How To Suffer Well [Part 1]

“I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.” —1 Peter 5:12

Frederick William Faber was a British poet about 150 years ago. He wrote a hymn entitled “Workman of God, O lose not heart.” Here’s the fifth verse: 

Then learn to scorn the praise of men, and learn to lose with God.
For Jesus won the world through shame, and beckons thee his road.

Does the gospel make us losers? Doesn’t it make us winners? Yes, it makes us big winners forever. But only through the cross.  

The cross of Christ is the surprising secret to life. The surprise is that life comes from death and power comes from defeat and fullness comes from giving and redemption comes from suffering and gain comes from loss, and so forth. The gospel points to Jesus on his cross, suffering and losing, and says to us, “There is the most brilliant move God ever made. There is your better future. Everything in this impressive world will let you down. But that cross cannot fail you.” And there is nothing in our culture to help us believe that. But it’s real. The cross is where God’s blessing gushes out on unworthy people like us.

The apostle Peter learned how to live under the cross. He told us how we can get there today. We need to know, because we all suffer and we are all tempted to look for easy ways out. We all need a gospel for sufferers. 1 Peter is that gospel.

We’re going to be spending some time in 1 Peter because it shows us how to suffer well. In our world today, we have “the prosperity gospel,” on the one hand. It tells us that God is out to make us rich and healthy. On the other hand, we have “the victim gospel.” It tells us how we should feel sorry for ourselves and coddle ourselves. Both the prosperity gospel and the victim gospel fail us. They reinforce things inside us that are wrong. They take us nowhere we really want to go. They know nothing of the cross, they do not help us suffer well, and they do not lead us into God’s blessing. We need another gospel. We need what God gave Peter.

Toward the end of his book, Peter tells us why he wrote this book. He explains what he hopes to accomplish: 

I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. —1 Peter 5:12

That verse is the key to the whole book. Peter is saying that, compared with all he wanted to communicate, his letter is brief: “I have written briefly.” He really wanted to spend a weekend with us at a retreat center and talk it through together at length. But we do have his brief summary. And he wants us to work out the details on our own, trusting in God.

How did Peter write? “…exhorting and declaring.” Peter is not tossing some ideas out on the table, saying, “Take it or leave it. It’s just a thought.” Peter is exhorting us. He says in chapter 2, “I urge you,” using the same verb (1 Peter 2:11). He is speaking with urgency. Peter is also declaring to us, that is, bearing witness, testifying. He is speaking with authority. It’s not about him. It’s about God and you, especially when everything is on the line. 

What did Peter write?  “…that this is the true grace of God.” The whole of 1 Peter has basically one message: “This is the true grace of God.” What does the word “this” point back to? What is the true grace of God? The message of 1 Peter comes down to this: first the cross, then the crown. First suffering, then glory. Jesus himself walked that path, and it worked out well for him. There was Good Friday, which didn’t seem good at the time, but there was also Easter Sunday morning, bright and early. First the cross, then the crown—this is the true grace of God. It is simply God’s way with us. For example, Peter writes,

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 may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. —1 Peter 4:12-13   

When you’re following Christ and your whole life falls apart, don’t be surprised. Don’t think God has turned against you. It’s the opposite. You are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. You will also share in his coming glory. Sharing in that sequence of first-the-cross-and-then-the-crown—that is the true grace of God. And here’s what we do with that assurance: “Stand firm.” Don’t bail. Stand firm. You haven’t miscalculated, by taking up the cross of Christ. You’re in his true grace. You will live forever in his true glory. Stand firm. You’re in a disappointing marriage. This is the true grace of God. Stand firm. You’ve lost your health and your body hurts all over. This is the true grace of God. Stand firm. The company you worked so hard to build up has been stolen out from underneath you. This is the true grace of God. Stand firm.

One way we know we’re following the real gospel is that we have to be told to stand firm. People following the prosperity gospel or the victim gospel don’t need to be told, “Stand firm.” They’re getting their pay-off now—either self-indulgence or self-pity. And the world as it is now offers both self-indulgence and self-pity galore. But if we take up our cross and follow Christ, we need to be told, “Stand firm.” Only a counterintuitive message demands that follow-through. The old rugged cross will not make us old, but it will make us rugged. We don’t get there easily. Peter didn’t get there easily, but he did get there. So can we. Let’s learn how from Peter.

Let me tell you Peter’s story—not all of it, but just three game-film highlights. The Peter who wrote this letter was a different man from the Peter we read about earlier in the New Testament. There was a lot of good in Peter, earlier on. He was a believer. But he didn’t understand first-the-cross-and-then-the-crown. He didn’t think in those categories. He didn’t even know that he didn’t think in those categories. Yes, he understood the grace of God at some level. But he needed to go deeper, and it was obvious, because he just wasn’t able to stand firm. But God helped him. And Peter became a man who could suffer well.

So, here are three scenarios from Peter’s journey that form the backdrop to 1 Peter. First, in Matthew 16:13-25:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. … Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Peter boldly recognized Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says that Peter’s clarity was given to him by God.

The problem was, Peter didn’t understand what it really meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus knew it would cost him his life. When he said so, Peter didn’t like it. So he took Jesus aside and said, “Let’s not talk about suffering and death, okay? That should never happen to you!” But what he probably meant was, “That should never happen to me!” He could see the implications.

By the way, here’s one reason why I believe the Bible. It doesn’t idealize its heroes. A made-up story wouldn’t read like the Bible. The Bible is honest about the weaknesses of believers, including leaders.

Anyway, it must have shocked Peter when Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Just before, Peter had spoken under the influence of God: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Now Peter speaks under the influence of Satan: “Jesus said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” Then Jesus explained how Satan gained access to Peter: “You are not setting your mind on the things of God but on the things of man.” That is not what I expect Jesus to say. I expect him to say, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God but the things of Satan.” But Peter became useful to the devil just by thinking in a common sense human way, setting his mind on the things of man, the things we all naturally care about and might not even question. But going with the humanly obvious flow is not the way of Christ. And what obvious human thought was holding Peter in its grip? Self-preservation. Who can blame him? We all understand the pull of that. But when we live by our instincts instead of the cross, we are vulnerable. That’s why Jesus then called Peter to take up the cross and follow, because, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jesus wants us to live. Our hearts lie to us about how to live. Our hearts are not our friends. The Bible says, “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26). Let’s doubt ourselves. Let’s listen to Jesus and his gospel of the cross. He’s pointing us in the direction of everything we desire. He knows the way, and it’s surprising, because it’s not self-preservation.

The second episode for Peter is in Matthew 26. We know the story. It was the last night before our Lord was crucified. He told his disciples they would all abandon him. But Peter said, referring to the other disciples, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will not fall away.” Then he denied Jesus three times—and not because anyone tortured him but because he couldn’t stand before a couple of young girls and a few on-lookers. He didn’t stand firm. And the Bible says, “Peter went out, and wept bitterly.”

Why did he weep? Because he finally saw himself. At that moment of self-awareness, do you know what Peter saw down inside himself? Nothing. He thought he was full of loyalty. But when it counted, there was nothing there. That same old impulse of self-preservation had hollowed Peter out, and he didn’t know who he was or what he stood for. A good reason to weep bitterly! But it wasn’t the end of the story.

The third moment in Peter’s life is in Galatians 2:11-14, when Peter is a mature Christian leader.  But Paul confronts him for hypocrisy:  

But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

The background is, Peter had come to realize that Jesus makes Gentiles kosher (Acts 10-11). So Jewish Peter had learned to eat ham sandwiches with Gentiles. It was a huge adjustment. He gave up his traditions. The gospel demanded broader openness to all kinds of people in Christ, and Peter changed, for the sake of Christ.

But here in Antioch, years later, Peter reverses himself. Why? Men from Jerusalem showed up, and they didn’t approve of Peter rubbing shoulders with Gentiles. They still felt that Gentiles were radioactive. From their point of view, Peter was setting a bad example that would contaminate the young Christian movement. He had to be stopped. So they intimidated Peter, and he caved. He was afraid he wouldn’t be invited back to preach at their conferences in Jerusalem. So this time Peter chose social self-preservation. He backed away from his Gentile friends who had been washed clean in the grace of Jesus. His actions–not his theology–said, “Oh sure, you can be a Christian and a Gentile; but you can’t be a good Christian, like me, and also a Gentile.” It was hypocrisy. Peter was denying Christ again. He was denying the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—a central doctrine of the faith.

Peter still hadn’t learned to lose with God. He wanted the crown without the cross. Paul had learned that. But if Paul had caved too, the Christian movement would have been confined to Jewish culture, the gospel would never have spread over Europe and from there to the whole world as the centuries rolled on, and you and I today would not have Jesus. The cause of the gospel goes forward or backward in every generation, depending not just on what we say about the gospel but how boldly we apply it to our lives and our church, at cost to ourselves. The progress of the gospel will always cost us.

But God loved Peter so much. He didn’t give up on him. And the gospel finally penetrated deeply enough that Peter got past Self as the control in his thoughts. He fell in love with the cross. And that’s why, eventually, Peter could write what we call 1 Peter. We’re reading a new Peter here. This new Peter is calling us to join him in living out the beauty and risk and pain of the cross. And he doesn’t apologize. He isn’t feeling sorry for us or for himself: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). The Peter who told Jesus not to go to the cross couldn’t have written that sentence. The Peter who denied Jesus couldn’t have written it. The Peter who spurned Gentile believers in Antioch couldn’t have written it. That Peter’s mind was too crowded with petty thoughts of winning and looking good and coming out on top. But this new Peter has been set free to suffer well for Christ, and this new Peter is alive. That’s where God wants to take every one of us.

How do we get there? How do we stay there? God doesn’t drive us with a whip.  He leads us forward with the power of hope:

After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you. —1 Peter 5:10

The God of all grace knows what we’re thinking: “Is following Christ worth it? Am I crazy to obey him? Will I even have the strength to endure? I’ve already failed so much. Can I go the distance?” What is his answer to our fear? His personal promise of support. Do you see the emphatic word “himself” here? “The God of all grace.… will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.”  We’re grateful for our friends. But when you’re wheeled into that operating room, your friends can’t go in there with you. The God of all grace can, and he is promising you himself. He is promising to restore you. This word translated “restore” is used in Mark 1:19 for the disciples repairing their fishing nets. The point is, after we’ve suffered a little while–that’s all this life is, a little while, compared with eternity–God himself will repair us. We will not be damaged goods. We will not carry psychological scars. It will never occur to us to think, “I wish I hadn’t obeyed Christ. I wish I had given in to my fears and desires. That would have been a great life!” No, we will be thinking forever and ever, “My life was a story of the true grace of God. I’m so glad I stood firm. And he even helped me to do that.”

If you’re a Christian believer, or if you aren’t, the point is the same. Your fearful heart is lying to you. Your culture is lying to you. Self-preservation is death. The way of the cross is life. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Believe him, and follow him, and he will prove himself to you. 

At what point of weakness are you close to giving up? Stand firm right there. The pain you feel, the fear, the disappointment—it is, in fact, where God himself is pursuing you with his true grace. Don’t run away. God is deepening you in the cross. He will himself restore you and repair you.