1 Peter 3:13-22
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
This week’s reading reminds me of the one about all the churches in a town somewhere who were all suffering from a squirrel problem. The Presbyterian church called a meeting to decide what to do about their squirrel infestation. After much prayer and consideration, they concluded that the squirrels were predestined to be there, and they certainly should not interfere with God’s will. At the Baptist church, the squirrels had taken an interest in the baptismal font. The deacons met and decided to put a water-slide on the font so that the squirrels would drown themselves. As it turned out the squirrels really liked the slide and, unfortunately, all of them knew how to swim, so there were twice as many squirrels the following week. The Lutheran church decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creatures. So, they humanely trapped their squirrels and set them free behind the Baptist church. Two weeks later, the squirrels were back when the Baptists took down the waterslide. The Episcopalians tried a much more unique path by setting out bowls of whiskey around their church in an effort to kill the squirrels with alcohol poisoning. They sadly learned how much vandalism a band of drunk squirrels can do. The Catholic church came up with a more creative strategy—they baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the church, so that now they only ever see them at Christmas and Easter. The squirrel problem at the Jewish synagogue lasted about a half hour. They grabbed the first squirrel they saw and circumcised it. They haven’t seen another squirrel since.
Gotta love gross denominational over-generalizations! As if Presbyterians are only known for their stance on predestination, or Baptists on baptism, or Lutherans on harmony, or Episcopalians on alcohol abuse, or Catholics on ritualism, or Jews on circumcision. Sure, each denomination has allowed themselves to be defined by such stances over the years (with the exception of the Episcopalians of course!) but that doesn’t mean we aren’t part of the same body of Christ. We hold much more in common than we do in difference and emphasizing only the differences can be fractious and unhelpful. I’m not, by any means, condoning such divisive behavior in lifting up that joke! No, what’s more interesting in that joke is how six denominations can each have a different approach to the problem of suffering. They all regard their suffering as a problem that needs to be fixed. The squirrels are getting into things they shouldn’t be, presumably damaging property and causing an unsafe environment. The squirrels needed to go and each church had their own solution. Of course, this is indicative of the human race as a whole. We all tend to regard suffering as a problem that needs to be fixed. Few of us welcome suffering in our lives even though some of us have developed pretty good coping mechanisms for dealing with it. For the most part, suffering is a problem in the overall human experience. Few of us enjoy it and if we could get rid of it altogether then I suspect most of us would be glad.
But I wonder if we’re only hurting ourselves further in our unending quest to ease the suffering of the world. I wonder if suffering was designed like some medieval torture device. The more we work at getting out of it, the harder the suffering becomes. I wonder if we’re simply meant to suffer. Heaven knows it brings us closer to God as we cry out in our agony! But surely God has more enticing ways to bring us closer to him than through suffering. And why does God need or want us so close anyways?! Isn’t it presumptuous on our behalf to believe that God needs or wants us close to him at all?! We’re a pretty selfish, needy, discontented part of his creation! I wouldn’t want to be close to us if I were God! So why all the suffering? What’s its true purpose?
Of course, it would be awfully presumptuous of me to think I have the solution to the world’s suffering. Sorry, friends, I don’t think I have an answer to suffer. But I also don’t think there is an answer to suffering. Or, more accurately, I think the answer to suffering lies in not regarding it as a problem that needs an answer. It lies in how we regard suffering. And the wisdom of scripture helps us to regard suffering differently. In our passage from Peter, we hear that if we suffer for doing what is right then we are blessed. But it sure doesn’t feel like I’m blessed when suffering for doing what is right! It feels the same as the suffering for doing what is wrong. But then I have to reconsider what it means to be blessed. I think to be blessed means to be given the opportunity to reveal God’s glory. When we suffer for doing what is right, we suffer for revealing God’s glory, GOD’S understanding of right and wrong. And God rewards such suffering with even greater understanding. We know this because of passages from elsewhere in scripture. Any discussion on suffering would be fruitless without lifting up Paul’s wisdom from his letter to the Romans. “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (5:3-5) Hope, friends…hope is a greater understanding of the present and the future. Hope is what enables us to endure even more suffering. Suffering is inevitable in this world and unless we have hope there is no way we can endure it. The beauty of suffering, if regarded right, is that it produces hope to endure future suffering, both the poison and the antidote wrapped up in one package. And we can’t forget the assurance of David’s psalm 34 where he sang, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.” (34:19) Again, God rescues those who suffer for doing right with greater understanding.
Just think back to our poor, miserable friend Job. God rescued him not by easing his suffering but rather by giving him greater understanding, a new perspective on his suffering. God uses suffering for his glory to be revealed. God uses suffering for his peace to be revealed. Recall Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” (16:33) God’s glory is most perfectly revealed in the peace of Christ! But you can’t experience it without first suffering for doing what’s right…for doing what GOD considers right.
So as we continue through Peter’s letter, let us be mindful of how we regard our suffering. Contrary to the churches in that town, it isn’t necessarily a problem that needs solving but rather a gateway to greater understanding. If regarded as such, then perhaps we can find contentment within our suffering. Contentment and just maybe a little gratitude. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.