The recent news surrounding Joe Nagy is enough to give hypochondriacs everywhere nightmares and schedule emergency appointments with their physician. Joe went in to have a specialist look at his chronically runny nose, and found out that he was actually leaking brain fluid because of a small hole that had developed in the membrane above his sinus cavity. Following a relatively minor procedure, he appears to be doing well.
There are times when we know that we are suffering, but don’t know the source of that suffering. Here’s a passage from 1 Peter that I preached on this past Sunday that addresses this:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
1 Peter 4:12-19 (ESV)
There are different types of suffering and different causes. There is the kind of suffering that comes when we experience the consequences of our own actions. Peter mentions that when he says ‘don’t suffer as a murderer, thief, or meddler’ (sounds like a Batman super-villain, doesn’t it?). If you hold an ice cube, it’s your fault that your hand is cold. If you buy season tickets to the Pirates, then you brought that misery on yourself. Don’t suffer like this, Peter says.
Then there’s the inexplicable and unpredictable suffering that comes from being a part of this fallen world. Tragic deaths, cancer, chronic pain, mental illness, injuries…the list is endless. This is a deep and complicated matter, and Scripture has much to say about it elsewhere. But that kind of suffering is also not what Peter has in mind.
He is specifically referring to the kind of suffering that Christians experience when they are persecuted because of their faith in Jesus Christ. When this happens, don’t be surprised. It’s not as if something strange is happening. Jesus himself spoke often of this (e.g. Matthew 5:11-12). That’s what happens to those who bear the name of Christ and proclaim his Lordship in the midst of an unbelieving world.
Part of me wishes that Peter would have said something different, like, “I have no idea why you are suffering for the sake of the gospel–it’s wrong and unusual and I’m sure it will pass soon”. But the truth is that suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ isn’t strange. In fact, Scripture seems to indicate that it is strange if you don’t suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ at one point or another.
And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it produces some very, very good things in us.
For one, it forces us to draw near to God. We turn to him for strength, comfort, and peace not because those things are nice and we’ve found a convenient time to do so, but because we desperately need them and must seek them in the only place they can truly be found.
It also serves to purify our faith by burning of the dross through “fiery trial”. Peter had already brought up this idea back in chapter one: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1:6-7).
But perhaps most importantly, when we “share Christ’s sufferings” we are being conformed to his image and confirming our union with him. As Paul said, if we are to be united to Christ in his resurrection and glory, then we must first be united to him in his suffering and death (Romans 6:1-11). For this reason, Edmund Clowney offered this comment on these verses: “The reality of our suffering for Christ becomes a pledge to us of the reality of our belonging to Christ…Suffering, then, is not a threat, but a promise.”
God’s glory will be revealed when Jesus Christ is revealed. His name will be vindicated and his people will share in that joy. Till then, when (not if) we suffer for the sake of Christ it may be difficult, unpleasant, or challenging. But it won’t be strange.