Trusting in God when We Suffer
Topic: English Passage: 1 Peter 4:16-19
One of the world’s most famous storytellers was a man born in Denmark in 1805. His name was Hans Christian Andersen. Even if you’ve never heard the name, I’m sure you’ve heard many of his stories, or at least some modern adaptation of them.
The list of Andersen’s stories includes “The Princess and the Pea,” “Thumbelina,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Suit,” “The Brave Tin Soldier,” and “The Snow Queen.” Without exaggeration, modern adaptations of those stories have produced billions of dollars’ worth of revenue.
Another one of Andersen’s well-known stories was called “Den Grimme ælling” which we know as “The Ugly Duckling.” I’d like to begin this morning with an extended reading of an English adaptation of the original story.
The story begins in the springtime on a farm with a mother duck eagerly waiting for her eggs to hatch. When the time came, the eggs that hatched produced the prettiest little ducklings you’d ever seen. One of the eggs, however, the largest of the group, didn’t open along with the rest, so the mother duck was forced to sit and wait.
An older duck visited the mother and was convinced that the larger egg was from a turkey. So, her advice was to leave it alone. But the mother duck decided to wait a little longer.
When the egg finally hatched, the baby came out, and it was larger than the rest and more awkward as it walked, and it was uglier. “Maybe it really is a turkey,” thought the mother duck. So, she took to the family to the water to see if the ugly duckling could swim.
To her astonishment, the baby swam well, proving that it was not a turkey after all. The mother reasoned, “This must be my own child, but I suppose he’s not that ugly if you look at him properly.”
The mother duck then took her family to the farm to meet the other animals. The animals commented how big and awkward and ugly that last duckling was, and Mother responded by saying, “Well, he was in the egg a long time, so he’s not properly formed.”
The rest of the birds, however, wouldn’t leave the ugly duckling alone. They bit him and pushed him and teased him and laughed at him. This went on day after day, and it grew worse. His brothers and sisters would say to him, “You’re so ugly. I wish the cat would eat you!” Even the little farm girl who would come out to feed the farm birds would kick him away. Eventually, his own mother told him, “I wish you had never been born!”
Overcome with sorrow, the ugly duckling ran away. He closed his eyes and ran and hopped as far as he could until he landed in a lake with wild ducks. “What kind of duck are you?” they asked.
The duckling tried to be polite, but he didn’t know how to answer their question. The wild ducks said, “You’re so ugly, but that doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t marry anyone in our family.”
Two days later, a couple young goslings (baby geese) arrived on the lake, and they said “Yes, you are very ugly, but come with us to another lake where there are more wild geese. Maybe there, even though you’re ugly, you’ll be lucky enough to find a wife.”
As they were speaking, two loud “Bangs!” echoed in the air, and both geese fell dead. Wild geese from all around the lake darted off into the air while a raging dog came running in. The ugly duckling stood terrified as the dog came right up to him snarling and sniffing. But then the dog ran off into another part of the lake. “It’s a good thing I’m so ugly,” thought the duckling, “even the dogs don’t want anything to do with me.”
The duckling spent the rest of the day terrified, waiting for the sound of the guns to end and the dogs to leave. Then he ran away even farther until he came to an old run-down cottage in the middle of a storm. Having no other shelter, the duckling pressed himself against that cottage, but quickly noticed that the hinges were broken, so the door had an opening. The duckling quietly slipped in.
This cottage belonged to an old woman who lived with her beloved cat and chicken. The old woman couldn’t see well, and she decided to keep the duck, hoping it would give her eggs. Very soon, the cat and the chicken mocked the duckling for how useless he was because, unlike them, he couldn’t lay eggs and he couldn’t purr softly. The duckling spent most of his time huddled in the corner in humiliation.
One day, however, when the sunlight and the fresh air entered through the open door, the duckling decided to leave, even as the cat and the chicken continued to mock him.
He found another small lake nearby where he could swim and dive. As before, all the other animals avoided him because of how ugly he was. So, he lived alone.
Autumn came and the leaves turned gold. Then came winter, and the wind and the snow brought all the leaves to the ground. And the ugly duckling sat there all alone, shivering in the cold.
One night, a large flock of birds flew in, and they were beautiful. The duckling had never seen anything like them. These were elegant swans with soft, dazzling-white feathers and graceful necks. They only stayed a moment before flying off to warmer regions.
The duckling didn’t know what those birds were called, but something about them moved his heart. He felt something he had never felt before. He wasn’t jealous or envious, but he couldn’t help dwelling on how ugly he was and how beautiful they were.
As more time passed, the lake froze, and the duckling nearly did as well. But a little peasant boy found him and brought him into his home where he was revived. Scared at what the family might do, the duckling flailed about, making a mess. And when the mother came at him with a pair of tongs, the duckling fled for his life. The next several weeks made up the most difficult, painful, and lonely winter.
Eventually spring came, and he realized his wings were strong. So, he flapped them and rose high into the air. Given his new ability, he decided to go back to those beautiful birds he had briefly seen in winter. He thought they might kill him for how ugly he was, but perhaps that would be better than life on a farm being bullied and rejected by birds and the girl.
A group of swans was swimming in the lake, and as the duckling approached them, they rushed at him with outstretched wings. “Kill me,” said the poor bird, and he bent his head down waiting for death.
But as he looked down into the water, he did not see what he thought he would see. There was no dark, gray, ugly duckling. Instead, there was a beautiful, graceful swan looking back at him.
As Hans Christian Andersen wraps up the story, he tells us that the new swan came to appreciate the pain and the sorrow, because it led him to enjoy to a greater degree the pleasures of who he really was.
That entire spring, as children came to feed the birds at the lake, they would express that he was the most beautiful of all the swans. The swan felt ashamed and would hide his head under his wing. He was happy, but not proud. All those days, he had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he is hearing that he is the most beautiful of all the birds. The swan wept with joy, and from the depths of his heart exclaimed, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”
Hopefully you can see the parallels between Andersen’s story and the message we have been studying in First Peter. We don’t want to minimize the pains and the sorrows of this life, but it’s absolutely critical that we put them in perspective.
This world rejects us because we belong to Christ, and because we refuse to run with them into their sinful rebellion. Whether you see and are aware of it or not, we live in a country where a large and loud portion of the population is vehemently opposed to the basic truths about God and creation. And that portion of this nation has most of the control over social media, over the news, over the public education system, and over our government. They dictate which messages get promoted to the rest of us.
That means that those who want to stand up for the truth of Jesus Christ get villainized. In private and in public, in formal and in informal ways, those who seek to represent the truth of Jesus face opposition.
Despite the attacks, Peter calls us to lift our gaze to eternity. We face rejection now, but we will be joyfully received into an eternal kingdom. To connect the illustration, we are like rejected ugly ducklings, but we will be swans one day.
Keeping in mind all that Peter has been saying about our glorious status and our inheritance in Christ, we looked last week at some responses that we need to guard against. In verse 12, we are called to guard against confused surprise. We should expect to be attacked.
In verses 13 and 14, Peter urges us to guard against overwhelming sorrow. Instead, we should rejoice.
Verse 15 is a plea to protect ourselves against reactive sin. We should not respond to evil with evil but should demonstrate the heart of Jesus Christ. We should respond to evil with a blessing.
Finishing that brief list, we come to verse 16, which cautions us against feeling a disgraceful shame. That’s where we pick up our study this morning. Look again at verse 16 with me.
It says—Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
Knowing how the story of the ugly duckling ends, what would you say to him when it seems like the rest of the world rejects him? What would you tell him? You might say, “There’s no need to be ashamed. You’re not one of them. One day, they will long to be like you.”
That’s what we need to remind ourselves about, and it’s how we need to be encouraging our brothers and sisters. Yes, this world will reject us. Yes, they will ridicule us for being different, but we know the end of the story.
Through the Apostle Peter, God tells us that when we suffer for Christ, rather than feeling ashamed like the world wants us to feel, we should glorify God in that name. “That name” is a reference to the name of Jesus.
Those of you who read Acts with us recently might remember that it was in Antioch where the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians.” More than likely that name was intended as an insult. This new religious group was connected to a man who had been put to death as the worst of criminals.
And that hatred for Christ continues today, all around the world. But rather than be ashamed when the world lumps us with Christ, we are to glory in that name.
Christ, who died for our sin was raised in glory and in victory. And He will come again to rescue His people and to eternally condemn all who reject Him. This is true, whether people believe it or not.
So, rather than wallow in shame, we are called to rejoice, to boast in the Lord, to give glory to God because He has called us to Himself. In Him, we will be victorious.
Again, that doesn’t undo the pain of this life. But it should give us some perspective. And we should be equipped, to some degree, to respond to the questions or the attacks of the world.
One major attack is the question, “If God loves you so much, why is your life so miserable?” Maybe you’ve been confronted with that argument, even if it wasn’t spelled out that way. People of this world will use our difficulties as evidence that the God we believe in doesn’t exist. What’s the response?
Chapter 4 of First Peter finishes with a doctrinal explanation. Like I said last week, there is no comprehensive doctrinal explanation that will answer all our questions about sin and suffering. But what we know should help us draw near to Christ and trust Him more.
So, what do we know about suffering? Let me give you two answers to that question this morning.
Number 1, suffering is a time to remember God’s perfect judgment. Suffering is a time to remember God’s perfect judgment. If you’re dealing some specific distressing trial right now, this also tells you how you should respond. You need to remember God’s perfect judgment.
After the instructions about how to respond to suffering, Peter gives us the truth that undergirds those commands. Look at verse 17—For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.
You need to respond appropriately to suffering because suffering is an expression of God’s judgment. How so?
Normally, we think, “Well, if you’re a Christian God doesn’t judge you anymore.” That’s actually not true. The Bible says everyone will be judged. But it will not be the same kind of judgment for everyone.
In the broadest sense, judgment refers to a decision being made because of someone’s action or status. Generally, we think about punitive judgment. That’s like a judge declaring a man guilty and then sentencing him to prison. That’s a type of judgment.
Now, we know that for those who are in Christ, there is no condemnation. We will not face condemnation for our sins. We will never be separated from the love of God in Christ. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t take some sort of action in response to our life.
None of us is perfect. We’re somewhere along the path of sanctification. Our heavenly status doesn’t perfectly line up with our earthly practice. We are still dealing with sin in our hearts and in our lives.
And Hebrews 12 tells us that God, as our heavenly Father, disciplines us for our good. His discipline comes because He loves us. He introduces pain or difficulty for the purpose of making us more like Jesus Christ. That pain will yield the fruit of righteousness.
So, the church, which here Peter calls “the household of God,” is not going to face the condemning judgment of God, but we will face the purifying judgment of God.
In 1 Peter 2:11-12 and in the opening verses of chapter 4, we are called to wage war against the flesh. We’re commanded to stop doing what the world is doing. And maybe Peter knew that the suffering church was struggling against those kinds of temptations. So here, he’s telling them that the suffering is actually helping them fight against sin. So, they should embrace it.
The suffering is a fire that has a purifying effect on the people of God. It’s a refining fire meant to remove the impurities in our lives.
That is true personally, and it’s also true corporately. One big way we’ve seen that is with all that’s been happening in response to COVID-19. Your individual faith is being tested, and so is our church as a whole.
There are people who consider themselves Christians, but the struggles of all that’s going on has exposed that they don’t really trust in Christ. And there are churches that would have considered themselves faithful, but COVID has exposed them to be full of unbelievers. And some of those churches have closed. That’s a good thing. The fires of difficulty have cleansed the church of God. It’s exactly what Jesus said would happen with the seed that fell on the rocky soil.
We see the same happen when someone gets hit with cancer or the death of a child. For some, the pain draws them nearer to Christ and to the church. And for others, it sends them away, perhaps proving they were never really part of the church. That’s the purifying and strengthening effect of pain. And it’s a part of God’s judgment.
So, when suffering comes, remember God’s perfect judgment. Embrace the fact that He who began a good work in you will be faithful bring it to completion. And part of bringing it to completion means introducing pain.
Before you paint an old house to make it look nice, you sandblast it. You strip away all those rough edges, so you can reveal a more beautiful, smooth surface. Before you lay a nice, new sidewalk, you gotta get the jackhammer and break out all the old stuff. That’s what God’s doing in our lives with suffering.
Just to go back to that ugly duckling, remember, the story said that the swan came to appreciate the pain and the sorrow, because it led him to enjoy to a greater degree the pleasures of who he really was.
Your true life, who you really are, is hidden with Christ in God. But it is suffering which helps reveal the real you. Suffering is vital part of sanctification.
And lest we believe God to be unrighteous, do not forget that those who reject Him will face judgment as well. Look at the second half of verse 17. It’s a question—and if it [judgment] begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
That question is basically a paraphrase of Proverbs 11:31, which Peter quotes in verse 18, and which demonstrates how much the Apostles were steeped in the Bible.
Verse 18 asks—And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
If you were a criminal facing a judge who would sentence you for a crime, would you prefer a judge who disciplined his children, or one who didn’t? You’d prefer the judge who always lets his children slide, right?
Because if that judge is unwilling to discipline his children, perhaps he will be unwilling to judge you severely. But if you knew that a judge was a loving but strict disciplinarian with his children, then you better be scared. If the judge is willing to inflict pain on the children he loves, what’s he gonna do with a guilty criminal who has rejected the law?
Folks, if God brings pain into your life as an expression of His love, don’t forget that He will bring infinite and eternal pain to those who reject Him. God is righteous. His judgment is perfect. Don’t ever think God’s not being fair. When this is all over, we will praise Him for His justice on the wicked and His mercy on us in Christ Jesus. Suffering is a time to remember God’s perfect judgment.
I told you there were two lessons about suffering we’d see today, and the second is this: Suffering is a time to trust God’s powerful faithfulness. Suffering is a time to trust God’s powerful faithfulness.
Again, if you are experience some acute difficulty now, this is how God wants you to respond. You should trust in His powerful faithfulness.
Look at verse 19. This is Peter’s final conclusion in this section—Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
This is the exact same response that Jesus had when He suffered unjustly. First Peter 2:21-23—For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
Trust that God has this all figured out. Trust that His plan is best. Trust that He will be faithful to all He has promised to do. Trust that this is the best way forward.
Do you remember how Abraham responded when God told him to sacrifice his only son Isaac? He walked his son up the hill, and he tied him, and he laid him on the altar, and he picked up that knife.
This was the son that God promised would become a great and blessed nation, and now God is saying to sacrifice him? But Abraham was ready to do it anyway. And Hebrews tells us why. Abraham believed that God would be faithful to His promise, and that Isaac would be raised from the dead. That’s not what ended up happening, but trusting in God’s promises, Abraham was ready to obey.
Well, we’re not simply called to entrust our children to the Lord, we are called to entrust our entire lives to Him. Peter says, “entrust your soul,” speaking of the entirety of who you are at the deepest level. Peter wants us, in a sense, to stand back from our own lives, and say, “Here you go, Lord. My life is yours. I trust you. I know You’ll do what’s right and best. So, help me do what honors You and not worry about the rest.”
And to help us with that difficult step, Peter briefly but graciously reminds us again who it is we are trusting. He is a faithful Creator. This is the faithful Creator.
“Faithful” points to the fact that He always keeps His promises, both the ones aimed at us, and the ones aimed at this wicked world.
And He is the all-powerful Creator. He is the one who brought this world into being, and He will see it through to the end. He started all this, and He will finish it.
Folks, we know the end of the story. We know who wins. We know who gets crowned with glory and majesty. We know who will reign forever.
But until that time comes, there will be pain. There will be rejection. But that is an opportunity to express our faith and our confidence and our trust in God’s powerful faithfulness.
And that trust, Peter says, is expressed by “doing good,” by persevering in righteousness.