Hard Lessons About Hard Times

1 Peter 4:12-19

March 7, 2015 | Brian Bill

A friend of mine told me a story of taking his daughter to a Demolition Derby.   He said he loved watching the drivers demolish and destroy one another.  They saw some great smash-ups and did a lot of laughing.  They didn’t know much about the rules but they did know that the last car still moving would be declared the winner.  The announcer pointed out that each driver had a long wooden stick duct-taped to the side of his car and if for some reason he wasn’t able to go on, either because he was woozy from getting clobbered, or his car had gone caput, he simply had to reach up and break the stick which would signal to the other drivers that he had surrendered.  No one was supposed to smash into a car with a broken stick.  

During one of the heats a car stalled and my friend saw the driver reach up and break his surrender stick.  Apparently the other cars didn’t see it, or didn’t care, and so they revved up their engines and came at him full-speed and clobbered the stalled car, sandwiching it between a couple others.  The driver was not a happy camper.  They couldn’t hear what he said but they could tell it was not a word of blessing.  He held his hands up in exasperation and started waving the stick at the other drivers as if to say, “What’s up with that?  Can’t you see that I’m out of commission here?  Stop hitting me.”

The hits just keep coming and you don’t know how much more you can take.

I suspect that some of you feel like you’re in a Demolition Derby.  You’ve waved the surrender stick but the hits just keep coming and you don’t know how much more you can take.  As we continue in our series from 1 Peter, we’re going to learn that trials are designed to teach us so that our conduct and our character change.  

The word “trial” means to be “under the thumb” of pressure.  Many of you know from experience what that feels like.  Some of you are going through some unrelenting pressure right now that keeps you awake at night and makes you feel wiped out during the day.  In the New Testament the word trial means to prove by testing.  In other words, a trial demonstrates the genuineness of your faith in Christ and refines the quality of your spiritual life.  

Trials allow God to adjust my conduct, which is what I do.  At a deeper level, God is committed to reshaping my character, which is who I am.  And it’s all about His glory, which is why I exist.

The hits of life can come fast and furious or they can stretch over months, years, or even decades.  Trials can be tiny and irritating or they can be titanic and impossible to endure.  They can involve the physical, the relational, financial, emotional, circumstantial or spiritual.  Several biblical terms are used almost interchangeably: suffering, hardship, tribulation, chastising and discipline. 

In our passage for today we come to the core of the book.  Here we’ll find four truths that will help us process our pain so that we can stay holy when everything is hostile around us.  Please turn to 1 Peter 4:12-19 where we will see that the word “suffer” or “suffering” is used four times.

1. Receive suffering. 

The first place to start when dealing with problems or pain or persecution is to receive the hard times that come our way.  1 Peter 4:12 says that we shouldn’t be surprised by suffering: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.”  Suffering is a mark of discipleship, something that is guaranteed for the follower of Christ.

I love that Peter starts with the word “beloved” because it means to be “prized and valued, dearly and very much loved.”  The first seven uses of this word in the New Testament refer to the love that God the Father has for the Son.  Friend, when you’re suffering it’s easy to question God’s love, isn’t it?  But you are beloved by God even when you’re being bombarded by garbage.  God treasures you in the midst of your trial…even if you don’t feel it.

Peter commands us to “not think it strange” when we go through fiery trials.  Even though suffering often ambushes us in unexpected ways, we shouldn’t be shocked when it comes our way.  When Paul was saved, he was given the promise of persecution in Acts 9:16: “For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.”

A “fiery trial” reminds us that sometimes suffering is really intense.  Some of our brothers and sisters around the world are going through fiery trials right now.  New Christians are sometimes confused when they think that everything should go perfectly, that there should be no more difficulties.  When you put your faith in Christ you will experience pressures and persecution.   Acts 14:22 puts it succinctly: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” 

Jesus never taught the “prosperity gospel,” but He did preach the “persecution gospel.”  Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  John Stott suggests that we should not be surprised when anti-Christian hostility increases, but rather be surprised if it does not.  In John 15:20, Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  In John 16:33 He adds, “…In this world you will have trouble…”  

The Augsburg Confession defines the church as the community of those “who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake.”  2 Timothy 3:12 says, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” 

Randy Alcorn makes an unsettling statement: “A faith that leaves us unprepared for suffering is a false faith that deserves to be lost.  If you base your faith on a lack of affliction, your faith lives on the brink of extinction and will fall apart because of a frightening diagnosis or a shattering phone call.  Token faith will not survive suffering, nor should it.  Believing God exists is not the same as trusting the God who exists.”

Jim Warren, who used to host PrimeTime America on Moody Radio, gave this timeless advice: “When hard times come; be a student, not a victim.”  That is wise counsel because we live in a “victim culture” where we have become experts at playing the blame game.  

A victim says, “Why did this happen to me?”  A student says, “I don’t care why it happened.  I want to learn what God is trying to teach me” (www.keepbelieving.com, “The Sixth Law of the Spiritual Life”).

2. Rejoice in your suffering. 

It’s one thing to receive trials, it’s another thing to rejoice in them.  We’re to expect suffering and we’re to exult in suffering.  This is not easy.  Actually, it’s impossible without the help of God.  In verses 13-14, Peter uses the word “rejoice” or a synonym four times – he knows this isn’t going to come naturally for us so he repeats the command.  He uses the present imperative, meaning we’re to “keep on rejoicing”: “But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.  If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  

There are three reasons we can rejoice in our trials.

  • Trials deepen our fellowship with Christ.  The word “partake” is also translated as fellowship.  As good church goers, we tend to equate fellowship with food and with fun but actually when we suffer for the gospel, we share with Jesus in His suffering. Our sufferings join us to Jesus in a way that nothing else can.
  • Trials deepen our joy as we prepare for His coming.  Suffering gets our focus on the glorious day of His appearing.  The phrase “glad with exceeding joy” is quite descriptive – it means, “to leap and skip with delight” and has the idea of “lively joy.”  Something supernatural happens when we suffer.
  • Trials deepen our reliance on the Holy Spirit.  It’s quite a wonderful thing to know that the “Spirit of glory and of God rests” upon us.  God’s glory is His weighty reputation and is really the sum total of all His attributes.  When we suffer, we somehow get to experience God resting on us and others can see that, like God’s Shekinah glory resting upon the Tabernacle.  That’s why Stephen’s persecutors could say that his face looked like “that of an angel” in Acts 6:15.  Suffering Christians don’t have to wait for heaven to experience His glory.

The first hard lesson about hard times is to receive suffering.  Second, we’re to rejoice in suffering.  And third…

3. Reflect on your suffering. 

Peter wants us to ponder why we’re going through problems.  Our suffering might simply be the result of living in a fallen world.  Verses 15-16 give us two other possibilities behind our problems.

  • The result of my failures.  When we go through tough times we should reflect to see if we’re experiencing consequences from sin or from some stupidity in our lives.  Sometimes our suffering is self-inflicted.  Check out verse 15: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.”  It’s interesting that being a “busybody” is in the same list as “murderer.”  When you think about it, someone who meddles in the lives of others often is involved in character assassination.  It makes me think of Proverbs 26:17: “He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears.”
  • The result of my faith.  Verse 16 says that it’s preferable to suffer for our faith: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.”  When the word “Christian” was first used it was a term of derision.  We shouldn’t be ashamed when we suffer but instead look for ways to make God look good.  This was personal for Peter because he was ashamed of Christ when he denied him three times.  Later on, however, Peter and John are great models of not being ashamed in Acts 5:41: “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.”

Pain often purifies and purges us from those things that trip us up.  In 1 Peter 4:17-18, Peter references a practice that God often followed in the Old Testament when He would start by cleaning up His sanctuary and then move outward.  God purifies His own people before His judgment falls on the world: “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?   Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’”  Peter is arguing from the lesser to the greater – if believers go through such huge problems in order to be purified how much worse will it be on the Day of Judgment for the unsaved?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe that God is cleaning up His church right now.  He is purifying His people by calling them to greater commitment and repentance.  I believe it will become more difficult to be a disciple of Christ in the days to come.  Some will fall away and some will become more faithful.  

Things are bad now but the greatest evil is yet to come.  Matthew 24:10 says that, “…many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other.”  Verse 12 tells us that even love will be in short supply: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” 

Receive suffering.  Rejoice in it.  Reflect on it.  There’s a fourth truth that is extremely important.

4. Rely on God when you suffer. 

We see this in verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.”  This verse clearly states that sometimes suffering is the will of God for us.  We really have two choices – we can complain against God or we can commit ourselves to Him.  We can go through hard times shaking our fists at the Almighty or we can grab onto His hand and invite Him to walk through our worries with us.  We can demand answers and challenge God’s right to put us through problems or we can decide to commit our souls to Him.

The word “commit” is a banking term that means to deposit for safekeeping.  Paul practiced this in 2 Timothy 1:12: “For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”  Jesus used the same exact word when He cried out in a loud voice from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Have you deposited your life into His hands?  Notice the key is to trust His character.  God is called the Creator and He is called faithful.  He made you and He made challenges for you.  And He can be trusted while you’re going through tough times because He is faithful.

I watched a very helpful 10-minute video discussion called “God’s Goodness in Your Pain” featuring John Piper, David Platt and Matt Chandler. They argue that we need a robust view of the greatness and goodness of God in order to find solace in our suffering.  God is sovereign and good even if I can’t see Him or feel Him.  Platt put it like this: “God uses sorrowful tragedy to set the stage for surprising triumph…whether in this life or the life to come.”

He allows and He sends things our way.

You will only be able to handle suffering in your life if you settle the sovereignty issue.  God is in charge.  He allows and He sends things our way.  I love what Tony Evans said: “Everything is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category.”  Nothing comes to us that is not first filtered through the Father’s loving hands. 

In a conversation with a seasoned believer they shared: “In my experience, when it came to suffering I had the same basic question most people have — that is ‘why?’  I remember going to Romans 8:28…God created me for a purpose, for his purpose alone and he would not let me go through any experience that did not have meaning for it…It was a total giving up of self and circumstances and giving it all to God that brought relief.  The will of God, I could trust more than mine.  When this happened there was true peace, comfort, joy and safety…”

Trials are designed to teach us so that our conduct and our character change. What’s your response to the bad things that happen in your life?  Don’t give up and become passive or become bitter and hardened.  God is no stranger to your pain.  The great news of the Bible is that God is a suffering God.  Jesus Christ died a horrible death on a rough cross to provide you with the ultimate solution for suffering and death.  

When hard times come, we can know that God is at work in our trials for our good and for his glory…because everything’s unfolding according to His plan.

A teenager didn’t want to be seen in public with her mother because her hands and arms were horribly disfigured.  One day when her mom took her shopping and reached out her hand, a store clerk looked horrified.  When they got back to the car the girl started crying and told her mother how embarrassed she was to be seen with her.  The mother waited an hour before going to her daughter’s room to tell her, for the first time, what had happened. 

“When you were a baby, I woke up to a burning house.  Your room was an inferno.  Flames were everywhere.  I could have gotten out the front door, but I decided I’d rather die with you than leave you to die alone.  I ran through the fire and wrapped my arms around you.  Then I went back through the flames, with my arms on fire.  When I got outside on the lawn, the pain was agonizing, but when I looked at you, all I could do was rejoice that the flames hadn’t touched you.”  Stunned, the girl looked at her mom through new eyes.  Weeping in shame and gratitude, she kissed her mother’s marred hands and arms.  

It’s my prayer that we will see the problem of pain and suffering through new eyes, knowing that we have a Savior who has wrapped His arms around us.

You’ll know you’ve settled the sovereignty issue when you’re ready to surrender to the Savior.  Is there anything holding you back?  Knowing that He will not break you into pieces, isn’t it time to break your will and surrender to Jesus for salvation and service right now?  Tell him that you can’t go any further on your own.  Tell him that you’re stalled out.  Tell Him that life has come crashing down on you and that in the demolition derby of circumstances you are ready to surrender.  When you do you’ll be able to receive, rejoice, reflect and rely.

Are you ready to break the surrender stick?  When you do you’ll finally see what the Savior has done for you. [Break stick and make a cross]

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?