Lately, in our Sunday School Class, the topic of the persecuted church has come up in discussion. We have spent time praying for those who have to hide their faith or live in fear that they might lose their lives. The question often comes to mind as to why these believers are called to suffer. I wish I had a ready answer for that question, but we know that God sees a much bigger picture than we do.
Throughout Scripture, we are aware that various churches and individuals faced the tribulations which Jesus told His disciples would come in John 16:33: "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” We know from the book of Acts that the early church and many of the Apostles were beaten, stoned, and ultimately, killed by the authorities. Hebrews 11 tells of their faith but also their difficulties as well.
In Peter's letter to believers who had been scattered, he encourages them not to lose hope or faith during the persecution that they were experiencing. His letter was written some time after Nero burned Rome. Nero pointed to Christians as the cause of the fire which destroyed a good deal of property; therefore, believers felt their wrath. Peter's words written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit gave sound wisdom as to how to face these trials: "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you. Be sober-minded, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore,confirm, strengthen, and establish you" ( I Peter 5:6-10).
Nowhere in his letter does Peter come out and say why these saints were facing tribulations. Instead, he wrote how we are to live as we walk through hard places. We know, from what our Lord said, that we will face tribulations. We will experience loss in this life, but Peter indicated that we need to rejoice when we share in the sufferings of Christ and for His name. It is further proof that we belong to Him. The comfort is in knowing that God will restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us again. This we can depend upon.
Peter further instructs us to be humble in the face of suffering. We are to commit ourselves to the Lord's keeping. Our humility coupled with our steadfast faith will serve as a witness to others. In addition, we are to pray and give our anxieties to God. He is able when we are not.
Finally, Peter encourages the believers to be sober-minded. They should not panic but be on guard watching for the enemy who is looking for areas of weakness to attack. It is so easy when we are going through hard times to let our guard down. However, we are called to be vigilant and resist Satan.
Speaking from my own experience, I have found the difficult valleys have increased my faithfulness in prayer and caused me to rely upon God. Too often, we lean on our own understanding, and when we do, we are vulnerable to the attack of the enemy. I may never know "why" God allows certain things to happen in my life, but I know Him. He is good all the time and righteous in all His ways. Furthermore, God cares about the death of His saints (Psalm 116:15). He is not far from us or indifferent to our needs. Instead, He desires us to be conformed to the image of His dear Son as we walk in this fallen world.
Suffering comes to all people both believers and nonbelievers alike. Our world is broken and fallen. However, when we are in Christ, we have the hope of heaven. God's purposes in allowing trials may not be clear to us, but we know that He is able to work all things together for good, and we can depend on Him. Let us rejoice in Him that we have so great a salvation through Christ. He is our defender and the lifter of our head! Selah!