Never Be Surprised by Hard Times
1 Peter 4:12-19
April 24, 2005
I begin with the words of British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, from an interview with William F. Buckley: “As an old man, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly—that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about … is suffering.”
He’s right about that. Most of us do not learn very much from good health, happy days, money in the bank, and good fortune. We enjoy those things, but we don’t learn much from them. It seems that we all have spend some time in the School of Hard Knocks to learn the lessons God has for us.
This is a point Peter has come back to again and again in this letter. Now he returns to it one final time. First Peter 4:12-19 is the summit of the book. When we reach verse 19, we have come to the climax of his teaching on how to respond to suffering in a godly fashion. Our text today sums up the four major lessons we need to know about hard times in the Christian life.
I. Hard Times Develop Our Character.
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12).
This is a message the American church needs to hear.
Discipleship is tough.
Suffering is part of the Christian life, even painful suffering.
Believers in other parts of the world understand this better than we do. Here are some of the current headlines from the Compass Direct website (http://www.compassdirect.org) regarding the persecuted church:
Pakistan—Worshipers attacked on Easter Sunday.
Indonesia—Pastor Still Missing.
Bangladesh—Lay Pastor Beheaded.
Iran—Pastor called before Islamic court.
India—Hindus attack church while police take “lunch break.”
India—Villagers beat Christians, burn down prayer hall.
Eritrea—16 pastors, nearly 900 Christians in jail.
Afghanistan—5 Afghan Christians martyred.
It is in this context that the words “dear friends” become so important. The phrase actually means “those who are deeply loved by God.” That’s huge. That’s not just a throwaway line. It’s key to everything Peter wants us to know. This is what he means: “God loves you deeply and profoundly. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you suffer as a Christian.” That’s a hard connection for many of us to make. We live in an age where one of the bestselling books in America is called Your Best Life Now. Peter would say, “Living for Christ is the best life you can have, and it always includes suffering.” You can’t escape it.
Most of us don’t think that way. We are surprised when trials come, how they come, and where they come from. We think we do not deserve them. As I was preparing this message, I started thinking about Fred Hartman who led our Awana program in its earliest days. In the prime of his life, he was diagnosed with cancer that would eventually take his life. During his treatment, he continued to come to Awana as long as he could. I’ll never forget the sight of him wearing his Awana shirt, hobbling down the hallway with his cane, in obvious pain, making sure everything was running okay. One night I went to visit him and he told me something I’ve never forgotten. By this time, he knew that the cancer was going to take his life sooner or later. “Many people get cancer and they say, ‘Why me?’ I’ve never said that. Never felt that way. I’ve said, ‘Why not me?’ I’m so blessed with a wonderful job and a wonderful wife. God has been so good to me. He blessed me with a great family and so many friends. How could I ever complain about this? Other cancer patients don’t have as much as I have. Why not me?”
That’s a very godly attitude.
Chuck Swindoll says, “If … we view life as a schoolroom and God as the instructor, it should come as no surprise when we encounter pop quizzes and periodic examinations. … Maturity in the Christian life … is measured by our ability to withstand the tests that come our way without having them shake our foundation or throw us into an emotional tailspin.”
II. Hard Times Bring Us Closer to God.
“But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (I Peter 4:13-14).
He blesses us three ways when we suffer for him:
A. Participation: We share in the sufferings of Christ.
B. Impartation: We experience the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
C. Exultation: We will rejoice when we see Christ.
The people of the world hate the name of Christ. They do not want to hear it. God is okay; Jesus is not. They hate who he is, what he said and what he did. If we would renounce our allegiance, the world would leave us alone. They do not hate us. They hate Christ in us. They do not persecute us. They persecute Christ in us. That’s why the world does not persecute a worldly Christian—only a godly one. Persecution is a sign that you are doing what God wants you to do.
Do you see the word “participate” in verse 13? It’s the verb form of the Greek word koinonia, which is usually translated as “fellowship.” To most of us, “fellowship” implies something positive or happy, like a picnic or a party at someone’s home. But here Peter speaks of having “fellowship” in the sufferings of Christ. Our sufferings join us with Jesus in a way that nothing else can.
Let me illustrate this way by making a little diagram:
How can we get from where we are to where Christ is? There are lots of answers to that question. We can read the Bible, pray, worship, sing, praise, share our faith, give our money, listen to sermons, exercise our faith, use our spiritual gifts, spend time with other believers, and so on. I could add quite a few things to that list and all of them would be helpful in drawing us closer to Christ. But for most of us, even when we do those things, we may feel that we are like this:
Peter wants us to understand that nothing moves us closer to Christ than when we go through hard times. It’s not that suffering in and of itself brings us to Christ; it’s what suffering does to us and in us. When we are flat on our faces, having been knocked down again and again, at some point if we truly know the Lord, we lay aside our pride and in sheer desperation, we cry out to God for help. Most of us can identify with that famous poem about the footprints in the sand. At first there were two sets of footprints—ours and the Lord’s. Then there was only one set. And when we asked God why he left us alone when we needed him most, he replied, “When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.” We generally only see that in retrospect, after the trial is over. God allows us to go through hard times so that we will be like this:
God intends that our hard times move us from where we are to where Christ is.
III. Hard Times Should Lead to Serious Self-Examination.
“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’” (I Peter 4:15-18).
Sometimes we bring trouble on ourselves. This week I received a letter from a prisoner in Florida who had read my book An Anchor for the Soul. Let me quote a few sentences:
How are you doing? I’m writing because I have chosen the wrong road in life. I do believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I read my Bible not like I should but I read it. I also take time out of my day to read the Daily Bread. I really enjoyed your book. It gave me a better path on giving my life into Jesus Christ. I was raised up in the church but as I got older I thought I knew everything. I left my parent’s house at a young age. My mother is a strong believer in Jesus Christ. She writes me all the time with encouraging words. I regret my path I’ve taken but I done the crime, now I have to do the time. The Lord has been on my side through the whole thing. I have given my life to Jesus Christ. Without him I don’t know where I would be. I’ve given my life to the one and only friend I have. Through it all I can say God has not let me down.
To me, the most important part of that letter is this sentence: “I done the crime, now I have to do the time.” The grammar might be wrong, but his heart is in the right place. God will bless a man who doesn’t make excuses for his bad behavior. That’s precisely Peter’s point in verse 15. If you do wrong, you should expect to suffer. Note that he specifies four categories of wrongdoers. The first three go together: murderers, thieves and criminals. Then he says “or even as a meddler.” That doesn’t quite seem to fit with the first three. The word means “one who gets involved in the affairs of others when he has no business being there.” Such a person is a self-appointed overseer of the affairs of others. He barges in where he is not wanted or needed and makes things worse by what he says or does. If you suffer for being a meddler, don’t complain. No one likes a busybody who constantly interjects himself where he doesn’t belong. There are troublesome meddlers in every church, people who are on the telephone, writing e-mails about things that don’t concern them, who make things worse and not better, who like to talk and gossip about other people’s troubles because it makes them look good. Note that Peter puts meddling in the same class with murder because it’s a form of character assassination.
Then Peter adds, “but if you suffer as a Christian.” In the vast Roman Empire of the first century, the cult of Caesar-worship helped unify the many nations Rome ruled. The word Caesar in Greek is kaisar, and those who worshiped Caesar were called kaisarianos. As the gospel began to spread, the followers of Jesus were given a nickname by the Romans and Greeks. They were called christianos, Christ-followers. It was a derisive term, an insult. The early believers would not say, “Caesar is Lord.” They would rather die than say those words. This is why the early church was persecuted. Thus the lines were drawn very early:
Caesar or Christ!
What if it comes down to this—Caesar or Christ? What will you do? What if they threaten you because of your faith? Peter’s answer is clear: “Let him not be ashamed.” I think for Peter this was very personal. I think he remembered that dark night when Jesus was arrested. While he warmed himself around the fire, a young girl said to him, “Weren’t you one of his disciples?” And he denied the Lord with an oath. Three times he denied Christ. Then the rooster crowed. Peter knew all about the sense of shame because he never forgot the night he denied the Lord. The word “ashamed” means “to dishonor.” Don’t do anything to dishonor the name of the Lord. Instead, praise God that you are counted worthy to suffer for his name. If Jesus lays his cross on your back, don’t be ashamed to carry it.
At this point good theology helps us greatly. Verse 17 says that judgment begins with the house of God. The Lord starts with his own children. Persecution forces us to decide where we stand and what we believe. The hands of the persecutors are actually the hands of God. He allows evildoers to turn up the heat so that we are purified by our trials. That may not be much comfort if you are doing some “furnace time” right now, but at least it means that God is still in control.
But if it starts with us, it won’t end with us. Verse 18 asks a good question: “What will be the outcome for those who don’t obey the gospel of God?” The answer is, they’re in big trouble. We’re saved by grace, and still we’re judged as God’s children. He disciplines us to make us holy. But what about those who don’t know the Lord? Verse 18 says it is hard for the righteous to be saved. He’s speaking of the troubles and trials of the Christian life. “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.” Hard times are part of God’s severe mercy to his children. They loosen us from our love of the earth, and they make us long for heaven.
It is hard for us to make it to heaven. We barely make it through this sinful world. It is only by Jesus’ blood, God’s Word, and the power of the Holy Spirit that we survive the trials of life. We suffer a little and then we enter glory. But for those who don’t know the Lord, this world is the only heaven they will ever know. When they die, they enter eternal torment. Right now that may not seem to be the case because unbelievers take God’s patience for granted. The day is coming when God’s patience will run out.
One of the old Saxon kings set out with an army to put down a rebellion in a distant province of his kingdom. When the insurrection had been quelled, and the army of the rebels defeated, the king placed a candle over the archway of the castle where he had his headquarters. Lighting the candle, he announced through a herald to all who had been in rebellion against him that those who surrendered and took the oath of loyalty while the candle was burning would be spared. The king offered them his clemency and mercy, but the offer was limited to the life of the candle. When the candle went out, his mercy ended.
God’s patience has a limit. Exodus 34:7 says, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” When the candle of God’s patience finally burns out, no one will be able to accuse him of acting rashly. Second Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” If you don’t know the Lord, don’t presume on God’s patience. One day your life will come to an end and the day of salvation will be over for you. Today he holds back judgment so you can run to the cross and be saved. But one day God’s patience will come to an end. Make the most of God’s patience while you can. Turn from your sin and trust Christ now. If you are without Christ, if you have been putting off coming to him, if you think, “I have plenty of time,” remember this: The greater God’s patience with you, the greater will be your judgment in hell. If you abuse God’s patience by refusing God’s grace, you will increase his wrath toward you in the judgment day.
IV. Hard Times Teach Us to Trust God in New Ways.
“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (I Peter 4:19).
This verse is special to me for a very personal reason. Twenty years ago we lived in Garland, Texas, where I served for a little over five years as the first pastor for a new church. After a period of great growth and blessing, there came a time of difficulty and controversy. It started with one thing and led to another and then it spread to something else. It was one of the saddest experiences of my life. Looking back, I can see things more clearly now than I could then. In the midst of trouble, it’s often hard to get your bearings because you seem to be fighting an endless round of rumors and innuendo. As with most church conflicts, there was enough guilt to spread in several directions. We went through a period of ugly confrontations, bitter words and harsh accusations. Friendships were broken that were never fully repaired. I had been the pastor during the growth and glory years, and now I was the pastor during the hard years. Near the end of the conflict, I remember taking a long walk in the neighborhood where we lived. Somehow this verse—I Peter 4:19—came to my mind. As I walked, my mind focused on the phrase “according to God’s will.” I realized that it had been a long time since I had prayed about God’s will in my life. When the bullets are flying around you, all you can think about is, “Where can I find more ammunition?” The Lord spoke to me and said, “Ray, what about my will?” That day, for the first time in a long time, I began to pray that I could see God’s will done in my life. No strings attached, nothing held back. Just a simple prayer, “Lord, I’m tired and I’m weary. I can’t fight any more. I want your will in my life, whatever that means.” I can still picture in my mind the suburban street where I prayed that prayer. Peace came into my heart for the first time in a long time. That became a turning point in my life as the Lord did some divine heart surgery on me. It was not a cure-all for my problems. There were more hard times to come, but that day marked a change in me.
When trouble comes—and it comes to all of us sooner or later, we generally can’t do much about our circumstances. We can’t wave our hands and make the sick well, or put money in the bank, or cause angry people to like us. But there is one thing we can do. It’s what Peter mentions in verse 19. In the midst of our troubles, we can commit ourselves to our faithful Creator. The word “commit” is a banking term that means to make a deposit. That day in Garland, Texas I told the Lord, “I’ve been trying to make things better on my own and they’ve only gotten worse. Lord, would you take over now? I want your will to be done my life.” I made a deposit of my life into the Bank of Heaven and told the Lord he could do whatever he wanted to do.
Have you ever done that? Is that a step you need to take right now? I imagine that many people reading these words find themselves in a place of enormous personal difficulty and you cannot clearly see the way forward. When life begins to tumble all around you, nothing is more important than committing yourself to God as your faithful Creator, who loves you and who promises to take care of you. Instead of trying to figure out how to solve your own problems, you need to say, “Lord, I can’t do it. I admit that without you, I can’t change anything. O Lord, let your will be done in my life, whatever it takes, whatever it costs, nothing held back.” When we begin to pray like that, God will hear from heaven and whether or not our circumstances change, we will change on the inside.
As I stand back and look at this passage, it strikes me that you will never believe it unless you also believe in the sovereignty of God over every detail of life. Peter is teaching us that every trial that comes our way is under God’s control. Nothing can touch us that does not first pass through the Father’s loving hands. We will never believe in the sovereignty of God in our trials unless we also believe that he loves us with an everlasting love. And we will never be convinced of God’s love unless we fix our gaze on the cross of Christ. There we see how the evil purposes of man serve the eternal purposes of Almighty God. There we behold untold human suffering accomplishing our eternal salvation.
Fix your eyes on the cross. Start there and your own troubles will come into proper focus. What God did for Jesus, he will also do for you.
Apart from the cross, it makes no sense to rejoice in our suffering.
We need to hear everything Peter says in this passage:
A. We are beloved by God.
B. Suffering for Christ brings us closer to him.
C. We must never be ashamed of Jesus.
D. God uses suffering to purify us.
E. We must commit our souls to God and continue to serve him.
In his commentary on I Peter, Archbishop Leighton says, “Adversity is the diamond dust heaven polishes its jewels with.”
So here is the message for us today: Never be surprised by hard times. Never be ashamed of Jesus. God uses adversity to make your life a jewel fit for heaven. Amen.