In the 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan completes his Batman saga with the villain known as Bane. In the years since the defeat of the Joker, Gotham City had enjoyed relative peace. Batman had no longer been necessary. Now, the threat of Bane called Batman out of retirement, but after so many years away he was off his game. “Peace has made you weak,” Bane taunts. “Victory has defeated you.”
For years, Christianity has enjoyed relative peace with regard to the public square. Sure, America has never had any official religion, but Christianity has historically had tremendous influence over the art and morals of Western society. Now that’s all changing—but can the character of the Church stand up to these new social pressures? Could it be that these past years of peace have “made us weak?”
THE PURPOSE OF PAIN
Peter writes that Christ’s followers should “not be surprised” by periods of suffering:
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Peter 4:12-14)
Too often it’s tempting to respond to suffering not with soft hearts but with clenched fists. We bring to mind faded (and often distorted) memories of the cherished past, which only fuels our desire to “get back to the way things used to be.” Love and compassion quickly become eclipsed by fear and a lust for power. We admire those with the passion to speak against the world’s moral decay, and we ourselves mirror their red-faced diatribes about the seeming barbarism of a world without God.
Peter isn’t saying that the world’s moral order (or disorder) shouldn’t sadden us; he’s simply saying it should not surprise us. When we witness the unvarnished brokenness of the world we harden into anger—but the gospel invites us to soften into tears.
Peter tells us that this suffering—though never positive—can be enriching. He uses the words “fiery ordeal.” The phrase can be used to refer to the “way of testing silver and gold” (Proverbs 27:21). Suffering can be used to purify the Church for God’s glory.
After all, Peter notes, such was the experience of Christ himself. In verse 13, Peter notes that we follow a Savior who himself endured suffering. If we follow him, we can expect much of the same. And it’s this shared experience that seems to be in mind when Peter calls us “blessed.” In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes notes that while Paul sees suffering as an opportunity to build character, Peter sees suffering as “evidence of genuine faith.” Suffering for Christ unites us with him.  The phrase “the Spirit of glory and God rests on you” seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 11:2 which, in turn, points to the promised Savior. So suffering unites us with Jesus.
The phrasing “the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” is a likely allusion to Isaiah 11:2—which is itself a Messianic prophecy. Therefore the same Spirit predicted to rest on the Messiah now rests on his followers.
MAKING “CHRISTIAN” MEANINGFUL
But Peter is aware of the possibility of ethical breaches. For an unbelieving world, there are few greater barriers to Christianity than hypocrisy. Peter tells his readers that if you’re going to suffer, at least suffer for the right reasons:
15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And
“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:15-18)
I’d like to point out that this is one of only three—yes three—uses of the word “Christian” in the entire Bible. Peter specifically uses it in its classical sense, meaning “Christ follower.” I think Peter’s instructions here are applicable for today: let the word Christian actually mean something.
The idea of judgment beginning with “the household of God” is consistent with this teaching. In the Old Testament, God speaks of putting some of his people “ into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” (Zecharaiah 13:9) Something similar seems to be happening here, in that God seems to be purifying his own people. And, as Peter notes in verse 18, Christians can endure suffering because we are confident in our salvation through grace alone—but what if you had no such assurance? Suffering would come with the added misery of meaninglessness.
These days we use the word Christian far too flippantly. It’s become an adjective—a word we use to describe Christian music, Christian schools, Christian books, Christian radio, and even Christian breathmints (no, really). But in the Bible, the word “Christian” isn’t an adjective; it’s a noun. It describes a specific type of person: a follower of Jesus. In his book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People, Dave Burchett notes that sometimes even brand names get applied too broadly. For example, if I need to blow my nose, what sort of product do I need? Though the broad term is “tissue,” you might have replied “Kleenex”—because here’s a case where the brand name gets applied to all forms of the same product (in The South, they do the same thing by using “coke” to refer to all forms of soft drinks…it gets very confusing). But, Burchett notes, companies technically have the right to sue for using the word “Kleenex” to refer to other brands of the same product. Why? Because no one wants their label attached to something inferior. His analogy may not be perfect, but you see where he’s going with this. The word “Christian” ought to mean a deep, abiding commitment to Christ and His Kingdom. Spirituality cannot be as simply as checking a box under “religious affiliation.”
Ultimately, this may be the positive aspect of our post-everything society. A generation or so ago, you were Christian by default. That is, you weren’t Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish, so you must be Christian. And of course that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Now, it’s far more fashionable to be “unaffiliated,” or a “none.” Fewer people than ever before label themselves as Christian. But don’t you see how the refining process is already at work? Now, Christianity is no longer a default label. You have to deliberately choose to label yourself a Christian, meaning those who call themselves a Christian in today’s religious climate are more likely to be a genuine disciple of Christ. So don’t you see how the refining process is already at work? Persecution—or at least social stigma—can actually be a way of purifying the Church, making her stronger and healthier than she was before.
 Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, p. 287-8.