On suffering as a virtue (1 Peter 3; Easter 6A)

Continuing our reading from 1 Peter during this Easter season, the lectionary this week offers a section dealing with suffering (1 Pet 3:13–22). The reality of the suffering which is being experienced by believers is a constant refrain in this letter. It is noted briefly in the opening blessing (1:6–7) and described in more detail in this section, as well as four other occasions (2:19–20; 3:13–17; 4:1–2; 4:12–19; 5:6–11).

There is never any suggestion that this suffering involved the physical persecution or even death of the believers; the “abuse” referred to comprised verbal criticism of believers (2:23; 3:16), as the lengthy scriptural citation indicates (3:9–12). Relationships with the Roman state appear to be favourable (2:13–17); there is no sign of systematic persecution.

In all but one of these discussions, suffering is interpreted with reference to the sufferings of Jesus (2:21–25; 3:18; 4:1; 4:13). The Spirit testified to the sufferings of Jesus through the words of the prophets (1:11). Jesus provides an example of how to deal with suffering; slaves in particular are instructed to “follow in his steps” (2:21), for the way of Jesus involves endurance in suffering (2:19–20) and adopting a joyful approach to life (1:8; 4:13) even in the midst of sufferings.

Suffering is known and addressed in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The archetype of suffering in those books is, of course, Job, who although “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1), was nevertheless struck by a series of events that left his without property, without family, without animals, without servants (1:13–19).

The extended series of speeches in Job 3—42 address this situation of unjust, unmerited suffering, with a variety of points of view put forward. Although Job initially laments his fate, tearing his robe, shaving his head, and falling prostrate on the ground (1:20), he maintains his faith, acknowledging that “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). Yet in subsequent chapters, whilst his friends seek to persuade him to accept his fate as God’s will, Job himself despairs at his condition: “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest” (3:26),

Job rails at God: “the terrors of God are arrayed against me” (6:4), “when disaster brings sudden death, [God] mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (9:23), “why did you bring me forth from the womb? would that I had died before any eye had seen me” (10:18), God “uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light” (12:22), “you write bitter things against me” (13:26), “God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked … I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces; he slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy; he pours out my gall on the ground (16:11–13).

Mocking the words of the psalmist, “if I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there; if I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Ps 139:8–10), Job instead insists, “if I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8).

Although the psalmist insists, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps 139:12), Job persists that God “uncovers the deeps out of darkness, and brings deep darkness to light” (Job 12:22), for “when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came” (Job 30:26). Job can see no joy in accepting his fate; he continues in perpetual lament and anger because of his suffering.

The other well-known passage in Hebrew Scripture which relates to suffering is the fourth and last of the “Servant Songs” found in Second Isaiah (Isa 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). In this long song, the “man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity” is portrayed as despised, rejected, stricken, and afflicted (53:3–4); wounded, bruised, and crushed (53:5); crushed with pain (53:10) and caught up in anguish (53:11). There can be no doubt that this figure—whether the corporate people of Israel, as in Jewish interpretation, or an individual chosen for this role, as many Christian interpreters prefer—is well acquainted with suffering.

Yet in the words of the song, the suffering of this servant is redemptive; although “we held him of no account” (53:3), yet “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases” (53:4), “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (53:5).

Since “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6), he was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (53:8), his life was made “an offering for sin” (53:10) who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (53:12). The redemptive suffering of this servant “shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (53:11).

Such suffering is not in vain; and when later Christian writers drew from the rich theology of this song, they attributed to Jesus the same dynamic of redemptive suffering. This is clearly the case in this week’s epistle, where we hear, “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18). The words provide a strong and clear echo of the fourth Servant Song. There is hope to be found in the midst of this suffering.

This motif of hope runs throughout this letter (1:3, 13, 21; 3:15; 4:13). What follows after suffering, the author writes with assurance, is God’s “eternal glory in Christ” (5:10); this is “the true grace of God” (5:12). Elders within the community of faith are to exercise their leadership with humility, and thereby provide “examples to the flock” (5:1–5). In this way, they will “win the crown of glory that never fades away” (5:4).

This, then, is the “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” which was promised in the initial thanksgiving (1:4). This hope is what undergirds the distinctive identity of believers seeking to remain faithful to the way of Jesus in their society.