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Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Believer's Joy in Suffering

As we’ve gone through the book of 1 Peter in Sunday School, I have thought several times that this series has been very timely since we have had a number of people who are suffering in various ways.  The more I look at the book, though, the more I believe that its message is always timely.  That’s because trials in the Christian life are the rule, not the exception.  And while the specific emphasis of 1 Peter is on suffering well under persecution, the broader message calls us to be faithful in all kinds of difficulty.
We’ve been reminded every week that Peter’s goal for this letter is not to encourage the recipients to merely survive their suffering, but that they would strive to be faithful and holy in their conduct in the midst of suffering.  That is to be the most prominent outward manifestation seen by those around them. 
But what about the condition of the heart?  Is there any instruction about what should be going on inside us while we suffer?  I believe so.  Concerning our salvation, Peter writes in 1:6-7, In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 
In our suffering, the condition of our hearts is to be joyful.  That is definitely counterintuitive to the sinful human mind.  Joy would seem to be the opposite internal reaction to personal suffering.  How can there be joy and grief at the same time?  
Well, for a believer, this is not only possible, but probable if he or she understands three truths regarding suffering joyfully.
The first truth pertains to the reason for joy in suffering.  What is the object of the joy mentioned in these verses?  “In this you rejoice…”  “This” refers to the “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,”, including the imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance being kept for us in heaven (vv4-5).  The important thing to recognize is that the object of our joy is transcendent and eternal.  It does not change with our circumstances.  It is the one thing we can count on.  This is why Peter writes in v13, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Our future salvation is our hope in all circumstances.
My children can be taken from me.  My wife can be taken from me.  My health, my money, my friends, church, reputation, livelihood, everything…I can lose it all.  BUT because I am being kept for salvation by God’s power (v5), my salvation cannot be taken from me.  And because that salvation is the object of my joy, my joy cannot be taken from me either.  This is why Jesus told His disciples in John 16:22 that after His resurrection no one would be able to take their joy from them – His resurrection would seal their salvation.
The second truth pertains to the relationship between joy and suffering.  It is easy to misunderstand the kind of joy referred to in this passage.  The word “though” is not found in the Greek text of v6.  Most of the major translators believe that it is implied by the grammar of the verse.  I think that is fine, but it is important that we don’t put too much weight on that word in our English translations.  This is not a joy in spite of suffering, as if it is defined by the suffering.  This is not a special kind of joy that enters the scene when things in our lives go wrong, and then we go back to our plain old everyday joy when our circumstances improve.  Rather, it is the perennial condition of the heart of a believer who meditates on the imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance, which is our salvation (vv3-5).  The joy is there all the time and it is not affected by circumstances, whether comfortable or painful, because the object of that joy – salvation – is there all the time.  It is eternal.
The grief on the other hand is occasional.  It is occasional because the objects of that grief – various trials – last only for “a little while.”  The grief of a believer is qualitatively different than the grief of an unbeliever.  An unbeliever’s grief is characterized by despair (1Thess 4:13).  There is no room for joy there.  A believer’s grief is filled with hope because no trial is ever the final word – we are being guarded by God for a salvation ready to be revealed to us (v5).  So, these verses, rather than speaking of a joy defined by grief, speak of a joy that transcends all circumstances, including the grief of suffering.
The third truth pertains to the result of joy in suffering.  What is the purpose of our rejoicing in our salvation during trials?  V7 tells us explicitly: So that the tested genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 
Trials test our faith.  When we rejoice in salvation during those trials, our faith passes the test – it is shown to be genuine.  The result of that passed test is praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  That means that our trials are the vehicles by which our faith is proven and for which we will be rewarded.  That is precisely why Paul writes in 2 Cor 4:17 that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…”  Every difficulty in our lives is a unique opportunity to demonstrate that our faith is genuine by rejoicing in our salvation in the midst of that difficulty.  That is cause for rejoicing! 
So when a person has no joy during trials, what does that mean?  One dark possibility is that that person is not saved.  He or she has nothing to be joyful about.  The trials are not part of the process of sanctification, but merely a down-payment on the eternity of suffering that awaits them.  But for those who show the fruit of repentance but who have a lack of joy during a trial, it is most likely the case that they are not meditating on and celebrating the certain salvation that will be theirs in heaven.  Salvation is the object of the joy, so if the believer is not intentionally mindful of that object, it should be clear that joy will be elusive.
In what way are you being tried?  Is joy the condition of your heart in the midst of that?  Meditate on the gospel – the holiness of God; your birth in sin; the hell that you earned through your repeatedly sinning against God; the hopelessness of your plight; the grace and love of the Father; the sinless life, atoning death, and literal resurrection of the Son of God; the gift of your new birth, repentance, and faith; and the resulting inheritance that is yours only by the grace of God and the merit of Christ (Eph 2:1-10).  May the truth of that produce an eternal joy that transcends your light, momentary affliction.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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