St. Aidan’s Sermons - Winnipeg, Manitoba
The Rev. Canon Dr. Brett Cane, June 5, 2011
Sunday after Ascension: 8:30 & 10:00 am, Holy Communion
Words of Encouragement #5: “When the Going Gets Tough”
1 Peter 4:12-19; 5:6-11
Heavenly Father, it is so difficult to stand firm in the midst of suffering; teach us now, by your Holy Spirit, to fix our eyes on Jesus that we may endure the pain for the joy set before us, and share with him in your eternal kingdom, for His Name’s sake. Amen.
How do you feel about going to the dentist? My former dentist called himself “Painless Phil” and most of the time, he was right. I am happy about this because I do not like suffering or pain, physical or emotional. I would rather avoid it. I think I share this attitude with most of society. We do everything we can to avoid physical pain or inconvenience through medical advances or labour-saving devices. We try to make our lives as comfortable as possible. I don’t think there is anything wrong in this.
But should we expect, or even desire, no pain at all in our lives? I don’t think we have a choice. Pain comes to us whether we like it or not. It then becomes a matter of how we handle it. As Christians we need to look biblically at the role of suffering and pain in our lives. Scripture shows us suffering can be used to have a positive effect upon us.
The readers of Peter’s first letter were undergoing “all kinds of trials” (1:6), suffering and hardship. He gives insights as to how Christians should approach suffering and its role in our lives. When we looked at chapter 2 three weeks ago I spoke about “Loving the Offender,” and our attitudes towards those who inflict pain on us – seeking their healing and winning them over to Christ. Now in chapters 4 and 5 we come face to face with the question: what about our reaction to the pain we experience? In this final sermon in our series in the first letter of Peter, “When the going gets tough,” how do I handle it? Is there any purpose or value in my suffering?
Standing Firm in Suffering
Peter tells his listeners to “stand firm in the faith” (5:9) in the face of the attacks of our enemy, the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (5:8). Perhaps the hardest aspect of suffering which we have to bear is not the actual pain itself, but the false accusations and waves of self-doubt that accompany suffering, the subtle suggestions of the enemy: “God is not interested in me, he has abandoned me”; “I must have done something wrong, I am unworthy of God’s love.” Or, there are the taunts of the enemy, “You won’t last; give it up, it isn’t worth it.” What we are tempted to give up is our trust in God – that he is in control and that his intentions for us are basically good.
Peter’s answer is to stand firm in the faith, and even more than that: “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…if you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed” (4:13, 14). He says we are to rejoice, that we are blessed. He also says that we are not to be “surprised at the painful trial of suffering as though something strange were happening” (4:12). This suffering hasn’t taken God by surprise; neither should it take us by surprise.
Peter is echoing here the teaching found elsewhere in Scripture that, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:23). The Bible is one story after another of God taking a bad situation and bringing about good through it. This does not mean that all things are good, but that God can use all things for good. This is the thought behind Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians, “Be joyful always; pray constantly; give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Does this mean that we give thanks to God for a tragedy that has occurred? No! It means that, in the midst of the tragedy, we give thanks that God can work and bring about good. I am convinced of this – I know it in my own life and have seen it in the lives of others.
This is why we can stand firm and rejoice in the midst of trial.
Bringing About Good in Suffering
How, then, does this work out? How can God bring about good in a situation of suffering and evil? Peter mentions three ways God can bring about good in suffering:
1. First, suffering highlights our weaknesses. Peter says that “it is time for judgement to begin with the family of God.” (4:17). This is the process Jesus refers to in John 15 where he speaks of God’s “pruning” in order that we might produce more fruit. To help us grow in one area, God cuts us back in another. What do I mean? The psalmist says, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray” (Psalm 119:67). Pain can bring to our attention some flaw or weakness in our own character, some area that we need to give up to God for him to heal and restore. For example, I do not like the pain of interpersonal conflict. My natural tendency is to try to smooth things over, to avoid confrontation. This helps neither me nor others face up to issues that need addressing. By being willing to accept the pain, I am growing in my own awareness of my undue need to always be liked. I should be receiving my greatest affirmation from God, not from others. This I am learning, but it is painful. There are hard lessons we need to learn which come through pain. I don’t enjoy them, but there is progress through them.
This happens to us as a congregation, too. Pain in the past has occurred over staff issues and with people leaving due to the crisis in the Anglican Communion. Such experiences can be seen as a time of pruning, of us being cutting back to convict us of lack of wisdom and discernment and of attitudes of complacency and self-sufficiency. This is what Peter means by judgement beginning with the family of God. God can bring about good by highlighting our weaknesses through pain.
2. Second, suffering helps us to identify with Christ. Peter says “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (4:13, 14). He is here speaking specifically of persecution and suffering because we are Christians. Although we don’t have physical oppression here in the Western world, people often treat us as obscurantists and out of date – quaint religionists. Sometimes, people actually vent their anger at God upon us – the closest visible target to God they can see.
I have told you before of the time when, as a theological student, I was visiting a hospital ward with my collar on and a chap saw me coming and yelled out – with deep anger and animosity in his voice – “I’m not interested in religion!” I was quite put back and felt he might have been upset because he had just come out of anaesthetic. I returned a few days later, in fear and trembling, and following my greeting, the man said, “I’m not interested in talking about religion.” I replied that I wasn’t there just to talk about religion but to be friendly. He said, “All right, but we won’t talk about religion.” I agreed. Then, for the next fifteen minutes, he spoke of nothing else but religion! He was angry at God for a tragedy involving his young daughter. His anger at God he had transferred onto me. This often happens to Christians.
What does this suffering do for us? Two things: First, it helps us empathize with Christ. We know how he felt, and feels, when people reject him. We have the privilege of sharing in his suffering in the way his love has been rejected and spurned. We see something new of the Father’s love for us when we receive something of his rejection; we see Jesus more clearly. Then, secondly, we receive affirmation that we belong to him. People have identified us with God; what Peter says is true – “the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (4:14). We have been counted worthy to suffer for Christ – we do belong to him! Our suffering helps us get to know God and be assured that we belong to him. We identify with Christ.
3. Finally, suffering leads us to depend on God. Peter says, “The God of all grace…after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (5:10). When we hurt, we realize how dependent we are on God’s grace. Suffering is to lead us back into his arms for help. Gone is our self-sufficiency, our independence. Without him, we are helpless, thrashing around in our own efforts and descending to the depths of self-pity. Only with him does any of our suffering and pain make any sense. In suffering we realize we are dependent upon God’s grace.
Suffering helps us see our weaknesses, helps us identify with Christ and helps us realize we are totally dependent upon God. Is there anything more that Peter says to encourage us in our struggles? Three closing encouragements:
1. We are not alone: We are called “Dear friends” (4:12); we are reminded that our “brothers and sisters around the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (5:9). One of the worst aspects of pain is the loneliness one can experience. We are not alone; we are part of the family of God. Remember this truth and support one another here in our own congregational life.
2. Take an eternal perspective: the God of grace has called us “to his eternal glory in Christ” (5:10) and we will be “overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (4:13). We have eternity ahead of us. Although we may be in the midst of suffering now, compared to what it is to come, this is a very short time period. Suffering will not endure for ever; it will be replaced by joy.
3. God is on our side: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (5:7). God really does love us and wants the best for us; trust in him, and don’t be afraid to go to him in anguish and pain. We have a God who tells us in our suffering: “Give your anxiety to me – don’t keep it to yourself; I have gone this way before, I will bring you through it to the other side.”
Stand firm, then, in the midst of suffering, and be ready to see the glory of God at work in your life.