And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
- 1 Peter 5:10
First of all, let me say that the "little while" of suffering to which Peter was referring is not my sermon time, contrary to what my congregation may think.
But you know, I could say that the suffering we encounter in life is divisively theodical in nature and I wouldn’t be wrong. Theodical comes from one of those fancy-pants pastor words, “theodicy.” Theodicy is not the story written by Homer (that’s The Odyssey). Theodicy is the study of and attempt to answer why God lets bad things happen to good people. Job, Joseph, Jeremiah, and even Jesus had some fairly terrible things happen to them. Even people without “J” as the first letter of their name suffered. Paul, Peter, and a host of others did, too. We all want to know one thing. Why? If God is the God of all grace and has called us to eternal glory, why does he sometimes do it by dragging the people in his church through 50 miles of mud bog and thorns? Why are we to live in the middle of Babylon if we have been made to be victorious overcomers as I pointed out last week? How is suffering supposed to leave us strong, firm and steadfast as promised?
God revealed to us through faith, which is his divine persuasion, that we could do amazing things. Then the road to those amazing things often takes a hard left turn and if we didn’t actually get thrown out of the vehicle by that, we darned near did. It challenges our trust, and certainly our faith. How do we reaffirm that God actually said what we heard Him say after something like that happens?
I’ll give you an example.
Authority of the Word
As a little boy, I was called at the age of 9. I recall opening the Bible that I received from Trinity Lutheran Church in my bedroom one day and, with no one in the room, I began preaching out of Isaiah 49. Really, all I was doing was reading, but I read with authority, and I’d never seen anyone preach like that so I didn’t know where it came from. Certainly not my pastors, who were very traditional pulpit preachers. I felt passionate and I had fire. I felt the power in those words moving inside me. I felt the power in what was said even though I didn’t understand it. I had absolutely no clue the impact that this chapter of Isaiah would have on my life. All I knew at that point was that the word made me feel safe and secure in a time in my life that was very insecure because everything around me was unsafe. I felt God saying, “This is what you will do for me.”
Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.
But God had to have messed this up, right? I mean, it was His choice to place me in a family that was very broken that would eventually lead me to be a very broken man. In my family, it would be an understatement to say I experienced many not-so-good things. It was deeply broken because the people in my family were deeply broken going back quite some time. They call it a generational curse. So I ask you if God was going to really use me, why would He choose to place me there? Everywhere you look there are these expectations that pastors don’t actually have a past. You launch a rocket from a launchpad, not a quagmire of mud, right?
God had to have gotten this very wrong.
Why did He not place me somewhere that I could really be of use to Him, or in a place where I could be protected until needed? Isaiah 49 said that the servant of the Lord was a sharp sword hidden in God’s palm, and a polished arrow hidden in His quiver. What I experienced was hardly a polishing. It was more like a continual 30-grit grinding of mental, physical and emotional abuse. If I was so awesome and blessed with the destiny to be a vessel of so much power, then who got my travel orders screwed up? I want names and answers, as somebody made a big mistake because my path was a mess from the jump.
Stones in the Process
James S. Hewett said, “Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.” There was honestly only one thing that got me through that time of grinding and moved me through it to polishing.
A lot of people in our midst have suffered injustices in this world, and while we will spend time talking about that someday, what I am breaking out here today is, how do you trust God when bad things are happening in your life? How can we reaffirm His great love for us when we see so little of that love around us? When things aren’t going your way? When your truck is forever at the mechanic? When the roof blows off your house during a storm? When you have problem after problem after problem after problem crop up?
It’s really not surprising when we start looking around for our own solutions because we don’t think God is answering us, or at least he’s not answering us as fast as we would like. There’s a catch, though.
If we put the problems we face into the context of the problems faced by the people of Peter's time, we’re actually getting off really easy. The vast majority of us are not persecuted like they were, or even like some churches are in our modern age. But still, our perception (there’s that word) is all too often our reality. Our context matters to us, and even if we can’t compare our issues to those of others, that still doesn’t make our issues go away. So WHAT will? WHAT gets us through the grindstone of life to come out on the other side. WHAT makes us polished and flawless arrows that will fly true and WHAT makes us swords that will cut surgically?
That WHAT question is important to ask because it holds a promise (there’s THAT word again). We find the promise of peace in that “WHAT” question. Our anxiety levels could sure use a healthy helping of peace.
The whole focus of 1 Peter is talking about finding hope in hopeless situations. Finding God’s pattern in the past and understanding how that power plays into our persistently stepping into our faith. That's the same faith God gave us and the Holy Spirit's work happening in it to create that new “authority inside” of us.
What’s odd here, though, is Peter saying, “After you’ve suffered a little while,” … um, Pete, let’s talk about exactly what your definition of “a little while” is, shall we? This “little while” has been going on for what seems like forever. Suffering has been evident EVERYWHERE for much longer than just a “little while," Pete. In my own life, it's been over 40 years, Pete. Four-tee-years, Pete. That's a "four" and an "oh" as in "Oh my word, this has been going on forever, Pete." This is not a “little while!”
Or is it?
Peter is actually right. Our perception is that suffering has been happening for a long time, but if you look at God’s timeline from God's perspective, this actually is just a little while. When we start to look at God’s promise from God’s perspective, a funny thing happens. We begin to see things through God’s eyes, and that shift causes us to see that it really is just “a little while.”
The fact is, lifting ourselves out of our perceptions and into our purpose requires faith in the promise, just like we’ve been talking about. And today, I’m going to start unpacking how we go about doing precisely that.
The answer, as you may have guessed it, is to use our spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and communion to let God build more faith in us. Remember, the growth of faith comes from practicing our spiritual disciplines in acts of piety and acts of mercy and over the next several Sundays we’re going to talk about each of them. Let’s launch this with the spiritual discipline of prayer.
Engine or Caboose?
Prayer was never meant to be a last resort, even though we sometimes use it that way after we've gone digging for our own solutions. Instead, it was always meant to be the most powerful first resort we could actually possess. It’s one of the ways we allow Jesus to perfect the faith his Holy Spirit placed inside us.
Think of prayer as our baseline communication with God through the Holy Spirit.
The Bible is chock full of people praying, otherwise, it would just be a history book with some nifty ideas thrown in. Jesus, for example, prayed deep and powerful prayers. In one instance, he told his disciples that some demons could not be exorcised except by prayer. It's no doubt that his disciples prayed, but did they pray as deeply and as widely as Christ prayed? We have evidence that they didn’t in the same way we have evidence that we don’t, either.
The Bible also tells us to pray anytime. Ephesians 6:18 says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests; with this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
Psalm 116:1-2 says, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live.”
So we see here that we are to pray all the time and for as long as we live. Why? Because we’re in a flesh suit all the time. We’re suffering all of the time. The answer is to go straight to God with it, all of the time. Why? Because he hears our voices when we need His mercy, when we need His peace and when we need His reaffirmation. This is where we find that guardianship of our hearts called peace. It comes from the same place the peace that passes all understanding mentioned in Philippians 4 comes from. Peace there is brought by the vehicle of prayer, petition, and thanksgiving. You get it? Prayer is a vehicle to peace, which comes solely from God.
A deep breath
That peace helps to alleviate a LOT of anxiety. Prayer enables us, through faith in the power of God, to have peace that will transcend the toughest times that we as Christians can face. In Peter’s time, they had it rough. They faced persecution at many turns and would for centuries to come. There was a spiritual war going on around them. There’s one going on around us as well.
“Really? What persecutions do Christians really face?” Many ask that. Maybe you ask that. I know I've asked that. The answer is spiritual persecutions. Be sure of that. The devil doesn’t like to lose, and he works double hard not to lose. So we have to pray doubly hard to win. What is essentially stopping us from doing that and making headway into God’s good and perfect will for us? Our own selves, mostly. But if we could discover that reaffirmation in prayer, there would be powerful forces unleashed for God’s glory that would outwork, outwit and outlast the devil.
That little 9-year old me that I told you about grew to be a man (as evidenced by me writing this to you now, obviously). There were many times that life got really difficult. Not just challenging, but mercilessly difficult. It hurt too often, too hard, and too painfully to keep going. I’ve said before that a young boy should not go to bed praying God would spare him from waking up in the morning. In the end, though, I always woke up. I wondered why, but just kept going. I just kept praying. Through it all, I came to the conclusion that if God and Jesus loved me, well, that is enough to just be willing to try, just like Bob when he was asked to catch me in last week's message. That little boy prayed hard, and right now he’s standing before you preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as he was called to do.
Life still hurts. Life still isn’t easy. And I still pray.
The 49-year old man that was that 9-year-old boy would tell you to pray. Pray hard, pray often. Discover new ways to practice prayer. Pray with your family, pray with your friends, pray with and for people you don't even know and always pray that the Holy Spirit would open up opportunities for you to serve others in prayer. This guides us into the men and women God designed us to be. Prayer takes that grindstone of life and adds the polish to create a flawless finish to our faith.
That flawless, reaffirming finish on our faith is how we get really good at our purpose. It’s how the trials we go through are endured so that the promise of “joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness,” all due to the divine persuasion of faith, come to us and through us.
In her book, Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot wrote about her husband Jim Elliot. Jim was a missionary to Ecuador who was martyred in 1956 in the jungle by a tribe he and his missionary team was trying to reach.
Jim was a constant journal writer and one of his journal entries addressed his concern about the impact his life would have on others. He wrote a prayer that said, “Father, make of me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.” Jim Elliot’s impact continues on even though he died so long ago after having prayed that at the young age of twenty-nine. Imagine how prayers like that could impact our lives and the lives of those around us.
One of Elliot’s comments echoed a nonconformist preacher named Philip Henry who was the father of Matthew Henry, the noted Bible commentator. Philip said, "He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep (like Jim did with his life) when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose (His glory in Christ after he was killed)." We undergo the suffering Peter talked about for “a little while” because we cannot lose the promise given us from God of being made strong, firm and steadfast, even if that means after our deaths.
The truth is, you cannot stay a stone all your life. It’s your choice whether or not you become ground down by the grindstone or polished up by the process. Among the other spiritual disciplines, prayer is the fork of faith in the road between your perception and your purpose. That fork of faith is where we find God’s reaffirming promise when we wake up in the morning just like that 9-year-old boy did.
You know which fork he took. Which one will you take?
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.