Suffering, in varying degrees, is universal to all people. Studying through 1 Peter, we find there is much said about suffering as a Christian. Suffering is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unique to the Christ follower, however, suffering for Christ is. Suffering for Christ is not some deeper level of suffering than what is experienced by the unbeliever, but suffering for Christ produces benefits to the believer that no other suffering can accomplish. The Apostle Peter addressed this type of suffering in his first letter to the Jewish believers who were driven out of Jerusalem due to their faith in Christ. In 1 Peter 3:14-17, we see the Apostle telling us that if we suffer for our faith, we will be blessed by God and that it is far better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. Peter is dealing with a type of suffering that I like to refer to as consequential suffering. Consequential suffering is a direct result of personal action. There is a suffering that a person experiences due to the actions of others or events beyond that person's control, this type of suffering I refer to as nonconsequential suffering. All human suffering falls into one of these two categories and recognizing the type of suffering allows us to have a proper response as believers.
Nonconsequential suffering is sometimes very difficult to accept and understand. Nonnconsequential suffering may be the result of the evil behavior of other people or it may be the result of illness or natural disaster. The bottom line is, nonconsequential suffering is unexpected and largely undeserved. While Peter does not deal with this type of suffering, we do see nonconsequential suffering dealt with in scripture. Jesus, Himself, dealt with nonconsequential suffering when, in Luke 13, He related an event in which 18 people died when a tower in Siloam fell. Jesus asked the question, "Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?" The implication here is that the 18 who died were no more or less deserving of being crushed by the tower than anyone else living in Jerusalem. Nonconsequential suffering is a direct result of a fallen world. Disease, natural disaster, crime, and other indirect causes of suffering are all natural by products of a world destroyed by sin and ruled by Satan.
Recently, a local husband and father of 5 lost his wife and 3 of his children in an instant, when the vehicle the family was riding in was struck by a drunk driver who crossed the center line. This man did nothing wrong, yet his entire life has been ripped apart due to the sinful actions of another. When a dear friend was diagnosed with incurable cancer, she had done nothing to cause the type of cancer she contracted. My friend loved the Lord and had a passion for missions and youth, yet she suffered and died young. Less than a month ago, thousands died in Nepal and surrounding nations due to an earthquake. These things tempt us to cry foul or question God's goodness.
The only way to accept nonconsequential suffering in our world is to understand that the world has been ravaged by sin and people who suffer through no fault of their own, do so because we live in a broken world that is in rebellion against the Creator. As long as the world remains in a fallen state, there will be nonconsequential suffering on a grand scale. No one is immune and no one is inherently safe. As believers, we have a higher perception of the causes of nonconsequential suffering and knowledge of the temporal nature of this world gives us assurance that God will put everything right at the end of all things. As believers, we should have a deeper understanding of the results of sin and can lay blame for suffering where it belongs, at the feet of Satan
The ideal Christian response to nonconsequential suffering has never been demonstrated better than by the great hymn writer, Horatio Spafford. Spafford was a wealthy lawyer in 19th century Chicago when his son died unexpectedly. Shortly after, the great Chicago fire destroyed nearly all Spafford's real estate holdings. Spafford then sent his wife and 4 daughters on a ship to England only to learn that the ship was sunk and his 4 daughters perished at sea. As Spafford sailed to England to join his wife, he asked the captain of the ship to alert him when they sailed over the spot where his daughters were drowned. Spafford stood at the rail as his shipped sailed over the watery graves of his beloved girls and he penned the words to the beautiful hymn It Is Well With My Soul. Even in the face of horrific tragedy, Spafford recognized the love and goodness of God and honored his Lord. Only through faith in an almighty God can we face disaster and know that there is a higher purpose. Only by understanding and trusting in the omniscience of God, can we face suffering and sing, "It is well with my soul."
Consequential suffering, being the direct result of personal behavior is divided into two sub categories. Suffering we experience for doing good and suffering we experience for doing evil. Again, recognizing the type, or in this case the sub-type, of suffering is essential to having the proper response in the midst of suffering. For instance, if you smoke two packs of cigarettes per day and develop lung cancer, you really cannot bemoan how unfair life is or accuse God of being cruel. How we deal with consequential suffering speaks to our level of spiritual maturity.
1 Peter 3:14-17 -
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Never should a believer expect to be delivered from the natural consequences of sin, nor should a believer cry foul when his own sinful behavior results in suffering. God may, in His infinite grace, deliver a person from the natural consequential suffering brought on by sinful behavior, but He is certainly under no obligation to do so. One of the thieves crucified with Christ said it best when rebuking his fellow thief, ""Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds..." That thief was obviously forgiven by Christ, who declared, "today you shall be with me in paradise", however, that thief suffered the full natural consequences of his sinful behavior. Christ saved the man from hell, not the cross.
Suffering for doing good:
Of all suffering that can be endured, this is the most difficult. When we experience nonconsequential suffering, we recognize that these are things that happen to people all over the world. There is an acceptance that disasters happen. People get sick and though we do not expect it to happen to us, we understand that it is always a possibility. When we suffer for doing evil, we understand that our bad behavior has consequences. Like the thief on the cross, once we reflect on our circumstances, we come to an acceptance that we have reaped what we have sown. When we suffer for doing good, we can truly have a crisis of faith, if we are not careful.
When we do good, we expect good things to happen. Most of society is built on a system in which good behavior is rewarded. In school, we may have been given a gold star, civic organizations recognize members of accomplishment, employers reward good attendance and production. As believers, we expect a certain level of blessing for obedience and service. This may not be reality.
It is very important that we never fall into the trap of believing God owes us something. God owes us eternal damnation but has provided salvation, grace, and blessing through His Son, Jesus Christ. Our obedience and service should be born out of our gratitude. When we begin to conquer sin in our lives, we must refrain from any sense of entitlement.
Fundamentally, we live in a fallen world. The Bible tells us that Satan is the god of this world. When we live under the authority of Christ, we are living in direct opposition to the world around us. Unbelievers will not understand our convictions and may mock us for our perceived prudishness or narrow mindedness. Right now, in Iraq, christian families are being brutalized and murdered because of their testimony for Christ. The above passage that tells us "have no fear of them" applies to the believers who are perishing at the sword of Isis. These faithful Iraqi Christians recognize that Isis can only kill the body, Isis cannot harm the soul that belongs to Jesus.
Most American believers will never come close to experiencing the suffering that our brothers and sisters throughout the world are facing. Nonetheless, suffering is relative to the environment. The real lesson is accepting the fact that we will, at times, suffer for doing good. These times are when we must fully place our trust in God and take Him at His word. "I will never leave you nor forsake you." "All things work together for good to those who love the Lord, to them who are called according to His purpose." "Abide in me and I will abide in you." "If you suffer for righteousness, you will be blessed."
Tragically, many professing believers fall away when life gets tough. The true test of faith is remaining faithful to God and His promises when life gets difficult. Suffering for doing good is contrary to our view of how life should work, but God promises us that we will face opposition because of our faith and He promises to be with us in that opposition and He promises us blessings for enduring righteous suffering. No one has ever suffered more for righteousness than Jesus Christ our Lord. He does not ask us to endure anything that He has not already endured for us. In fact, most of us will not endure a fraction of the suffering He endured on our behalf.
God told Joshua to be strong and courageous. We too must be strong and courageous when following Christ. We will suffer for doing good, and God will be faithful to carry us through that suffering, even if it is carrying us into His very presence through martyrdom.
Be of good cheer, be strong and courageous, fight the good fight, love those that hate you and bless those who curse you. In doing these things you will store up treasure in heaven and provide a mighty testimony to your faith in Jesus Christ!