Suffering loosens our focus on getting what we want in this present life, and instead, helps us to focus on our amazing eternal future in the New Creation with the unlimited joy of God filling us entirely. It also has a way of carrying us further down the road of discipleship, which means further from an interest in sin, more towards an interest in God, and his kingdom. Therefore, Peter tells us to equip ourselves with the mindset of suffering that Jesus shows us.
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1 PETER #26. 1 PETER 4:1-2.
1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.(1 Peter 4:1-2, ESV)
Though we paused to look deeply at baptism, the main point Peter has been making in this section is that we should be inspired, and empowered, by the example of Jesus to follow in his footsteps – particularly with regard to suffering. He began this section in 3:13, saying we should not fear to suffer, and that it is a wonderful thing in God’s sight to endure suffering even when we have done no wrong. We can live this way (says Peter) because Christ has suffered for us, once for all, and saved us through his grace (using baptism along the way). Chapter 4:1, our first verse for today, is basically a summary of all that: since Christ suffered, we should equip ourselves with the same way of thinking.
The first puzzler comes in the next phrase: “for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”
First, we need to take into account the teaching of the whole Bible, so there is at least one thing that this cannot mean: It cannot mean that by suffering, we somehow atone for our own sin. Only through Jesus are our sins forgiven. Only Jesus, and his work can address the inner problem of the Sin that lives in our hearts.
But within a Biblical framework, there are a few things it might mean. Most of the possibilities have various problems. I feel badly that I got so deeply into baptism, so I won’t bore you with all the ins and outs of this phrase. Many different Bible scholars have different views about it, but rather than get too detailed about those views, I’ll give you my own best guess.
I think there are actually a few different levels of meaning here. First, I think it means that we Christians, (through baptism, as Peter mentions above) have been identified with the sufferings of Christ. We have been brought into union with his suffering, death, resurrection, and new life. Because we are identified with the suffering of Christ, sin no longer has any claim on us. We’re done with it as a factor in our relationship with God. Our sin has been atoned for. There was suffering for our sin, and so now that sin has no more connection to us, in the eyes of God.
There’s a second aspect to this, which Peter mentions in verses 2-4. Because we have been brought into union with the suffering of Christ, sin is no longer our typical lifestyle. We certainly don’t live perfect, sinless lives. Outside of Christ, we lived not for him, but for our own desires, which were corrupted by sin. We lived to make the best life for ourselves, on our own terms, apart from God. In other words, the pattern of our lives was sinful, and the inner problem of sin in our hearts was never addressed. Now, however, we belong to Jesus. Though we are not perfect, the pattern of our lives is not all about ourselves. We may commit sins at times (sometimes, discouragingly often!) but we aren’t living in sin. It is not a consistent pattern anymore, it’s not the direction we are going. As Peter says in verse 2, the point is: “to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” By “the rest of the time in the flesh” he means “this present life, before our ultimate death and resurrection.”
All this is tremendously comforting. Through the suffering of Jesus, our connection with sin is fundamentally broken, and this is true, in spite of the fact that we still sometimes commit sins.
I think it is right to understand that Peter means all this. However, I don’t want us to overlook the fact that he is also clearly talking about our own personal suffering, not just the suffering of Christ. He has already been talking about specifically our own sufferings in 3:14 & 17. He will speak of our own suffering more, a few verses later in this chapter. So, I think it would be a mistake to make this only about our spiritual union with the suffering of Christ. Clearly, the topic at hand also involves our actual experience of suffering in this life.
My friend Wade Jones is fond of saying: “If you are really trying to live like Jesus, you should expect to have the kind of life he had.” And, of course, Jesus suffered. Not only that, but he calls us to suffer, with the expectation of joy and glory and grace following our earthly suffering.
For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ, we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share in his glory, we must also share his suffering.
Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.(Romans 8:16-18, NLT)
I don’t want to overstep my own limitations here, but I want to make a comment about suffering and sin. Most of you know that I suffer tremendous pain, on an hourly basis. Right now I am in so much pain that I will probably quit for a while, and come back to this later.
I have found that when I am able to see my suffering as suffering for Christ, and when I joyfully receive it as his will (without, however understanding it, or even liking it), I have a special closeness with Jesus. As a result of this, I am just less interested in sin than I am during the times when I act as if my suffering has no connection to Jesus. I have not been able to maintain this perfectly. But there is no doubt in my mind that my suffering has, in general, led me to sin less often than I did before. Again, I’m not claiming to be without sin. Sometimes, I fall hard. But compared to my life before suffering, conscious sin is less of a daily struggle.
Something I think is more important is that suffering has loosened my focus on getting what I want in this present life, and instead, helped me to focus on our amazing eternal future in the New Creation with the unlimited joy of God filling us entirely. It also has a way of carrying me further down the road of discipleship, which means further from an interest in sin. Theologian Wayne Grudem puts it like this:
Thus, following through with a decision to obey God even when it will mean physical suffering has a morally strengthening effect on our lives: it commits us more firmly than ever before to a pattern of action where obedience is even more important than our desire to avoid pain.(Wayne A. Grudem The Epistle of First Peter, p 167. W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988, 1996.)
At present, it seems clear that I will suffer whether I trust God, or not. But if, when I suffer, I choose to trust God, rather than reject him because I don’t like it, it has the same effect described by Grudem above. It takes me further down the road with God. My trust in God becomes more important, and more vital than my desire for healing. God’s love for me matters more to me than relief from pain in this life. All of this leads my interests and desires away from the direction of satisfying sinful passions.
Suffering and hardship can be used, in some ways, like a spiritual discipline:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly(Hebrews 12:5-11, CSB)
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline — which all receive — then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
I don’t think this means that God is personally inflicting suffering on people. But when suffering comes, God makes use of it to shape us more and more into the people he designed us to be. He uses it for our benefit, as it says in verse 10 of the passage above.
Sometimes, Christ living in me is able to use my daily pain almost in the same way as he uses my hunger when I fast. The pain becomes a reminder of his presence. I submit to it. I use it to say: “You, Jesus, are more important to me than getting relief right now. Though of course I want relief, I am using this pain to cry out for you first, and relief only in your time and in your way.” The pain reminds me that this world is not my home. It makes it easy to see that my sinful flesh can never be satisfied, never be made whole. Therefore, I crave, not just momentary relief from pain, but ultimate deliverance from this corrupted body and world into the New Creation that is coming.
Now, this process is not automatic. There are plenty of times when I just want relief. But when I come to Jesus with my pain, even if I take a pill soon after, he can and does use it to move my focus from this life toward the glory that is coming. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write about this also:
16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)
Suffering helps us to keep fixing our gaze on the unseen, on the glory that will be revealed that will last forever. Because of this, we can learn to see suffering as a gift. If you know my story, you know I’m not speaking theoretically. I’m not sitting here comfortably imposing some idea about suffering onto the poor souls who actually suffer. I’m in it. I’m not teaching anything here that I haven’t personally had to grapple with.
Many people I know wish for a revival in American Christianity. They hope for a time when the people of God are truly repentant, and joyfully follow Jesus whole-heartedly in such a way that the whole culture is transformed by it. I hope for it too, however I cannot see how it could possibly come about except by suffering.
The broader point Peter is making is that, whether we personally suffer or not, it is time to be done with the values of the world around us. The things he describes are shockingly similar to twentieth century Western culture. Basically, he says, those who don’t follow God live for personal pleasure and excitement. In short they party – using substances, sex, and whatever else works, to feed their endless cravings and emptiness.
Peter also mentions idolatry. We don’t worship literal idols any more, but the essence of idolatry is to make something other than God the most important thing to you. If it is not God, whatever you “live for” is an idol. If you are seeking comfort from something other than God, it might be an idol.
Now, we should understand that God provides things through his creation, and through other human beings, and we can receive comfort through various things. So, for instance, we might be comforted by our families. As long as we remember that our families were given to us by God, and that the comfort we get from them really comes ultimately from him, I don’t think family is an idol. However, if we were to begin making family more important than God, if we made choices in favor of family that took us further from God, than, in that case, family might be an idol.
So the picture Peter gives us of the non-Christian world is that it a)Lives for pleasure and b)Lives for comfort (that is the point of idolatry). But we who follow Jesus live for Him. We live for his love, and for the amazing future that he has promised us. That leads us to be different from the world, to say no to pleasure and comfort as the ultimate goals, even if for a little while we suffer.