Suffering and Joy: Unlikely Friends

Yankee Fans and Red Sox Fans
Ron Swanson and Vegans
Lion and Antelope

These mutually exclusive entities are simply incompatible. They don’t coexist, cooperate or generally like each other. In general, they are opposed to each other. It would seem the same could be said of suffering and joy. Yet, they are the unlikeliest of friends. They are surprisingly compatible.

Few people are as prominent in the New Testament as Peter – and for all the wrong reasons. Peter was quick to speak and slow to think. He was quick to take charge, but struggled to lead well. He was bold, when boldness was least needed. He was fearful when courage was desperately wanted. But that isn’t Peter’s whole story or even the most important part of it. Jesus, full of grace and mercy, invited Peter back into his circle time and time again. Peter slowly and surely, by the grace of God, became the man he always was meant to be.

And he suffered for it.

Ancient writings and tradition tell us that Peter suffered greatly at the hand of Nero, Rome’s evil emperor. Peter certainly experienced trials and experienced pain in his life – so much so that he devotes an apostolic letter to it. We call this letter 1st Peter and it is written to a group of displaced Christians who are experiencing daily hardship and suffering. Many of them would eventually be blamed (falsely) by Nero for burning down Rome, igniting an all-out assault on Christians. In the midst of this suffering and pain, one might think that joy would be the furthest thing from Peter’s mind. However, his letter shows us that it was front and center in his mind and in his hopes for his friends. Suffering and joy were not enemies, but unlikely friends. Peter says,

“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—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 1:6-7

Rejoicing. Grief. How can they possibly be compatible? Isn’t joy the absence of pain, suffering and grief? No, not at all. And no one knows this better than Peter. The darkest and most horrific moment in Peter’s life became a light for him to see and understand more clearly than ever before.

He saw it with his own eyes. Betrayal. Lies. Beatings. Spit. Torture. Mockery. Scourging. The Cross. He saw Jesus, the Son of God grieve. He saw him cry. He saw him suffer. And he was innocent. More than that, he was holy and righteous.

But Peter also saw what that suffering produced. He writes later in 1st Peter,

“…you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” – 1st Peter 1:18-19

The suffering of Jesus brought about the reconciliation of God and man – the reconciliation between God and you. And me. This is what the author of Hebrews meant by “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” There it is again – joy and suffering together. Suffering that brings about joy. Pain that brings about pleasure. Grief that brings about gladness.

Peter wanted his friends to know that their suffering was not in vain and that it was part of the grand story of redemption. He acknowledged that they hadn’t seen with their eyes what he had, so he told them,

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” 1 Peter 1:8-9

Suffering -> Faith -> Joy

Inexpressible joy at the hope of our faith, the salvation of our souls. This is what was meant when Tolkien so poignantly wrote, “all sad things become untrue!” The broken and battered part of our lives will give way to a future so extraordinary that it is entirely incomprehensible. Death gives way to Resurrection and life. Faith becomes sight.

So suffering isn’t the enemy of joy. Grief isn’t the adversary of hope. No, they are the pathway to joy in and with Jesus. They are the things that even though difficult to understand, make us more like Jesus. Pain draws us near the healer. Jesus weeps with broken-hearted, but when the time has come brings to life that which is dead. Tim Keller writes in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, “While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”

If you’re hurting, don’t lose hope. Instead, place your eyes on the Author and Perfector of your faith. The One “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

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