I Peter 3:13-22
Why do people suffer? Is suffering redemptive? Does suffering for a holy cause make us holy? Is there a definitive answer to these questions in scripture?
Our text this morning states, “If you suffer for doing what is right you will be blessed, for Christ suffered in order to bring you to God.” While I revere the Bible, I have also been taught to approach each text with a degree of hermeneutical suspicion. It is irresponsible, even dangerous, to take one text and suggest it contains the answer to any question. Not every text is universal. Scripture should be examined contextually or in other words understood within the parameters from which they were written.
A number of years ago Billy Graham was holding a revival in Las Vegas. He booked a major hotel/convention center for the entire week. Shortly after the conclusion of the revival, the building caught fire and burned to the ground. When Graham was asked about the significance of the fire, his response was, “All of our suffering, including death itself, is a result of our rebellion against God.” Is this the same answer he would have given to a close friend diagnosed with cancer?
I do not believe there is one definitive answer to cover all the questions that arise concerning the dilemma of human suffering. Furthermore, to offer only one is quite dangerous. Human suffering is often the results of human iniquity, but the sufferer is not always the sinner.
Last week we began looking at this little letter we call First Peter. The writer applauded his audience as members of a royal priesthood. That is high praise for anyone and was particularly significant for the writer’s original audience. He was lifting the spirits of a people who may have never been told they were more than sub-human. His audience was slaves and married woman. This letter was written in response to the abuse the members of this church received every day. They were not being persecuted because of their faith. They had the misfortune of living in a culture where woman and slaves had no rights. To rebel could mean expulsion or death. Their suffering was real. Perhaps they longed for a word of hope. Perhaps they desired an explanation concerning their misfortune. I wonder how they responded to the words they received.
Imagine someone who is being abused by a spouse coming by my office for advice or comfort. Imagine what they would think if I said to them, “Don’t resist. Joyfully surrender to the abuse you are receiving. This will not only unite you with Christ, it will transform your husband as he begins to wonder why you are so submissive.”
In this day in age that kind of advice would be criminal. The husband and I both should be dragged to court. But when First Peter was written, no court system would have acknowledged any woman had the right to question the actions of her husband. She was his property. The advice to be submissively Christ-like was perhaps the only option the writer could offer. But is this advice relevant outside of that particular cultural situation? We know better.
The subject of this text raises the serious question of how we are to approach suffering theologically. Our biblical tradition correctly observes that some suffering can be transformational. Often it is through suffering that we come to realize our hidden strengths and potentials. Many of us who engaged in sports remember the phrase, “No pain, no gain.” In the process of expanding our physical, intellectual and moral growth, often a degree of suffering is involved.
From birth many of us have been taught that Christ died for the sins of the world. To deny this death involved suffering would be to deny the humanness of Jesus. Christ, by identifying himself with us in our temptations, trials, hopelessness, and death, paid an immeasurably costly price. One can see how redemptive suffering, both on the part of an innocent God and a guilty creation, would become a critical component in the development of our faith. Furthermore, as we become intimate with God in our suffering, it hopefully would follow that we would become equally intimate with humanity and discover a greater meaning to life outside our deeply seated narcissistic orientation. Suffering can make one sensitive to the pain in this world, increasing our desire to be involved in selfless acts of righteousness and reconciliation.
But not all suffering leads to a spiritual transformation. We have known this forever but perhaps it is only within the last century that some of our leading theological minds have had the courage to scream out that the rape of a woman, the abuse of a child, or the malnourishment of an infant is neither transformational nor redemptive. Sometimes we have to witness a tragedy beyond our imagination before we will engage in questioning some of our deep-seated notions concerning the mind of God. German theologian Dorothee Soelle speaks of her discovery of the Holocaust as a teenager. She writes, “It was an unspeakable evil and so we did not speak of it. It was as if silence would eliminate the horror that played out before our eyes. But silence only made us willing participants with those responsible for the atrocities. Silence led to our apathy and our conformity.”
Our attempts to understand such tragedies as the holocaust, stretches our acceptance of the simplistic notion that “all our suffering stems from our rebellion from God.” Too often suffering is the results of another’s behavior, leaving the innocent victimized. Such was the case of the slaves and women who received and read I Peter. But slavery has been in abolished in most parts of the world and thankfully so has the immoral restraints a man might place on his wife. Yet, as the church grew institutionally, its perceived survival became tragically linked in an unholy alliance with those in power. Too often the message of Church suggested suffering on behalf of the rulers in this world guaranteed you would find tranquility in heaven.
I am reminded of the story of Hatuey, a chieftain on the island we now call Cuba. In the early 1500’s a group of missionaries and conquistadors were busying themselves in the modernization of the original inhabitants of the island. Hatuey and his people proved to be quite illusive and conducted a successful guerrilla campaign against the Spaniards. Eventually some tribesman were captured and tortured, giving up vital information concerning Hatuey before they died. Once apprehended, the great chief was sentenced to death. Before his execution, Hatuey was given an audience with a Franciscan monk who promised if the chief would accept Christ, he would spend eternity in heaven. Hatuey replied, “If this is where you and your friends are going when you die, I would rather not spend eternity with such a cruel people.” I am certain the monk must have been stunned, much as we are stunned when some of our contemporaries might suggest suffering in silence is little more than an unholy alliance with the Empire.
Do you remember one of the classic fables of the old west? The town of Rock Ridge was about to be demolished by the railroad. There seemed to be no way to preserve the tranquility of that small town until the Sheriff, Black Bart, devised a scheme well beyond the imagination of most creative minds. The town folks, viewing the plan with a large dose of hermeneutical suspicion, immediately rejected it. But the sheriff, pulling on heart strings that defy logic and common sense replied, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott.”
There is nothing romantic about human suffering. Yet throughout history, in the name of God and Randolph Scott, we have marched into hell for some very unheavenly causes. The rape of a woman has nothing to do with redemption. The enslavement of another, both physically and emotionally, has nothing to do with God. The abuse of a child or a nation of children can never be morally or theologically justified. If there is to be redemption here and now, it will only come when the people of God work toward the completion of God’s holy creation. Since God has suffered for us, we must be willing to suffer for those who have already suffered. Since God has suffered for us, with great suspicion, we must encounter the schemes of empires and the dreams of those whom empires enslave. Since God has suffered for us, we must work to change the conditions under which profitable suffering is deemed acceptable.
With open hearts and ears we must listen for the silent screams of those who are seldom heard. God is with them because God has always been with the slave, the down trodden, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. Now it is our turn. You’d do it for Randolph Scott. Will you do it for those whose silent suffering cries out to be exposed?