This post is part of a series. In September 2016, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter. The discussions are part of the weekly “Life Study” hosted by the Mantua Center Christian Church. These posts offer my reflections on the ideas that were discussed during the study, as well as some things that did not get addressed due to time constraints. To read my reflections on other parts of the series, click the links below:
Why Do We Suffer?
As one member of the group pointed out: this is one of the oldest questions in the book. It seems that the first question we asked was, “How did we get here?” Then, the next question we asked was, “Why do we suffer?” Of course, the obvious answer to this question is: we suffer for many different reasons.
In the Biblical accounts, we see some of these reasons play out. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, in their calls for repentance and their prayers for redemption, suggest that the people are suffering because of their own sins. Job suffers due to some cosmic showdown between God and Satan. In 1 Peter, the persecuted Christians are suffering because they continue to follow Jesus despite the cultural and Imperial backlash of doing so.
I think the question we’re really asking when we ask, “why do we suffer?” is “why do we suffer unjustly?” We seem to have this deep-seated belief that life should be fair. People should not suffer innocently. We despair not when we suffer from the work of our own hands but, rather, when we suffer at the hands of forces out of our control. It’s not our fault, we wonder, so why are we being punished? Theologically, we may or may not believe that suffering is a form of punishment but, when we are caught up in the grips of our own suffering, it sure feels like it is.
During the study, the question eventually got around to the definition of suffering. What is suffering? I suggested that it was perhaps an experience that happens to us–something that we cannot control. I comes upon us from the outside and we have only to decide how we can deal with it. Of course, I stole this idea from my theo-crush John Macquarrie in his book In Search of Humanity:
What then is suffering? It is the opposite of action. In action I exercise my freedom and initiate a chain of events that are designed to bring about a state of some affairs which I desire. In suffering, on the other hand, something happens to me. A chain of events has been initiated outside of my control, these events impinge upon me and involve me, and they move me towards a state of affairs which I do not desire. In my freedom, I act to attain an end which I have set in mind; in my suffering, I am driven about by external forces not subject to my choice or control.
Of course, this definition does not entirely capture the experience of suffering. As one member of the group pointed out, suffering can be self-inflicted. We can choose to suffer. But what this definition does clarify, I think, is the experience of unjust suffering–the kind of suffering that catches us off guard and throws into question our idea of a just world. This is the kind of suffering I’m talking about–the kind of suffering for which we do not ask, the kind of suffering that comes upon us from the outside, the kind of suffering that we are not expecting. This is the kind of suffering, I believe, that we encounter in the epistle of 1 Peter…
1 Peter and Early Christian Persecution
As we discussed the nature of suffering, one of the first subjects that came up was the idea of “privilege.” In light of the severity of all the hardship faced by people in the world today and throughout history, what right do we privileged 21st Americans have to even describe our struggles as “suffering?” This question–is my suffering good enough to be called suffering?–is indeed one that has plagued me.
On the one hand, I don’t think we can objectively evaluate suffering based on some observed judgment of severity. The intensity of suffering lies in the emotional impact the experience has on an individual and not in the experience itself. One person may grow up in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken neighborhood and yet still maintain a cheerful disposition and love of life. Another may grow up in a state of privilege and be driven into a severe depression at the loss of a job. It would seem odd to say the first person suffered more, simply because it looks like they should have.
On the other hand, it seems equally absurd for me to compare my ordeals to the suffering experienced by survivors of ethnic cleansings, civil wars, or abject poverty. And, when it comes to the suffering likely being experienced by Christians in 1 Peter, I think it strange that some Christians today would compare their ordeals to those of early Christians.
At the beginning of the class, we read Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan, written around 100 AD. Here’s an excerpt:
I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.
It is clear from Peter’s writing (I know the authorship is disputed but, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll call the author “Peter”) that his audience is a group of Christians who are undergoing some sort of persecution. It may or may not have been the same sort of persecution that was happening in Pliny’s letter, but the document provides context for the kind of persecution Peter is talking about.
Peter is writing to a group of Christians who are suffering unjustly, and he is encouraging them to continue doing good in spite of their suffering. The Christians above were being interrogated, threatened, and executed even though they had done no moral wrong. They were simply, as one member of the discussion group put it, “weird.”
Here are the passages (NKJV) we read and built the remainder of the discussion around…
1 Peter 2:11-20
11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.
13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. 17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. 19 For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. 20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.
1 Peter 3:1-6
3 Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. 3 Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— 4 rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.
1 Peter 4:12-19
12 Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; 13 but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. 14 If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.[d] On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.[e]
17 For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 Now
“If the righteous one is scarcely saved,
Where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?”[f]
19 Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.
The dangerous idea of submission in suffering
Taken at face value, without regard to the societal norms of the intended audience or the subtext between the lines, I find the passages above rather difficult. Peter is encouraging his readers to patiently endure the suffering they are experiencing under their persecution. Specifically, he is insisting that Christians live in respect of rulers even if they are tyrants, of masters even if they are abusers, and of husbands even if they are unfaithful.
When I read stuff like this, I feel a strong spiritual tension. I want to honor the sacred scriptures, but I feel my stomach turn when I think about the implications of passages like these. In particular, the word “submit” leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Would Peter, I wonder, encourage the victims of genocide to submit to their authorities? Would he suggest that wives beaten by their husbands should remain in their marriages? What would he have said about the institution of slavery in America? Many white people throughout American history have indeed used his text as a justification for it.
Not too long ago, my wife pointed me to an article in the LA Times (see photo above) about a woman who was attacked by her husband with a machete. The thought of such a cruel act is itself enough to trigger intense feelings of disgust and anger. How can you look at the image above and not be enraged? And yet, on top of this is the response this woman received when she sought out spiritual counsel prior to the attack.
“In most cases, every time there was a problem, I would run to our pastor,” she said. “The pastor would always tell me, ‘Jackie, please persevere. That man will come to change one day.’ The pastor and the church elders would just encourage us.
When I read that this woman’s spiritual leaders encouraged her to remain in a relationship that eventually led to this travesty, I am quite perplexed. And yet, this is the mentality of many spiritual leaders in modern Christian communities. As Christians, we are called to suffer in silence–patiently enduring the abuse we are under no matter how severe it becomes. After all, that’s what Jesus did, right?
When I brought these concerns to the group for discussion, one member suggested that we need to look at the Bible in its entirety rather than basing our theology on these small sections. Most of the Bible is about social justice–healing the hurting, feeding the poor, and lifting up the oppressed. I totally agree with this.
However, those admonitions tend to be about how we address the suffering of others–not how we address our own. Sure, we should fight for the dignity of others, but do we have a right as Christians to stand up for ourselves? Or, are we called to passive acceptance of our suffering? We can help others, but can we help ourselves? Are we called to be doormats for the sake of Christ?
Many contemporary theologians have argued that the manner in which the church has handled passages such as these has led to the worst oppression. I’ve already mentioned the way American Christians were notorious for condoning slavery. Even today, in the Black Lives Matter movement, I hear Evangelical Christians condemning people of color for resisting social inequalities. Shouldn’t they instead simply endure those inequalities without complaint? And, of course, Feminist theologians have been very vocal about the abuses of women in the history of the church. Take, for example, this excerpt from an essay by Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker (taken from this article by Steven Tracy):
Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer… Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse.
So, how should we respond to these criticisms? Is 1 Peter just an archaic letter that has no relevance to us? Should we simply discard it in the name of social justice? Or, rather, is it possible that we’ve been reading it wrong all along? Is there a way to read the passages above and still maintain our dignity as human beings?
How to suffer with dignity
Popular interpretations of these passages have, I think, led to people in the Christian community to believe in a sort of masochistic call to suffering. If we aren’t hurting, then we aren’t being faithful to God. So, we should seek out situations in which we suffer. Pain isn’t something to be avoided; on the contrary, it’s redemptive. It’s what Jesus has called us to.
I don’t think that is what’s happening here in 1 Peter. Under persecution, the Christians to whom Peter was writing were already enduring suffering. In various social contexts (oppressive regimes, slavery, non-egalitarian marital relationships), Christians were faced with situations in which they had little or no freedoms. When their faithfulness to the way of Christ leads them to fall under suspicion of their oppressors, should they continue walking in that way? That, I think, is the question Peter is addressing. It isn’t that they should continue to suffer for suffering’s sake; it’s that they should continue to do good–even if they experience suffering as a result.
Peter isn’t suggesting self-flagellation. He isn’t recommending that these Christians help their abusers devise new methods by which they can be tortured. He isn’t glorifying suffering. His emphasis is on the conduct of the Christians, in spite of their suffering.
…having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (2:12)
if because of conscience toward God one endures grief (2:19)
…that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men (2:15)
they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives (3:1)
Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good (4:19)
Here, I think, is the bottom line:
Christians are not called to suffer; they are called to do good–even if they experience suffering as a result of that good work.
I don’t think Peter is saying that following Jesus is inherently about suffering. Following Jesus is about doing what is good, pure, right, compassionate, loving, gracious, uplifting, and empowering. But, in doing these things, we will likely encounter resistance. Just like Jesus, we will experience suffering as a result of the good that we do.
Sometimes, doing good can mean resisting civil authorities. Sometimes, doing good can mean rejecting the institution of slavery. Sometimes, doing good can mean retreating from an abusive relationship.
Here’s a question worth considering: why did Jesus die? Not theologically, but historically. What is the catalyst that led him on the path towards execution? This is a big question but, for the purposes of this article, I want to call attention to one single event consistent across all four gospel narratives: Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Let’s take a look at the version from Mark 3:
3 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
This event also occurs in Matthew 2, Luke 6, and (a slightly different scenario) in John 5. In each passage, Jesus sees an opportunity for healing. The Pharisees do not think he should heal. He goes ahead and does it anyway. Then, the group starts conspiring the death of Jesus. This is the manner in which we are called to follow Jesus. The cross we are called to take up is the one that is forced upon us because of the good that we do.
Perhaps the greatest book on suffering that I’ve ever read is Man’s Search for Meaning by Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. The short memoir/manifesto is packed full of insights on how to cope with human suffering. In my favorite section of the book, Frankl describes the general attitude of apathy, resignation, and irritability common among the prisoners of the concentration camps. Most prisoners would fall into this “reactive” mode, succumbing to the state of mind enforced upon them by the abuse they suffered. And yet, there were exceptions:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.
There are times in our lives that suffering will be unavoidable. The question is whether we allow it to overcome us, molding us into a state of bitterness and resentment–or whether we will continue to do good in the face of it.
I believe that God is love and that Jesus came to save. I do not believe that the redemption lies in the act of suffering itself; rather, I believe it lies in the acts of goodness that lead to suffering. We are called to do good, not to suffer. But, if suffering comes as a result, we are called to not tire of doing good but to bear up under the injustice.
As the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not grow weary of doing good.”
That is the call of the Christian.