Suffering and glory
Continuing his series on 1 Peter, Terry Young explores how the letter makes the connections between suffering and glory
This is part of a series where Terry explores 1 Peter
Although Peter hints at the perils his readers face and calls them scattered exiles (1 Peter 1:1), he starts with the upside. They have ‘new birth into a living hope,’ they have ‘an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade’ and are shielded by God’s power (1Peter 1:3-4, NIV throughout). Then he addresses the elephant in the room – they are ‘suffering grief in all kinds of trials’ (1 Peter 1:6).
Almost everything Peter believes about suffering is difficult for, maybe repellent to, us as modern readers.
He is a ‘witness of Christ’s sufferings who will also share in the glory’ (1 Peter 5:2). However, the noun he uses to describe himself as a witness is not about being a passive observer – it’s the martyr word. We think of martyrs as people who die but Peter’s martyrs are people who speak about what they see and have seen. Martyrs die like everyone else – well, not like everyone else, since their deaths are caused deliberately and are frequently cruel – but death is simply the last stage of their martyrdom. Peter wants us all to be martyrs all the time! But not in the way you might think.
In Stephen’s story, Luke makes this three-way connection between what is said, the death he dies and glory. Stephen’s accusers are incensed by his line of argument and his provocative challenges; they rush him, drag him away and stone him. Meanwhile, he looks up and sees the ‘glory of God’ (Acts 7:54-60).
So, let’s stand back to see Peter’s thinking across his letter. Perhaps least helpfully for those of us who look for a way out of or around it, Peter explains that suffering is neither odd nor rare. It should not surprise them, as though they had been ambushed by a strange event (1 Peter 4:12), any more than it should surprise society around that they don’t live the way they used to (1 Peter 4:4). Moreover, believers everywhere are suffering in the same way (1 Peter 5:9).
It’s all about the right state of mind, as we saw from the last blog. One of my sons did some rowing at university and told me how serious rowing is immersed in misery at the edge of, sometimes going beyond, being physically sick. Watching the Tour de France, even I could see the pain across the faces of the front three (then two, then, with the sprint, one).
Without denying the dangers of competitive sport and while deploring what some sportspeople take to succeed and to suppress the pain, we can at least see something that Peter is writing about in the serious athlete. The podium (not to mention the losers’ dressing room) is bathed in deep discomfort.
Sure, there have been Christians who have taken too great an interest in pain or the pain of others. Peter is not focused on that, however. He knows from experience what Jesus told him once, that being a disciple means self-denial and carrying a cross (Luke 9:23).
Of course, we don’t want to hear that suffering is normal and unavoidable. That said, let’s be wary and make sure we reconcile our view of suffering with Peter’s observations about being, ‘filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’ as we receive ‘the end result of’ our faith (1 Peter 1:8-9).
How do we unify these? The two most popular approaches don’t work. We cannot focus just on the suffering, sharing narratives that are only full of struggle and tension. Nor can we claim just the glory, pursuing wealth, health and happiness, even though it would work for most of us if we put our minds to it. Another way we try to manage the tension is to think of this life as the suffering bit and heaven as the glory bit. As your average critic of Christianity has spotted, that’s a slippery path.
Can we, then, be conscious of both glory and suffering? Can we endure and enjoy at the same time?
I’m no keener than you on suffering, but I have discovered a helpful connection in my own life. Because I was born with impairment in all four limbs, I’ve had artificial legs since I was three, and because my parents worked in what is now the UAE, wearing them as a child was a sweaty and uncomfortable business, especially as I was made to wear them for a couple of hours most days. Fifty-odd years on, and with a lifetime of aches coming home to roost, legs are still an uncomfortable, frequently sweaty, and occasionally painful accessory.
So why wear them? Certainly not for comfort!
I wear them because of what I do once I’m in them. I wore them to school, to university and into the research lab. I wore them to take this woman out once and to persuade her that we could do fun and useful things together. I wore them to work, and around the world to speak at conferences. I wore them to the maternity ward, to the school gate and to our boys’ first days at university.
There are things I love to do when I’m not in my legs – sleeping, swimming, reading, composing, or flaking out in front of the TV next to that woman who still seems to think we can do fun and useful things together. But I would not be able to enjoy any of them without the other stuff.
It’s only in both that I am fulfilled. And that’s what I think Peter is saying: rejoice in sharing the sufferings of Christ, to be overjoyed in sharing the glory (1 Peter 4:13).
However, suffering and glory are opposites in one important respect. Peter is clear that suffering is for a moment (1 Peter 1:6; 5:10), while glory goes on and on (e.g. 1 Peter 4:11).
Image | Yannick Pulver | Unsplash
Calling and being called
Alert and sober
Suffering and glory
An upside down world
Peter and baptism
Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.
After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and moved to Datchet with a position as a university professor. He is a member of a Baptist church
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