Growing When the Going Gets Tough (1 Peter 4:12-19)
There is a popular saying which I think was first spoken by Joseph Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy, which goes: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  Later, singer Billy Ocean, in the early 1980s, popularized it further when he put it into a song. It ended up becoming the theme song to a Michael Douglas movie called The Jewel of the Nile. The way I understand the saying is that when tough times hit you, look within and become tougher by pulling yourself up from the bootstraps, somehow come up with inner fortitude and determination to make lemonade out of the lemons thrown at you. “Be strong!” people say as way of encouragement.
The only problem is what do you do when you don’t have straps or boots to lift yourself up from? What do you do when you end up squirting lemon juice into your face from the lemons? Or you discover you can’t seem to find any strength inside you? For believers in Jesus Christ, the answer does not come from within, on the inside. It comes from without, from the outside. In fact, the strength doesn’t come from becoming stronger, but by becoming weak and helpless before the Lord, who said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Christians are not exempt from hard times, especially if it comes just because they are Christians. Some believers struggle hard to work with integrity, but then get bypassed on the promotion, which is instead given to the guy who has integrity issues. Sometimes we invest hours into someone’s life to get him/her grounded in the Lord, but they turn around and slander us. Or we may not suffer for being a Christian, but we may still suffer. You try to take care of your body, but are faced with one health issue after another, while some unbelievers you know abuse their body and do not seem to be suffering one bit. Or your only child you have prayed years for finally arrives, but is then diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three. It doesn’t make sense sometimes, actually most, if not all of the time.
Initially our reactions might be, “Why me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” or “I gave my life to Christ and I get this?” Peter is talking to Christians persecuted because of their faith. Though we don’t know much of this firsthand, his principles apply no matter what form of suffering we will experience. When the going gets tough, the tough do not get going. The tough become weak, fall helplessly at the feet of Christ and find from the ashes and brokenness, nail-scarred hands that lift them up and carry them through the toughness. It is from this closeness we realize that when the going gets tough, we can start growing!
So the title of the message is “Growing when the going gets tough.” This has been the subtitle of our series called “Hope for the Living” this year in 1 Peter. Peter is wrapping up his letter and is giving us some closing remarks on the topic of suffering.
Let me review the context again. It was the summer of 64 AD. For nine straight days, a huge fire swept through Rome and destroyed almost everything. The emperor then was Nero. He was psychotic, to say the least. I would put him up there with Hitler, as one the most wicked men in all of history. He was known for killing anyone if he had the slightest suspicion they were betraying him, albeit wife, brother or closest general. He was also known for his desire to rebuild the city of Rome and doing so by whatever means possible. So when this huge fire was set and Roman troops were even stopping people from extinguishing them (and some troops were even starting new fires), the general population started to resent their Emperor at an ultimate high. One report said that Nero “stood in the Tower of Maecenes and watched gleefully as the city burned to the ground. In fact…he was charmed by the loveliness of the flames.”
So Nero needed to shift the blame on someone else. Guess who? Christians. Christians were blamed as the scapegoat for burning Rome. This was ingenious on the part of Nero, because Christians were already looked down upon and slandered for cannibalism (misunderstanding on what communion was), incest (brothers and sisters giving each other the “holy kiss”), dividing up families as individuals (like a woman coming to Christ in a marriage, as described in 1 Pet. 3:1-7) came to Christ, and many other false accusations.
Nero then led the assault to kill the Christians. You may remember when we talked about how he crucified some of them. He also captured others, “using them as human torches to light his garden parties…allowing them to be sewn inside animal skins to be devoured by predatory animals…and by subjecting them to other heinous, unjust tortures.” Did you know that this persecution would begin a 200-year campaign against Christians? One emperor after the other would seek to destroy Christians. But praise God! We are still here! The great empire of Rome is gone, but Jesus and His church lives on! This is because our Jesus is alive and still ruling the world with His feet up!
We are not sure, but most likely, Peter is writing this letter toward the end of that year, just after the persecutions began. He wanted them to have the proper attitude, action and reaction to unjust suffering. The suffering came as a shock to some of them. Perhaps they thought coming to Christ meant they would be safe from all problems. He did not want the believers to just go through suffering, but to grow through suffering. I know we talked so much about suffering already, but I am sure the Lord wanted them and us to really have His perspective in the middle of it. Sometimes we don’t need a new message, but we need to hear the same message to apply again and again to our stubborn hearts. Actually I think though Peter shares old information, but he also has a fresh angle to look at suffering as well before he closes his letter. So how should believers respond to tough times? I am indebted to Pastor Stephen Cole for most of this outline. First of all:
I. Tough times are no surprise (1 Pet. 4:12)
Look at 1 Pet. 4:12. Peter tells us not to be surprised when trials come. Interestingly, the first reaction we have when suffering hits is one of surprise. “I can’t believe this is happening!” or “I had a great quiet time all week. I don’t deserve this. What’s going on?” Peter says, “Don’t be caught off guard. Don’t be shocked.” Peter has been saying suffering has been inevitable. If you have been closely following any of this teaching, the real surprise is not that suffering comes, but if it doesn’t come!
Notice how he addresses them first: beloved. Wait? I am beloved? God still loves me? Peter starts this new section with this word agapētos (just like he did with 1 Pet. 2:11), which not only conveys Peter’s tender, pastoral side, but it means “dear or very much loved…by God their Father. It is a love called out of one’s heart by preciousness of the object loved.” NIV and NLT both say, “dear friends,” which lessens the impact of that word. This word emphasizes and implies that they are objects of God’s immeasurable love. You lose that when you just hear “dear friends”! (Sorry NIV or NLT fans…not really). We need to hear that word all the time in our heart, but especially these who are struggling under suffering, because you start to wonder when you suffer, “Does God love me? Does He care?” So Peter uses “beloved” eight times in two epistles (1 Peter 2:11; 4:12; 2 Peter 1:7; 3:1, 8, 14–15, 17) to ingrain it in their minds that they are loved by God. Circumstances will never change that. Nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:35-39). And there is no pit so deep the love of Christ is not deeper still. Amen!
But because we are beloved, we will experience life like God’s beloved, Jesus Christ experienced. Jesus said, “if the world hates you, it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Paul told Timothy, “Anyone who wants to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Peter will go this route in the following verses.
Notice Peter calls their situation a “fiery trial.” He had used the same terminology in 1 Pet. 1:6-7. I am not sure if he was thinking about the literal fire that Nero set. But this phrase pictures “a furnace melting down metal to purge it of impurities.” God’s love is not a pampering love, as my old pastor used to say, but a perfecting love. So why are you thrown in the furnace? “To test you.” Trials not only refine you, but they test the genuineness of your faith.
Chuck Swindoll says, “If…we view life as a schoolroom and God as the instructor, it should come as no surprise when we encounter pop quizzes and periodic examinations.” I had a professor in 8th grade who would give us pop quizzes every week. He told us on day one when we got to school that he is known for his pop quizzes. I hated that class! It was always nerve wracking, but you know, it did keep me sharp, alert and diligent! Here Peter says when you signed up to be a follower of Christ, you signed up for pop quizzes on suffering in the school of Christ-likeness. Suffering is not an elective. It is a pre-requisite to Christlikeness. The Lord wants to keep you sharp, better yet, pure. A dull ax is useless for a woodsman. He needs to sharpen it from time to time! So don’t act surprised when tough times hit you. Secondly:
II. Tough times help us to experience true joy (1 Pet. 4:13-14)
So I shouldn’t be bewildered and shocked at suffering, but how should I handle it? Peter says, “Keep on rejoicing.” One commentator notes, “Peter is far from merely advising his Christian friends to fix on a brave smile when suffering for Christ comes their way. The Greek words convey the idea of overwhelming delight, a great burst of joy that will fill the jubilant hearts of God’s people to overflowing….” He is not saying to rejoice in the pain, but rejoice in what the pain will accomplish in our lives and what the suffering means for them now. Also this is a command. We must choose to rejoice. Notice “rejoice,” (2x) “be glad” and “are blessed” (sounds like Jesus here right? Matt. 5:11-12) in verses 13-14. All same root word all four times. He’s serious we get this part! He wants us to experience biblical joy, which is a deep, divine delight in the plan, purposes and person of God regardless of the circumstances. There is a future and present motivation to rejoice in suffering. Two reasons to rejoice:
a) Because we can experience deeper intimacy with Christ
Peter says rejoice because we “share Christ’s sufferings.” Obviously this does not mean we are sharing in the work of Christ and suffering for our own sins. When we suffer, we get His perspective by partnering or having fellowship with Him (that’s the idea of “share”). We realize this suffering is nothing to what He has done for us. Paul at the end of Galatians says, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17). What does he mean? He means every time he got whipped, stones, beaten or bruised, he realized he was taking them for Christ. It is almost as if he pulls back his cloak and is looking at every scar on his body and thanking God for them.
This suffering is not useless. Paul is enjoying a special bond with Jesus as he suffers. This is why he called it “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil 3:10). Earlier in that verse, Paul says, “that I may know Him.” Don’t you already know Jesus Paul? Yes he does, but he wants a deeper, experiential knowledge of Jesus like he never has before. If knowing Jesus is an ocean, Paul has just touched Him with his big toe and suffering for Christ will help Paul bring Him closer to His Savior.
Look down at 1 Pet. 4:14. Peter says insults for being named for Christ is a blessing, because the “Spirit of glory and of God” rests upon you. Notice the word “rests.” This word means “to give relief, refreshment, intermission from toil.” This is the same word Jesus promised to those who would come to Him (Matt. 11:29). He is not saying the Spirit comes and goes upon you like in the Old Testament since in the NT, the Spirit is a permanent resident to all believers (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 6:19-20). However, you will experience supernatural relief in the midst of suffering as you experience God’s presence in a special way. “Glory” also is bringing you back to the OT, where it represented God’s presence among His people (Ex. 24:16–17; 34:5–8; 40:34–38; Hab. 3:3–4).
Remember the three boys cast into the furnace? (Dan. 3:8ff). They threw three in the furnace, but they saw four people inside! Praise God for how He joins us in the furnaces in our lives. Remember Paul who said that no one came to stand by him when he was persecuted, but “the Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (2 Tim. 4:18-19). Remember also Stephen, upon being stoned to death, says he was “full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). This is the only place in Scripture where Jesus is said to be standing. This is because Jesus stands for those who stood for Him. I think it is also because Jesus is getting ready to receive Stephen into His arms.
So let’s put these two thoughts together. There is participation as we join with Christ in His suffering. Then there is impartation, when the Spirit of God offers relief by giving us His manifested presence, which results in celebration or overflowing joy. By the way, don’t pray “be with so and so during their trial.” Instead pray, “Lord, open their eyes to see your special presence during this trial.” God is always with us, but we are not always looking for Him, but suffering causes us to look for Him when we don’t have anyone else and we find Him to overflow us with His presence and Spirit. And as a result of this, we have tremendous joy. And this joy is not so much that we feel better, but for others to see the power of the gospel in our own lives, much like they saw Stephen’s face “like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
Whether you are suffering for Christ or suffering in general, participation and impartation will go hand in hand. Draw near to the Lord and He will draw near to you. You then move one-inch closer. He then moves two feet closer. There you probably will not get intellectual closure, but you will get interpersonal communion with Christ. You can also rejoice:
b) Because suffering will be transformed into glory
Now we will talk about the future motivation. Notice back in 1 Pet. 4:13 that Peter says, “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (italics mine). Our hope is a future faith. Peter’s theme has been that the pathway to glory is through the pathway of suffering. The world says the absence of suffering is glory, but the Christian says the presence of suffering will one day lead to glory. One day and our glory will be “revealed.” Revealed here means “to make manifest or reveal a thing previously secret or unknown.” It will be like the guy on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition after they build this new home for a struggling family, conceals it by putting a bus in front of it. Then he says, “Bus driver, move that bus!” And everyone screams, jumps and cries in jubilation. Unfortunately, even that new house will start to break down. But how much more will we experience true joy, when the Creator of the Universe shows up and transforms everything into a world where nothing breaks down and true joy is experienced on a continual basis!
So going back to Paul’s scars, he would say the more scars he receives, the more Paul will receive joy when those scars are transformed into stars in his crown! I love “Much-Afraid,” the character in Hannah Hurnard’s classic,Hinds Feet on High Places, who is told to collect stones everywhere she goes in her journey to the “high places.” So during different stages of her life, where she experiences her Chief Shepherd’s power, presence and provision, she collects stones in a bag. At the end of the journey, she is told to dump all of the stones in his presence, which is then transformed into precious jewels in her crown.
I love that picture, for it reminds me that our Lord doesn’t waste anything and specializes in transformation. Warren Wiersbe says, “it is necessary to understand that God is not going to replace suffering with glory; rather He will transform suffering into glory.” Wiersbe reminds us the same illustration that Jesus used that glory will be like a woman giving birth (John 16:20-22). The same baby that gave her great pain also gives her great joy. The pain was transformed into joy by the birth of the baby. The same cross, which is the worst act of man in human history, is transformed as the greatest demonstration of grace and mercy in history. Our tragedies will be transformed into triumph. Our crosses will be transformed into crowns. Our mourning will be replaced by dancing.
The reason my family came to Christ was through suffering. As many of you know, health issues have always plagued our family. My dad is a diabetic, but was also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis many years ago. To this day, his hands are deformed with limited movement. He has pain in his joints all the time. We came to Christ through that, but initially after we became believers we started to pray that God would heal him completely. A few years had passed. I visited New York during a college break and during family prayer time, I noticed that my parents stopped praying for that. And I asked my dad why he doesn’t pray for complete healing anymore. He told me that his sickness keeps him humble and needy before the Lord. I was touched by that. Each shooting pain makes him run to Jesus, a gift that is harder to experience when he is pain-free. Often in suffering we want an escape hatch, but it is right there in the middle of the pain, we can experience His closeness. Author Mark Twain once said, “If God answered all my prayers, I would seriously doubt His wisdom.” That’s true! God is wise and knows what we need, even when often it is not what we want. My dad also loves to quote the Scripture, “The lame man shall jump and leap as a deer” (Is. 35:6). I wouldn’t be surprised that at the Lord’s coming, when we are all leaping for joy that my dad might be leaping a little bit higher than others. He is experiencing true joy now, not passing happiness, yet looking forward for that joy to be made complete. Thirdly,
III. Tough times help us to reexamine our hearts (1 Pet. 4:15-18)
Again, God disciplines those He loves (Heb. 12:6). Again, God’s love is one that desires to perfect us, not pamper us. Suffering is a great time for self-reflection and examination of our hearts. Suffering is meant to purify not to destroy. And when God puts us in the fire, it is His plan to get us to search our hearts. This is part of growing when the going gets tough. What are we searching our hearts about? Here are three questions for self-examination in suffering:
a) What sin is there in my life?
If you remember the sermon on 1 Pet. 1:6-9 on trials, I talked about the difference between a trial and a consequence. Sometimes the line is not as clear, but most of the time they are. As opposed to a consequence a trial is not something you caused. It just happened to you. A trial you learn and embrace from, but a consequence you repent and turn from. You can’t break the law and say, “I’m suffering.” This is what Peter says in 1 Pet. 4:15. Notice also “meddler” on the list. It is only found here in the NT, but it means “one who oversees other’s affairs.” This is somebody who is nosy and getting into everybody’s business. It seems like Peter did not want his audience to have any hint of self-righteousness. So in essence he’s saying don’t annoy people and when they get mad at you, don’t say people are persecuting you because you are a trying to be a loving Christian!
Even if it’s not sin you caused upon yourself, you can still ask the Lord to search your heart. Perhaps you haven’t been participating with the Lord in fellowship with Him and experiencing Him impart His blessing and consequently, receiving the joy you need. Perhaps you have been bitter or angry at God or people. Perhaps you have doubted the Lord’s goodness. Suffering is a great time to ask the Lord to search our hearts. Alan Redpath, former pastor of Moody Church, was once sent to the hospital. He said while he was lying in the hospital, he was struggling with sins he thought he had long given up. He couldn’t believe it. By the time he got out, he said the time of suffering was so good for him because he said, “I realized the only good thing about Alan Redpath is Jesus Christ.” That’s a good place to be in, beloved!
We don’t think like Pastor Redpath did after that trial on his own. We love ourselves. Self rules our heart. God’s love is so jealous that He will not let us share our heart and have love and affection with other gods, namely, self. And suffering will pull away from the toys and self we so closely cling to. Suffering loosens the grip of sin as we draw near to Christ in it. As I mentioned in an earlier sermon, “God sits there as a goldsmith and allows these trials to fire-test our faith. Our selfishness starts to float to the top. Our self-serving attitudes skim off. Our sense of entitlement starts to wear off. We are humbled. Our pride starts to break. Our attachment to worldly things starts to loosen. The fire reveals what we really love. God draws out the impurities of my life to the surface through trial. But remember this goldsmith has us with one hand in the fire, the other one is on the thermostat. He will not burn us to ruin or pulverize us. His eye is also on the clock. And when is He done? Until He can look at this pure gold and see His reflection in it!” We can reexamine our hearts for sin in suffering. Here is the second question to ask our hearts in suffering
b) How can I bring glory to God?
Look at 1 Pet. 4:16. Peter here is calling believers not to be ashamed of being a follower of Christ. “Ashamed” here means to dishonor. When the Lord places His cross on your back, don’t dishonor Him by not wanting to carry it. Peter’s readers might have been tempted to shrink away from the Lord, thinking, “You know, this is too tough. My faith is so small. My sins are so many. I’ve been a bad witness. I’ll pretend I’m not a Christian or I won’t tell anyone.” Peter does not want us to do that. The opposite of shame is honor, bringing glory to the Lord. Bringing God glory means making Him look good. So instead of thinking how bad I look, think about how good I can make Jesus look in my suffering. Instead of wallowing in all the wrong things going on, count your blessings. Instead of complaining, have an attitude of gratitude. Instead of giving up, find His strength to keep going by faith, though you don’t have answers or solutions. Bring God glory in your suffering. Thirdly,
c) What eternal perspective do I need to have?
In 1 Pet. 4:17-18, Peter tells us being ashamed and giving up is not the way to go, because though we suffer now, the suffering of unbelievers will be much worse. In the Old Testament, whenever God did a work of purification or judgment, He would always begin at the sanctuary and moved outward (Ezek. 9:4-6; Jer. 25:29; Mal. 3:1-3). “Household of God” refers to all believers everywhere, the church of Jesus Christ.
Pastor Stephen Cole explains, “Peter is arguing from the lesser to the greater: If God uses such severe trials to purge sin from the righteous–if the process of salvation is that difficult–think of how much worse the day of judgment will be for the godless and the sinners! So if you’re tempted to bail out of the faith when you encounter trials, ask yourself, “Where else will I go?” Pastor Jon Courson says (and Pastor Greg Laurie recently used this analogy as well), “If you have to choose between a smooth flight with a crash landing, or a bumpy flight with a safe landing, you’ll no doubt opt for the bumpy flight. There are those who say, ‘I don’t want trials. I don’t want to go against the world’s system. I don’t want to deal with all of those church disciplines you talk about. I just want smooth sailing.’ They are fools, for although they might escape a bump or two presently, they’re ultimately headed for a fiery crash landing. On the other hand, those of us who presently deal with a bump or two along the way, will make a safe landing in heaven.” Eternal perspective is so important!
So suffering is no surprise, a time to experience true joy, and a time to reexamine our hearts. Lastly and quickly,
IV. Tough times help us to trust God ultimately (1 Pet. 4:19)
Peter ends by giving us an application to everything he’s been saying. “Therefore, in light of all of this, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Notice, “according to God’s will.” All suffering passes through the hands of God before it comes to us. We are in better hands than All State!
Look at the word “entrust,” which is “a banker’s term referring to a deposit for safe keeping.” Same word used by Jesus when He said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). And this is not a single action, but a constant attitude of “keep committing.” Why should you trust? Because He is a “faithful Creator.” This means He is sovereign. He can be trusted. He controls and rules the world. He is able to keep you. The opposite of trust is control. Stop trying to control your life. Trust Him who keeps His hand on the thermostat as you are in the fire. Trust Him who will provide you, as Creator of the world, who brought all things into being, with everything you need to persevere to the end. Keep making deposits of trust into the bank of Heaven and you will reap eternal dividends. How do you know you are trusting God? Notice “by doing good.” Trusting God is not passive submission, but active obedience. For Peter this means, guarding your behavior, especially around unbelievers and living a life of good works despite your circumstances.
Listen to what John Stott says: “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I turn to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me. He set aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.” This is the God for us. This is the God for you. Pain is real. Suffering is real. But the cross is also real.
We don’t have to pretend we are tough when the going gets tough. We don’t have to get going. We can lay there before the cross. We can cast ourselves completely there, broken and helpless and embrace those wooden timbers again. It is there He cuts open our heart, empties it of self and fills it with joy and trust. Here is love, vast as the ocean, loving-kindness as the flood, where the prince of life our ransom, shed for us His precious blood.
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Amended from Pastor James MacDonald’s definition in When Life is Hard (53).
MacArthur, J. (253).
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Cole, Stephen. Ibid.
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