Suffering sometimes feels like slipping, sinking, suffocating. As the Psalms testify, suffering can engulf and consume, leaving you groping for a handhold. Suffering can swallow you whole, blocking any light from outside.
There’s no way to make suffering not hurt. Some pains simply need to run their course, and some will keep coursing through you long after most people have forgotten about your trial. So Christians need to acknowledge the reality that in this world we will have trouble.
But responding to suffering as a Christian takes more than bare acknowledgement. Instead, we need to be able to put it in its place. And that’s exactly what Peter’s first letter helps us do.
The entire epistle reflects on the reality of and reasons for Christians’ suffering. But I want to focus on just two verses, 1 Peter 1:6–7. These verses frame suffering in God’s eternal purpose to glorify his people, providing a firm, compact handhold to cling to in trials.
In verses 3 through 5, Peter blesses God the Father for giving us new birth, bestowing on us the sure hope of an imperishable inheritance, and guarding us through faith for the salvation which will be revealed on the last day. Verse 6 affirms that “In this”—that is, this salvation soon to come—“you rejoice,” but then Peter immediately qualifies this rejoicing. Note the concession and the three little phrases that specify it: “though now for a little while, if necessary, you are grieved by various trials.”
Now, for a little while, if necessary.With these words peter puts suffering in its place, but that doesn’t mean he’s minimizing or papering over it. He isn’t advocating stoicism or stiff-upper-lip-ism. Instead, Peter freely acknowledges that trials hurt. And he doesn’t limit this to the trial of suffering for our faith, though that is prominent in the letter (2:12, 15; 3:14–17; 4:12–19). Instead, he speaks of “various” trials, casting the net wide enough to take in all the effects of the fall.
Let’s wrap our fingers around every bulge and groove in this divinely inspired handhold for sufferers.
Now. Now we suffer, but then is coming. This life isn’t all. As Christians, we should have both feet planted firmly in the future—God’s future, where our inheritance and salvation await us. If suffering is smothering you in darkness, open a window to eternity.
For a little while. The math is simple: this life is short and eternity is long. Time certainly seems to stretch and slow as we suffer, but God has cut our life-spans mercifully short. Whatever you’re suffering, it will end, and soon (1 Pet. 5:10).
If necessary. God is not clumsy or careless or powerless to stop his creation and creatures from fouling up. No—God rules over all in infinite wisdom, even stillbirth and slander and a thousand other sorrows that slice into bone. We suffer because suffering is necessary according to the will of God (1 Pet. 4:19).
But why does God deem trials necessary? Verse 7 completes the thought: “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Every Christian needs to suffer because every Christian’s faith needs testing. And every trial presents a choice: Will you trust God or turn from him? Will you still love the Giver when he takes away an infinitely precious gift? Will you praise him in prison? Will you cling to him when he leaves you nothing else to cling to?
The only way to purify gold is to pass it through the fire. For Christians, this brief life is our time to pass through the fire—not of punishment, but of purification.
This doesn’t mean that we can mirror-read providence and determine why God causes us to suffer in the specific ways he does. To do that is to come perilously close to siding with Job’s friends. God doesn’t show us his playbook, but he has revealed his purpose. When trials come, we’re not meant to try to figure out “Why this?” or “Why now?” but to remember who sent them, and praise him in our pain.
But even this proven, stress-tested faith is, in a sense, just a means to an end: praise, glory, and honor at Christ’s return (v. 7). But whose praise, glory, and honor? Certainly we will glorify God when we see him face to face, but Peter’s point here is that our eternal reward is to receive praise and glory and honor from God himself (cf. 1 Cor. 2:7). On the last day we will not only glorify God but be glorified. To say this takes nothing away from God’s glory, since in glorifying he is glorified.
This is why we don’t just endure trials but rejoice in them (Rom. 5:1–5; James 1:2–4). We’re not masochists; we don’t take pleasure in pain, but in the promised praise it helps produce. We don’t somehow enjoy the sorrow itself because it’s from God; instead, we rejoice in God even when he sends sorrow.
So when you’re tried, and even tired of being tried, take heart and take hold of God’s purposes for your suffering. Put your suffering in its place. Remember that suffering is only now, for a little while, if necessary—and it’s necessary for your everlasting good. You’ll still grieve, but one day that grief will be infinitely outweighed by glory.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.