Following Jesus in a hostile world
In the last few days, millions of people were evacuated due to floods and landslides in Japan. Tough times come to everyone at some point. Serious illness, disability, unemployment, financial problems, family strife, conflict at work, the death of a loved one. Life doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to. We find ourselves thinking, why is this happening to me? How could a loving God allow this hardship? Why aren’t you doing something about this, God?
And we wonder, how can we get through such difficult times? In particular, how can God help us get through hardship? In this article we’re going to answer this question from the letter of 1 Peter in the Bible. There will be three main points:
– God helps us through the privileges of salvation.
– God helps us through Christ’s example.
– And God helps us through godly living.
Peter was a disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. He was put in jail more than once for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead (Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:4). He knew that Christians had faced opposition since the beginning of the church. They were jailed and interrogated by the Jewish leaders and commanded not to speak about Jesus (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42). These leaders seized Stephen and made false accusations against him and stoned him to death (Acts 6:8-7:60). Then “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1NIV). Some went to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Saul made “murderous threats” against the Christians and went to Damascus to arrest them and take them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2, 21). Then king Herod arrested some Christians “intending to persecute them” and he executed James the brother of John who was an apostle like Peter (Acts 12:1-2). Paul also suffered for following Jesus (2 Cor. 11:23-26).
1 Peter is a letter from the Apostle Peter to Christians living in provinces of Asia Minor (now Turkey). It was written about AD 62, in the middle of the reign of Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians. You can see this on Peter’s timeline. These Christians faced threats, slander and the possibility of having to “suffer for what is right” and to “suffer for doing good” (1 Pt. 3:13-17). And they were being persecuted, which is described as to “suffer grief in all kinds of trials”, “abuse”, a “fiery trial”, “the sufferings of Christ”, being “insulted because of the name of Christ”, to “suffer as a Christian”, unjust suffering, and being wrongfully accused of wrong doing (1:6, 17; 2:121; 4:3-4, 12-16). This hostility towards Christians was being experienced across the Roman Empire: “the family of believers throughout the [known] world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (5:9).
The purpose of the letter is to encourage them to persevere and endure in their trials and suffering and not give up.
1 Peter’s themes
Peter says that those following Jesus will face trials and suffering. It’s inevitable. They will “suffer for what is right” and “suffer for doing good”. They lived in a world that was hostile to Jesus. And so do we. Do you notice how often Christians are ridiculed in the media? So we will look at this letter as though it was written to us.
If trials and suffering are inevitable in the life of a Christian, what do we do about it? We have a choice to trust God and endure the suffering or go our own way into bitterness and resentment. Will we draw near to God or turn away from Him? These two responses are shown in the schematic diagram.
Peter says we are to prepare for suffering and hostility beforehand, and endure it by persevering in the Christian faith. He gives three ways to ensure endurance. These are: the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example, and godly living. We will look at these themes in turn and they are shown in the schematic diagram.
Prepare for suffering
Some people stumble in their faith when they are impacted by suffering. They think how can a good God allow such suffering?
Peter tells them how to get ready to face suffering because it’s coming (3:13-17; 4:2-6). When they face criticism and hostility they should, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. And do this with gentleness and respect” (3:15-16).
If we live in a wildfire (bushfire) zone, we need a wildfire (bushfire) emergency plan. If we live in a flood zone, we need a flood emergency plan. We need to get ready and be prepared. Likewise. Christians need to be ready to face criticism, ridicule and hardship. This means being ready to answer questions like. How can anyone believe in God after a disaster? Hasn’t science disproved God? Why would you read the Bible? Why do you go to church? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why don’t you sleep with your girlfriend or boyfriend?
We don’t know when this situation will occur. Can we say why we are a Christian? Are there good reasons for what we believe? Have we thought through what we believe so we can testify to others? We need to know why we believe what we believe. Do we respect those we are witnessing to? Is what we say supported by a consistent life? We need to both show and tell.
So it’s good to prepare for suffering. But what should we do when trials and suffering appear?
Peter also tells them how to cope with suffering (4:12-19):
- He says, don’t be surprised about suffering as a Christian. It’s not unusual. It’s the normal Christian experience.
- “All kinds of trials” can test our faith (1:6-7). Traffic jams, the slow queue at the supermarket, cancer, depression, mental illness, marriage problems, and hostility from others because of our faith, all test our Christian faith. Some of these things happen to us sooner or later. Hard times prove our faith is genuine. James says that the testing of our faith by “trials of many kinds” produces perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3).
- Also, suffering can train us and mould our character. Those who endure suffering are strengthened and become more spiritually mature (5:10).
- And suffering is temporary; “for a little while” (1:6; 5:10). It’s only for this life. “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (5:10).
- Peter also says, “it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God … But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (2:19-20). God is pleased when we endure undeserved suffering without retaliation. “Endure” means to hang in there. To carry a heavy load without complaining. To be strong. God gives that ability. He does not want us to suffer from a sense of duty but from a conviction about His purpose for us. He wants us to patiently endure suffering even when we do good. How much hostility can we take? Are we resilient?
At the end of the letter, Peter says, “I wanted to encourage you and tell you how kind God really is, so that you will keep on having faith in Him” (5:12CEV). It was written to encourage them to endure and persevere in trials and suffering and not give up trusting God.
The summary statement for Christian suffering is, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (4:19). Nothing can happen to us without God allowing it. He wants us to put our trials into His care. He will sustain us. “Doing good” means to the benefit others. Hardship isn’t an excuse for wrongdoing.
So it’s good to prepare for suffering, and to endure during trials. But Peter also reminds them of some other reasons for enduring and persevering in trials and suffering.
God helps us through the privileges of salvation
The first way that God helps us through hardships is through the privileges of salvation. Peter focuses on three of these: our secure future (1:3-12), our direct access to God (2:4-8), and the fact we are special to God (2:9-10).
We have a secure future
The Bible says that “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” Christians have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1:3-4). And “this inheritance is kept in heaven [by God] for you”.
It‘s human nature to break promises. Governments make and break promises. Advertisers and politicians make and break promises. And people make promises to each other which are often broken. Many of these promises do not materialize. Thankfully, God’s promises are not like ours. Every promise He makes, He keeps. The promise of a secure future is certain to be fulfilled.
So Christians should be confident about their future. Their inheritance is guaranteed.
And God is protecting them until it’s revealed when Jesus comes back. This promise gives them joy even “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6). They have inner peace despite these trials.
We have direct access to God
Peter says that each Christian is like a “living stone” in a new building and Jesus is like the cornerstone. God builds this spiritual building by adding Christians to the global church. One day this building will be finished, then Jesus will come again. This spiritual house is like the temple in the Old Testament, where the priests had access to God. Today Christians are like these priests: they have direct access to God. They are “to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices” to God.
When a relationship breaks down and the couple have children, the Family Court may deny one parent contact with a child if there is a serious physical or emotional risk for the child. In this case, one parent has direct access to the child, but the other doesn’t. In the same way, Christians have direct access to God, they are no longer separated from Him. This means they can pray to God anytime. We can confess our sins to God, pray for others and offer ourselves to God.
We are God’s people
The Bible also says that Christians are God’s special people (2:9-10). They are “a chosen people”. Like the Israelites were God’s chosen people in Old Testament times, Christians are His chosen people today. They are “God’s special possession”. They are safe because of His protection. And their purpose is to praise God.
At the Australian State of Origin Rugby League Football game this week, supporters were praising their teams. And Queenslanders even think they are chosen people, but those from New South Wales don’t agree! Anyhow, this gives people an identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. In the same way, Christians have a special identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. So we can feel safe and represent God in our world.
So their secure future, their direct access to God, and their identity as God’s people helps believers to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. They don’t worry about ridicule or persecution. Besides these privileges of salvation, Christ’s example can also help.
God helps us through Christ’s example
The second way that God helps us through hardships is through the example of Jesus who suffered when He was unjustly crucified (1:11; 2:24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1). It’s mentioned in every chapter of this letter.
Jesus was a model for how to deal with a hostile work situation (2:21-25). After commending those who bear up “under the pain of unjust suffering”, and who “suffer for doing good” under harsh employers, Peter says, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth’. When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God] who judges justly” (2:21-23). Peter also says, “since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude [as Jesus], because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin” (4:1).
In Peter’s day, retaliating to a personal insult or injury was considered a virtue. Non- retaliation was interpreted as a sign of weakness. Our society is much the same. Our heroes tend to be those who fight back with physical strength or litigation. But Jesus didn’t do that when He suffered unjustly and for doing good. Instead He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). When He was falsely accused, insulted and abused, He didn’t retaliate. Instead, He left these things in the Father’s hands.
Christians should expect hostility because they follow Jesus. They should be prepared to endure trials and suffering. Believers have a choice between sin and suffering. If we live like an unbeliever, we can avoid hostility and suffering. But if we live in a godly way and not under the power of sin, we will face hostility. Do our friends know that we follow Jesus? Are we willing to endure ridicule because of this?
So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. Godly living can also help.
God helps us through godly living
The third way that God helps us through hardships is through godly living. The previous helps were what to know (doctrine), now they are told what to do (practice). They are instructed how to live and behave in a pagan society where they were misunderstood and insulted for their faith.
First, they are urged to be holy (1:13-2:3). God says, “for it is written [in the Old Testament]: ‘be holy, because I [God] am holy’”. This would have reminded them of the Israelites who were to be devoted to God and different from the other nations by following God’s laws for them (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8). Now Christians are to be holy and live for God and so be different to unbelievers.
The hippies who dropped out of society in the 1960s were counter-cultural. Today it might be those who aren’t online watching things like Facebook or Youtube. Or those home schooling. Or those in an outlaw bikie club. These ways of life and attitudes are completely different from those accepted by most of society. Likewise, God wants Christians to be different from our pagan society.
Christians are like foreigners on earth because our ultimate allegiance is to a heavenly kingdom (2:11). We are to behave differently to our previous sinful lifestyle. God wants us to be like Him and He gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us. We are to be driven by the Holy Spirit and not the sinful nature (Gal. 5:16). The standard for distinguishing what’s sinful and what’s holy is the Bible, because it’s God’s message to us.
An example of holiness is the fruit of the Spirit which is “ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23NLT). What do we do with our sexual desires and how to we use our money? We are regularly bombarded with temptations by the media. How do we react to these?
Second, Peter urges them to show godly behavior in their relationships with others.
He mentions at least four areas of life where we should be humble, submissive and respect others. These are: towards governing authorities (2:13-17), at work (2:18-20), in the family (3:1-7), and in the church (3:8-12; 5:1-10).
The media often depict those in positions of authority as incompetent, disrespected, and corrupted. And if we criticize a teacher, a cop, or a spouse, it shows our lack of respect for authority figures. If we want our kids to respect us, we need to demonstrate that we respect others.
So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example and godly living can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering.
Enduring hostility today
Jesus faced hostility. Peter faced hostility. The Christians that Peter wrote to faced hostility. And today Christians face hostility. Since the times of Jesus, the world has been hostile to Christ and His representatives.
In our postmodern world, Christians are viewed as intolerant and unloving bigots because of their view on marriage, abortion and euthanasia. They are characterized by hate, fear, oppression, abuse, power, and violence. And Christianity is misrepresented and ridiculed. While non-Christians are seen as being tolerant and compassionate because of their love, justice and mercy.
How resilient are we? When trials and suffering come our way, do we choose sin or suffering? Trouble is meant to draw us closer to the Lord, not push us further away.
Peter quotes from the Old Testament to prove his point. We need to substantiate what we believe from the Bible. That’s why it’s important to read and study the Bible.
Our original question was, “How can God help us get through hardship?” To answer this we have looked at the letter of 1 Peter. And we’ve seen three ways that God helps us get through trials and suffering. He helps us through:
– The privileges of salvation – like our secure future, our direct access to God and being God’s people.
– Christ’s example, of enduring unjust suffering.
– And godly living, by being holy and respecting others.
Trials and suffering can cause us to sin and give up following Jesus. But God offers us the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example and godly living. Now we must use these to persevere in hard times and not give up.
It’s the Football (Soccer) World Cup once again. But the team getting most attention last week was the one rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand. It was a great example of perseverance, hope, heartbreak, and victory. Just like the way Christians should respond to a hostile world. They escaped a dangerous situation. But the Bible says that those who don’t follow Jesus are in a more dangerous situation. The letter of 1 Peter was written to those who followed Jesus. As we have seen, they have plenty of resources to endure tough times. To get these resources we need to realize that our relationship with God the Father is broken. And if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can be reconciled with God. And He can become the cornerstone of our life.
Written, July 2018