We have observed repeatedly in our time in 1 Peter that Peter’s readers were suffering because of their commitment to Christ. Peter was burdened that they respond to suffering in the right way. Suffering had the potential to make them bitterbut he was concerned to help them think about suffering in the right way to as to make them better—to further their sanctification. This is the central theme of 4:1–6.
In these verses, Peter writes of the great potential of suffering. Suffering has the potential to help the sufferer “cease from sin” (v. 1) and to live “no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (v. 2). Suffering can help us to be done with “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (v. 3). It can help us to move beyond the “flood of debauchery” in which we once lived (v. 4). Of course, this may invite further maligning (v. 4) but if it helps us to overcome sin and grow in Christlikeness, the temporary cost is worth the eternal pay-off.
The problem is, suffering does not in itself produce such benefits. Examples are myriad, both inside and outside of Scripture, of people who suffered only to be embittered. We need think no further than Pharoah, who, for all his suffering under God’s judgement, only hardened in his heart toward Yahweh’s authority and grew in his hatred of God’s people. Jesus spoke of the person who immediately receives the gospel with “joy” and “endures for a while” but “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Matthew 13:20–21).
We conclude, then, that suffering can either draw us to or drive us from God. Peter understood this and knew that the key to suffering righteously lay in preparedness. If Christians will benefit from and experience sanctification through suffering, they must prepare and properly think about suffering. He therefore exhorts, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourself with the same way of thinking” (v. 1). Simply put, suffering will only work to our benefit as we think about it in a Christ-centred manner. Here are two ways, drawn from our text, that we can think Christianly about suffering.
First, we think Christianly about suffering when we remember that suffering is necessary for growth in Christlikeness.Peter reminds us that “Christ suffered in the flesh.” If we will grow to be more like Christ, it cannot happen apart from suffering. If it was necessary for Christ to suffer to accomplish his Father’s will, it is necessary for us to suffer to grow to be more like Christ. Christ’s suffering cements our own.
Christian, don’t think that you can live a life without suffering and still grow in Christlikeness. We have repeatedly seen that the suffering we experience in South Africa is not entirely the same as the suffering that Peter’s readers experienced. We do not face threat of imprisonment or death simply because we follow Christ. But Christians who are consistent in their faith know what it is to be maligned by unbelievers for refusing to follow in their sinful steps. Many Christians know what it is to be spoken evil of by employers, spouses, and opponents of the truth. As painful as this suffering is, let us remember that it is necessary for our growth in Christlikeness. Let us remember that “Christ suffered in the flesh” and prepare ourselves for the same.
Second, we think Christianly about suffering when we remember that suffering prepares us for glory. Peter writes of those who will “give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” While the immediate context is the judgement of those who malign God’s faithful people, the idea of God judging “the living and the dead” is used throughout the New Testament to speak of the final judgement of believers and unbelievers alike. We all face the prospect of final judgement and reflecting on that judgement helps us to think properly about suffering.
In many respects, the reality of future judgement enables our perseverance in suffering, and thereby our growth in holiness, both because we know that those who oppose us will give an account and because we know that our suffering will work for our ultimate good in the day of judgement. Paul wrote that the “momentary affliction[s]” we experience in this life are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18).
As you reflect on 1 Peter 4:1–6 this morning, allow this text to help prepare your mind for a Christian approach to suffering by reminding you that suffering is necessary for growth in Christlikeness and prepares us for future glory.