind me during the flight. She noticed I slept a good bit and then began to tell me how horrible the stewardesses were on the flight. I couldn’t believe were on the same flight. I thought these ladies were GREAT, and she thought they were horrible. She complained of having to wait a few minutes to get water when she requested it, and got the wrong entrée at mealtime. I was stunned at how minute her complaints seemed and thought to myself: “It must be nice to normally have such a perfect life that things like that would be such a major burden to her!” I don’t want to be unkind, but the problems she expressed were at most very minor inconveniences. If she has something bigger to focus on, I suspect these would have dissolved quickly in her mind. Real trouble helps us dump tiny disruptions from our hearts and focus on bigger issues. I am not wishing trouble on her (and I have no such power anyway), but I do believe that significant troubles can help us get better perspective on our expectations of others and of life in general.

Finally, suffering and pain can help us to think about the intended purpose of our lives. We all have the temptation to default to self-pleasing lives. Fallen men and women see themselves as FOR themselves. Believers increasingly near toward Heaven, and consider each day a gift to serve their Master. None of us do this flawlessly, but all of us grow in the process of learning this one unwavering truth: We were created for our Master’s use, and nothing will ever be as satisfying as when He is powerfully using us…Nothing.

Suffering reminds us that we were a part of the system that caused the problem – the sin-sick, selfish world.

4:3 For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.

Suffering and pain didn’t come from a vengeful God Who got mad at mankind after the Fall in the Garden. Rather, pain was the natural effect of the rebellious heart. When Adam and Even shook their fists at God and did their own thing, they changed the default switch on all who came from their loins. Generation after generation we have been plagued with people who live for self and serve the four gods of our age: Fortune, Fame, Power and Pleasure. We all came into this position naturally and found it to be so routine most never thought about it at all until they faced the truth of the Word of God.

Note the terms: “carried out the desire” and ponder them for a moment. It almost seems like we are on “autopilot” with desires that are selfish and excessive. We want sensuality – or good feeling. Some will destroy every relationship in their life for the next high. Some are quietly tucked in a corner with their computer trying to feel good one more time pretending to have relationships that are entirely in their mind – fake connections for a deceived life. Others measure “fun” by poor self-control and lousy self-restraint. The more childish the behavior, the more the world uses the word “adult” to describe it: “adult films” and “for adults only” are buzz words for unrestrained lusts.

Did you notice the list ends with “abominable idolatries?” This represents two words in Greek.

• The term “abominable” is athémitos, a combined words “a” or “not” and themis, “an accepted custom or practice.

• The term eidólolatria is also a combination of two words that together mean the “service rendered to a false god.”

Think about those two words for a moment. Peter said that domination of selfish desires and lack of surrender to God leads us to a very predictable end: we bow to a false god and make what was unacceptable fine in our own minds. We break natural agreements. We cheat on our spouse, abandon our children, break our contracts, lie to our employers and suck up our ours trying to feed our need to be at the center of our own lives.

Serving the god of fortune can create above us a relentless taskmaster that will take every ounce of our lives and give us broken bodies and empty hearts in exchange for the promise of a full bank account. Here is the truth: You cannot enjoy a steak without teeth. You cannot relax on a yacht while lying in a hospital bed. Fortune promises, but she robs you of what you have and often gives far less than expected.

Serving the god of fame is also an exercise in futility. Ask anyone who is so famous they cannot go out with guards, and must secure their home because of the crazies who just want to live in the fantasy they “have a relationship” with the celebrity. Do you know what it means to have to be so guarded you cannot take a walk alone? Many celebrities spend enormous efforts to hide their identity to try to get some of the benefit of a “normal life”.

Do we even have to think about how fleeting the pursuit of the god of power is? Stand over the graves of any of the great men and women of the past and ask what their power does for them now. Think about the fleeting nature of power… Take for example the memory of Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio Africanus the Younger) who was indelibly linked in the Roman mind with the destruction of Carthage in the Punic Wars. He was a powerful general, and a man of duty. Yet, he was a thinker and gathered to his side famous historians, poets and philosophers of his time—a group that came to be known as the Scipionic circle. Power wasn’t enough for him. In fact, in a famous moment from his life, he looked upon Carthage as his troops were utterly decimating it and wept openly for his fallen enemies. He said: “A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish, And Priam and his people shall be slain.” He clearly foresaw that when the great city of Carthage fell, Rome set itself up for the same destruction in the days ahead. All power ends. All might is eventually broken… but that which belongs to the Creator of all.

Peter seemed more tuned in the verse to the god of pleasure. Does seeking constant pleasure lead to idolatry? Ask any mother or wife of a man who has escaped from the world through a pill or a needle, a bottle or a pipe. Left unbroken, the drug stupor takes a loved one from pleasure to denial, from deception to the “long goodbye.” It severs the normal caring bonds and replaces them with brutal selfishness backed by lies and empty promises of change. If you set out to satisfy yourself with pleasure, be sure that it will cost you some of the most precious relationships in life. People who love you will die a thousand times watching you destroy yourself while you hide, lie and deny.

Suffering comes, in part, because the world truly doesn’t understand the shift in our values – because we live for the Savior.

Without a relationship with the God Who created them, people will act “normally” in the default settings of a self-oriented life. They will learn to cloak the most brutal selfish tendencies, but they will figure out ways to get what they want. When you meet Jesus and surrender to Him, you drop out of the race. Expect something. Peter wrote:

1 Peter 4:4 In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you…

There seems to be some fascination by other drivers in the race concerning the one who pulls off the course. As other racers speed by, these drivers slow to notice you have simply left the race. They cannot manage to get off the track without finding the One Who opened an exit gate for you, but they cannot honestly conceive of a life that isn’t on the unending racecourse of self-fulfillment. They look over, some with pity toward what they consider as your pathetic pull-off into religious escapism. Others hurl nasty epithets and insults in passing, as if they are truly finding fulfillment in their “merry-go-round of need and want” that relentlessly drives them onward. When you stop running the race for fortune, fame, power and pleasure – you become different. You see life differently. You know the track, the crowds, the crown and the roar of the engine are not enough – it never could be. You know the race is going nowhere. You have now found your purpose in the One who released you from the race. The truth is, that bugs them. They don’t know why – but it does.

Suffering should draw people back to God, but in many cases it causes them to dig in and fight Him more. When your fight is over, they simply add you to the list of those who they cannot understand and do not like. At enmity with God, they find you offensive, whether you say anything or not. In spite of that, our call is to love those who do not always love us back, and in that be like the Master Who called us to Himself.

Suffering will end for us, but begin for those who have not prepared to meet the Savior.

Don’t forget that. Your suffering in this life is short-lived. The suffering after this life is unending. Peter reminded:

4:5 “…but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.

Beloved, don’t be angry with them if they insult you. Don’t be offended as though this is something new. Generations of those who are now beyond the hope of the Gospel rejected Jesus and have found that to be a horrible mistake. Others who are “dead in Spirit” (Ephesians 2:1ff) are now being presented the offer of life that they may be “made alive” in Jesus. The rejection of angry men should drive us to love them more, pray for them more, care for them more and seek to represent Jesus to them better. Their hurt toward us is for a moment, but their punishment and peril must move our hearts. It simply must move us to witness, work and walk before them as Jesus called us to do.

Suffering should push us to make “final countdown preparations”.

Simply observe for a moment the words at the opening of 1 Peter 4:7: “The end of all things is near…”

Dear ones, it is almost over. No matter who wins the next election, no matter what the stock market does, no matter what flag flies over our beloved land… it is almost over. We won’t be here long. Our hope cannot and must not be in anyone or anything less than the arms of our waiting Savior. Get ready. It is almost morning. The sun is about to break on the horizon!

Don’t lose heart. We are heading home very soon. We should be vigilant and clear in our thinking – so we can pray passionately, love deliberately, speak compassionately, and reach out effectively. Listen to the words of Peter as he presses us onward:

1 Peter 4:7b “…therefore, [because the end draws near] be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.

Don’t let the lateness of the hour push you toward making every breath about getting more for yourself. Many people do that – and it is a trap. Let the lateness of the hour press us to pray more fervently.

You should never be to busy not to pray. It’s your lifeline to survival in a fallen world and your compass to lead you home and into the will of God. Bill Hybels states, “My second warning is for those who make the equal and opposite error. You are thinking, ‘I don’t need any structure or rigorous habits to make my heart grow. I’m a play-it-by-ear type. I go with the spiritual flow. I’m going to let go and let God do whatever he wants to do, and I’ll just see what happens.’ This typical American attitude, at best, is naïve; at worst, it is self-deceived. We just cannot grow with no structure, no sense of intentionality about our spiritual life, any more than we can lower our body fat or develop good muscle tone or increase our net worth by just sitting back and waiting for whatever happens. If the goal is really important to me, I discipline myself in order to achieve it. I use to make excuses for my fainthearted prayer life. I don’t have any good models of persevering prayer, I told myself. I have too many responsibilities to fulfill, so I don’t have the time to pray properly. But God convinced me that I was not being honest with myself. The real reason my prayers were weak was that my faith was weak.”

Beyond the spiritual battle in prayer, let it help us to see greater value in sticking together and demonstrating love for one another. He made that point clear:

1 Peter 4:8 Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.

We should be growing in desire to be with one another (since that is what will happen in eternity!) and learning to overlook each other’s idiosyncrasies. If you are increasingly “bugged” by other believers, perhaps that is an indication something is wrong in your heart! Peter went on…

1 Peter 4:9 Be hospitable to one another without complaint.

How could he make it more personal than telling us to SPEND TIME WITH ONE ANOTHER! We should be losing a spirit of complaint and fostering a spirit of encouragement.

That isn’t all. He went on to call us to pressing harder and harder in the use of our spiritual gifts! He wrote:

1 Peter 4:10 As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.

Our gifts were strategically employed by God to move His work ahead. Our gifts aren’t for our glory, but for His. They are to be used, and that to the fullest!

When we speak, it should be to represent Him. We should work to teach with clarity and vigor the Word of God. He made that clear:

1 Peter 4:11 Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God;

When we serve, it should be with energy and intent to use all that God supplies to bless others and bring glory to the Lord. He challenged:

1 Peter 4:11b “…whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Peter called the people to serve with JOY in their ministry!

Some people have a job in church. Others get involved in a ministry. What’s the difference?

• If you’re doing it because no one else will, it’s a job. If you’re doing it to serve the Lord, it’s a ministry.

• If you’re doing it just well enough to get by, it’s a job. If you’re doing it to the best of your ability, it’s a ministry.

• If you’re doing it so long as it doesn’t interfere with other activities, it’s a job. If you’re committed to staying with it even when it means letting go of other things, it’s a ministry.

• If you quit because no one praised you or thanked you, it’s a job. If you stay with it even though no one seems to notice, it’s a ministry.

• If your concern is “success,” it’s a job. If your concern is faithfulness, it’s a ministry.

• If it’s hard to get excited about, it’s a job. It’s almost impossible not to be excited about a ministry!

• If God calls you to a ministry, don’t treat it like a job. If you have a job in church, give it up and find a ministry.

God doesn’t want us feeling stuck with a job, but excited and faithful to Him in a ministry. That is why He gifted us and called us!

A few years ago I shared this story, but at the risk of repetition I will share it again because it illustrates the point that we must remember to be thankful for whatever opportunity God has given you to serve:

Jobs were scarce and John was ready to give up and join the unemployment line. He noticed a zoo on the way home and walked in unannounced. The manager said that no jobs were available. John turned to walk away. The zoo manager stopped him and asked if he would be willing to wear a gorilla costume and substitute for the gorilla who had recently died. John agreed and enjoyed convincing the onlookers that he was a gorilla. He grunted and swung through the trees with reckless abandon. On the second day, he swung from a rope and accidentally fell into the lion’s pit. The lion licked his chops and walked toward John. John froze in fear. His thoughts were, ’Do I yell and give away my identity or do I do nothing and risk my life?” He yelled. The lion shot back, “Shut up, or both of us will lose our jobs!”

Dear ones, we have the privilege to serve the Lord for this season of our lives. Sometimes it will come with trouble, and sometimes with pain. That isn’t a sign God isn’t being faithful. It is part of our service to accept life as the Master assigns it to each of us.

Suffering and trouble can be used by God to produce growth in me. Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean it isn’t good for me.