“Crisis reveals character.” This was the sentiment of C.S. Lewis, from his famous meditation on suffering called The Problem of Pain. Suffering comes in many forms, perhaps most broadly divided into the natural evils that seem random—ranging from hurricanes to cancer—to the moral evils that are far more malicious—such as persecution and war.
Peter was dealing with a culture that had become increasingly and openly hostile toward Christianity. Though it would be some years yet before the government sanctioned persecution toward Christians, early believers still felt the sting of life as “chosen strangers.”
For most of our lives, you and I have inhabited a world that labeled itself Christian by default. Now, it’s increasingly common to feel the social pressure of a world that demands we keep our faith to ourselves—and ostracizes us for bringing our values to the public sphere.
How does the gospel help us cope with that?
WHEN CHARACTER REPLACES COMFORT
First, Peter tells us that our attitude toward suffering should be one of joy:
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 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)
“In this” refers back to the “hope” of the previous section. We “rejoice” in hope, Peter tells us. If you could read this in the Greek, your hair would stand on end. The word “rejoice” is used in the New Testament to communicate a deep spiritual joy—the kind Mary felt when the angel announced her pregnancy (Luke 1:46-7). And that’s sort of weird, because now Peter is saying that the same feeling you experience over the birth of a child is the feeling you and I are meant to experience when our faith is ridiculed and belittled.
To have one’s values stripped from the public square is hard to take. Peter doesn’t say “Well, try and make the most of it.” When our values or freedoms are threatened, we have a host of talking heads that comfort us by stirring our anger towards our political opponents or by dismissing them outright through political jokes. But no, Peter says, we “rejoice.” We dance like we’ve just received a birth announcement. But why? We find the reason in verse 7: the words “so that” tell us about the purpose of suffering. Suffering has the capacity to reveal the deepest character of our spirituality. Suffering—much like fire—has a refining effect; it’s why the Old Testament writers so often used it to refer to God testing the purity of the human soul (Psalm 66:10; Proverbs 17:3; Zechariah 13:9). Peter is saying that yes, we can have our comfort stripped away from us. But the character that’s left is far more valuable—at least inasmuch as it resembles the character of Christ.
WHEN INTIMACY REPLACES TRANSACTION
Secondly, Peter turns to the related theme of knowing God:
8 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, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)
Do you see how these ideas are related? If I value my comfort above all else, then my relationship with God takes the form of a transaction. I do spiritual things hoping that I might achieve God’s blessing. I look to God as a way to comfort my anxiety, improve my financial dealings, or offer me assistance in a relationship. Mind you, your faith might very well do all of those things—but that’s not the point. The goal of Christianity is to know God. If you follow God for his blessings, then you love God for being useful, not for being beautiful. In a strange yet very real way, you’ve turned God into an idol: because you’ve mistaken his good character as an emblem of the American dream.
The message of the gospel is not that by loving God he will give you what you need to face your circumstance. The message of the gospel is that God loves you and he gives you himself—and he is what you need regardless of circumstance.
This is the essential, counter-cultural message of Christianity. Yet it’s a message that stirs the soul and lifts the eyes beyond the frayed horizon of Self. And by casting our vision on him—his character, his grace, his future—we find satisfaction that we could never have dreamed of on earth.