Elect Exiles?: The Role of Suffering in 1 Peter 1 (Part 2)

Can suffering ever be good for us? It seems like only a clod who had never experienced any sorrow would ask that question. It seems insensitive, inappropriate, and ridiculous. And yet the Bible often speaks about trials as a means of God working out his plan, and even some good for us. Here in 1 Peter 1 that idea is communicated. Here the apostle tells the exiled believers that they are suffering “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” and “in the sanctification of the Spirit.” As strange as it sounds, there is a sense in which Peter understands suffering to help conform us to the image of Christ.

It’s clear of course that the word “elect” is to be stressed in connection to the phrases in verse 2. The exiles are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father and by the sanctification of the Spirit. “Sanctification” is a bit of an esoteric word. It’s a technical term that theologians throw around, but, as John Piper said years ago, the word may be irrelevant to you but the reality is not. The word simply means to make holy, that is to be set apart for God’s use. Clearly Peter is stressing the triune nature of election. The Father, Son, and Spirit are all involved in election, and he is stating here that people are set apart from sin and brought to faith by means of the Spirit’s work. But it’s important not to disconnect “elect” and “exiles”. They are, after all, elect exiles. The contrast is important.

An exile is someone who is rejected, but though they are rejected by men, these believers have been chosen by God. And that relationship is important for their encouragement. They are exiles “in” or “by” the sanctification of the Spirit. Peter seems to have two ideas in mind as he writes about the sanctifying work of suffering, the rest of the text unpacks it. First, Peter indicates that trials prove the genuineness of our faith (1:6-7). Secondly, he says that the ultimate suffering will be our ultimate victory (4:1-2). A quick look at each idea will help us see how suffering can sometimes be good for us.

Suffering proves the genuineness of our faith. A faith that is never tested may prove to be nothing more than fair-weather faith. It’s not particularly difficult to believe God, believe he’s good, believe he cares, believe he is in control when all is going well in my life. But when things are difficulty, pain is real, and trials are long then it becomes increasingly harder to hold to these doctrines. I begin to question God, question his purposes and his character. But if through suffering I am able to keep the truth before my eyes and continue to believe afresh in the goodness and sovereignty of God then when I come out on the other side I know that my faith is legitimate. Peter says it this way in verses 6 and 7:

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.

A faith that endures suffering is of more worth than gold. For when gold is put through the purifying fire it comes out pure but still eventually perishes. But when faith is put through its own purifying fire and comes out clean on the other side it will endure forever. That’s a beautiful picture of how suffering can be for our good. It has a purifying effect.

Toward the end of the letter Peter considers another way in which suffering can be good for us. The ultimate form of suffering is of course to die for your faith. It was something the apostles knew possibly lay on the horizon for them, and which ultimately became a reality for them. Martyrdom was a reality for many in the early church, and of this fact Peter says that to die for your faith (the ultimate suffering) is to wake up on the other side with the ultimate reward. At the start of chapter 4 we read:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh,1 arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,  2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2)

To “think” the same way as Jesus in this passage is to consider death the ultimate victory. If one dies he has ceased from sin, not in the sense that they are morally perfect for their sacrifice, but rather that they have entered into the presence of God and are now fully sanctified. Death is victory for the believer. If you can think this way about suffering, Peter says, then you can live now more fully devoted to Christ. If you have a healthy view of suffering than you can endure anything and remain committed to the will of God.

Of course many of us will read this and understand it, rightly, to be referring to persecution. That’s not something many of us in the United States (where I write from) are overly familiar with. Our dear brothers and sisters all over the world are experiencing this, and for it they probably understand Peter better. But most of my readers probably don’t live in that context, I know I don’t. But the principles are nonetheless the same. We can grow through suffering and when viewed rightly we can endure them for God’s glory and our good. Of course that’s not easy.

I can remember racing through the night to get to my father’s bedside as he lay dying in Knoxville, and while I was still far away getting the call that he was gone. At that moment not only was I not thinking about how this could be good for me, but I wouldn’t even begin to think about such things for at least a week. And that’s understandable I think. We need to time to grieve and process. Theology isn’t meant to be some cold and invasive element of our thought life, forcing itself upon us when we least want it. It is meant to be a comfort and encouragement to us. It is meant to shape not just our thoughts but the way we live. And in time it did that for me. I will never be able to understand how my father’s death is good for me, but I was able to learn of God’s goodness and love for me in ways that I didn’t understand prior to his death. In those moments God’s love meant something different, and I knew that without this experience that was something I would never understand.

Elect exiles can sometimes see suffering through a unique lens. Peter wants his readers to understand that their suffering is according to the foreknowledge of God and in the sanctification of the Spirit. But that is lesson that goes far beyond these elect exiles to all of us. Sometimes, as hard as it is to believe and impossible at times to understand, suffering can be for our good.

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