Lecture 50: Suffering and Heaven
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: 1 Peter
Pain and Suffering
I. One of the fundamental questions of life
One of the fundamental questions of life is: How can an all-powerful, all-good God allow pain and suffering?
This morning I’m not so interested in non-Christians who ask this question. God never committed himself to step in and protect them from pain and suffering and then to step out so they can live the rest of their lives apart from him. He never made that commitment. And I’m really not that interested in the questions of “Christians” who use pain as an excuse to marginalize God in their own lives. But this morning I’m interested in this question being asked by fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ; for those of us who are fully committed to him. How can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow pain and suffering?
I’m thinking of people like Rick and Shelly whose son, Scott, was born with a heart defect and died at 11 1/2 years old, 12 years ago. I’m interested in those of us who have had to ask that kind of question. Part of the answer lies in 1 Peter.
II. 1 Peter 1:1-2
I’m going to start with 1 Peter 1:1-2 where Peter writes, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia [These are the ancient names for what is modern-day Turkey] according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.”
Notice the term that Peter uses to describe those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are “exiles.” Other translations pick phrases like we are “strangers in the world,” “we reside as aliens,” “we are living as foreigners.” The Greek word is actually a technical term. It’s a technical term for non-Israelites who are permanently living in Israel and so the closest phrase we have in English is “resident aliens.”
What Peter is saying is that these people who live in modern-day Turkey, for people who live in modern-day Spokane, we must live as foreigners; that this piece of dirt on which we stand is not home and we are exiles, we are resident aliens. It’s why Paul tells the Philippians in chapter 3 that our citizenship is in heaven. It’s why the old gospel song is so powerful when it says, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through.” We are exiles. We are aliens. We do not ultimately belong here.
I was talking with my kids years ago when Kiersten was pretty small about this whole concept in 1 Peter and that night when I was putting her to bed she said, “Daddy, what’s blue and has four legs?” “I don’t know Kiersten. I give up. What’s blue and has four legs?” She goes, “Me! I’m an alien!” Kiersten understood it, didn’t she? She understood that she was different than the people of this world. We are exiles. We are aliens.
III. Why are we exiles? — 1:3a
Why are we exiles? Well, Peter continues in verse 3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again.” Every one of us entered this world through a physical birth. But for those of us who are exiles, we have been born again. We have become new people. In Paul’s language we’ve become “new creatures;” that we who were once dead have now been made alive, the doctrine of Regeneration. If I could expand Peter’s metaphor, I’d say we’ve been born again into a new family; that we have new brothers; that we have new sisters. We have a new father and we have a new home. This world is no longer my home; I’m just passing through as a resident alien.
IV. Benefits of being born again – 1:3b-5
Peter then continues by spelling out the benefits of being born again. And he says, “He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, [we’ve been born again] to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
A. Have a “living hope”
One of the benefits of being born again is that we’ve been born again to a living hope.
The world might hope in things. The world might hope it gets good grades. The world might hope that they get a good job. The world might hope that 9/11 never happens again. The world tries to be good and hopes that it gets to heaven. But in this world, apart from Christ, there is no hope. There’s absolutely no hope whatsoever. In Ephesians 2:12 Paul says, “Remember that you were at that time [before your conversion] separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” The world has no hope, not really.
But for us who are reborn, exiles, our hope is sure of what lies ahead. It’s living. It’s active. It’s sure. We are confident of what lies ahead. For example, as I look forward to standing before the Judgment Throne of God, I look forward in hope. I look forward with absolute confidence that I have been pronounced “not guilty” of my sins. I look forward in the absolute confident hope that I will hear “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” There’s no question in my mind that that’s what lies ahead.
When a loved one dies, when the loved one is a believer, we are absolutely confident of our hope of seeing him or her again, aren’t we? Why are we so sure? Why is our hope living? Because it is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, Peter says. The very power that raised Jesus from the dead is the very same power that guarantees my hope and your hope if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. That’s why we don’t “hope.” That’s why we are absolutely “confident” of what our Master has in store for us.
B. “Inheritance” - verse 4
We’ve been born again to a living hope, but secondly we’ve been born again to an inheritance. And it’s because I’ve been born into a new family that my inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you [kept in heaven for me].” Our inheritance is not on earth. Our inheritance is not subject to the stock market; our parents can’t spend it and we can’t waste it. It’s waiting for me in heaven.
One of the strongest emphases all the way through 1 Peter (I would love it if you would go home and read through the book this afternoon) one of the strongest emphases in 1 Peter is an emphasis on the future. You have a bit of it in this verse. As Christians we must deal with the needs of the present and that is all the way through the book. But Peter wants us to have an orientation towards the future, so that while we’re dealing with the needs of the present, that ultimately we are looking forward in eager anticipation to what lies ahead. Among other things, looking ahead to the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time, the final drop of the gavel, so to speak, of God in his judgment seat where our salvation is finalized. But it’s a strong, forward-looking emphasis that is all the way through the book. So those of us who are born again are looking forward to getting our real inheritance, the one that moth and rust isn’t going to destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal.
C. As we live out our lives in anticipation of our future inheritance
Thirdly, Peter adds that as we live out our lives in anticipation of our future inheritance, we know that in the meantime, as we’re living out this life of exile, we are guarded by God. “Who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation.” We are protected. We are shielded as we look forward to the coming salvation.
In the present we still deal with issues, don’t we? We deal with issues of our lives and of living in this world. We know that Jesus is close; that he’s almost hand in hand with us; that he’s watching and he’s guiding and he’s guarding. But we live ultimately looking to the future, guarded in the present with an orientation to what lies ahead.
D. Point: Christians are exiles
What’s the point? The point is that Christians are exiles. Christian exiles live their lives dealing with the present, always looking to the future, towards heaven, towards our true home and our true inheritance. If I could pick just a few verses from Peter to help drive this point home; you have verses like 1:13: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded [there’s the present], set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ [the revelation of his second coming].” In chapter 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable [the present], so that when they speak against you as evil-doers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” So that when they see your good deeds, they will be convicted by it and they too will become disciples, so that they can glorify God on the day when he comes back, the day of visitation. In chapter 4:5: “[These people] will give an account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead [this forward-looking orientation towards judgment].” Or in chapter 5:4 “And when the chief Shepherd appears [that’s in the future when he comes back for us], you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”
Peter is fully immersed in the present, dealing with the issues of the present, but his orientation is not to have his head drop down and only be concerned with me, myself and I right here and now; but his whole orientation is looking forward to when Christ returns again. This is the mindset that must permeate our lives, living in the present, looking forward to the future.
V. This is how we handle suffering — vs. 6-9
All of this becomes the theological backdrop with how a Christian is to deal with suffering. 1 Peter is first and foremost about how you deal with pain and suffering in your life, but it’s really important to get the backdrop set for it. Verse 6, Peter continues: “In this you rejoice, [in the fact that you’ve been born again to a living hope, to an inheritance, that you’re guarded], though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.” Why were you grieved by various trials? “So that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire [that this tested genuineness of your faith] may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ [when he comes back]. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is in expressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
A. We will experience trials
We will experience trials. We will experience suffering and pain because we are part of a sinful, fallen world and often we will be inflicted by pain when it is absolutely no fault of ours whatsoever. Anyone who teaches other than that isn’t reading the Bible.
You will be persecuted for your faith because everyone who seeks to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 2 Timothy 3:12. And the question is, how will you and I respond when suffering and pain comes? Peter has two of the answers.
1. Earth is not my home — exiles
We will respond by acknowledging that earth is not my home; that we are exiles and that suffering is, at best, temporary. Did you see that in verse 6? “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while [you have been grieved by various trials].” Suffering is, at best, temporary and then we get to go home. That’s not to minimize the pain and suffering, but it is to put a Biblical perspective on it.
One of the most powerful illustrations I ever heard preached was a sermon where the pastor talked about the timeline of eternity, which is infinite, it’s always extending, and so technically our life here on earth doesn’t even register as a blip on the timeline of eternity. But the illustration was to just pretend that the blip of our 70 or 80 years on earth registers 3 seconds. They’re not even going to be a blip. Let’s just say that they register on the timeline of eternity as 3 seconds. It’s like God is saying, “Can you give me 3 seconds of obedience? Can you suffer for my namesake for just 3 seconds? And not even that, in the timeline of eternity what I’m asking you for doesn’t even appear on the scope.” Heaven is our home. Earth is not our home. We have to keep that in perspective. And the pain and the suffering in this world is immense and that’s why this question of “How can an all-good, all-powerful God allow pain and suffering?” is one of the fundamental questions of reality because it is so painful. But on the radarscope of heaven, on the timeline of eternity, it’s not even a blip, three seconds at the most. And that’s an orientation that we need to have.
2. Faith that recognizes that God is at work in the midst of our pain for our good.
But there’s a second answer in Peter and that is that as disciples of Jesus Christ, as people who have faith in him, we recognize that God is at work in the midst of our pain for our good, whether we like it or not. Again, there are verses all the way through 1st Peter. In chapter 3:14 he writes, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” That’s how we are to respond in the midst of pain and suffering. We’re blessed. In chapter 4:13, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Chapter 4:16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” In other words, suffering gives us the chance to glorify God in how we respond.
The kind of faith the disciples of Jesus Christ have is the kind of faith that affirms, in the midst of sorrow, the truth of verse 8, “That though you have not seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”
The main verse, of course, in all this is Romans 8:28 and when Robin’s and mine second daughter died, it was announced in chapel the next Monday morning and we got 1500 notes from students and only one of them was foolish enough to quote Romans 8:28 in the midst of pain. But years later, as you learn and you grow and as you understand Romans 8:28, it becomes more and more important. For those of you who don’t know our story, I don’t want you think that I’m speaking of something that I have not experienced.
“But we know that for those who love God that all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” There’s nothing that happens, no matter how bad, that God is not at work in the midst of it for his good. Of course, the rub is that we don’t want his good in the midst of it, do we? We don’t want that. We want the pain to end. We want the pleasure to come back, and that’s our good; but don’t ever read verse 28 without reading verse 29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” See, that’s good. That’s the good that God is at work in; that he’s not so concerned about the cessation of pain in your life and mine. What he is concerned about is that you and I grow from one degree of glory to the next, as Paul tells the Corinthians. So that we look more like his Son, and that is the good towards which God is driving us, especially in the midst of pain and in the midst of suffering. We may not like his definition of “good” but that’s what it is.
VI. Rick and Shelly’s Testimony
I want to share with you the testimony of Rick and Shelly and their daughter who is now 20. It’s the story of their son, Scott, her big brother, who died twelve years ago when he was 11 1/2 years old. It is a very painful testimony. As you listen to Rick and Shelly talk about Scott, look through the pain and see the perspective of how Rick and Shelly now look at life; how they look forward to heaven through the eyes of pain.
Bill: Thanks Rick and Shelly for sharing with us. Why don’t you start off just by telling us about your son, Scott?
Shelly: When Scott was born, we were told he had seven major heart defects. He had a couple of holes in his heart. It was on the wrong side of his body and it was backwards, among other things. So through the course of his life he went through four major surgeries.
Bill: Rick, tell me what kind of kid was he? What did he like to do?
Rick: Scott was a typical kid. He liked sports. He liked baseball, t-ball and basketball. He liked spiders, unlike his mother. He loved to fish.
Bill: I hear he liked alligators.
Rick: Yeah. On our trip to Florida he ate more alligator meat than anybody in the family. He liked the Seahawks. He got Steve Largent’s autograph. He was a big sports fan.
Bill: I know it’s hard to remember, hard to recall, but could you tell us of the day that he went home; some of the specifics of that day.
Rick: Scott was still in intensive care. He was about 11 1/2. This was his fourth heart surgery and his second open-heart. Later in the evening Shelly and her parents had gone home. My parents had gone home. I was there alone with him at the time with the nurses and doctors. And basically he had an asthmatic attack. He couldn’t catch his breath. This asthmatic attack is what took him. I tried to call Shelly and make sure that she could get to the hospital in time, and her folks and my parents and our pastor at the time. They all arrived, but by the time they had arrived he had passed away at Children’s Hospital there in Seattle.
Shelly: When we got there, Darcy and my parents and myself, they were working on Scott and that’s when they took us back there again and they quit working on him. They said that he was gone. And it was at that point that I remember we went up to the bed and it was so very real that he was there and Christ was there with him. Scott always used to blow me a kiss every morning when I dropped him and Darcy off at school, Scott would always turn around and blow me a kiss. It’s hard to describe it. It was so real. There was Scott and he was holding Christ’s hand and he turned around and he blew me a kiss. He was never for one instance alone. His dad was with him and Christ was with him. He was not for one second left alone.
Rick: Kind of hard to describe, but the sense was that there was a thin veil between us here and now, and all of eternity. While we grieved, when we handed him over, you could sense Christ with open arms on the other side welcoming him home. I know, given a choice to return, he wouldn’t want to. We’re separated from him. He’s home. We long to see him and we know we will see him again. But I wouldn’t wish him back to what he had to endure.
Shelly: One of the verses that’s on his headstone is John 11:4: “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And there have been many people that have come to know the Lord through Scott’s life and through his death. There have been numerous blessings that God has shown us that have come about because of Scott’s death that have made it more bearable. God’s been good to us.
Rick: We know of one friend of ours who was near death. He had a priest come in and give the last rites, and yet miraculously he came through. This was prior to Scott’s death. As a result of some friends that have witnessed to them and our witnessing, they joined our small group. We saw them come into a personal relationship with Christ, especially as a result of Scott’s death. After Cliff, our friend, came out of the hospital miraculously, coming though this cancer; again, after been given last rites, survived; and then after Scott passed on and them joining our small group and seeing them baptized; and God in his grace then took Cliff home at 50 years old. To be a part of that and to see how he spared Cliff and brought him into the fold and then called him home and how he used Scott and orchestrated that was incredible.
Shelly: There were many, many prayers throughout the country being said for Scott at every surgery. He had asked his dad the night before we went into the hospital for a guarantee that he wouldn’t need any more surgeries. It broke Rick’s heart, but he had to tell him he couldn’t give him that guarantee. Only God could give him that guarantee. When Scott died, we were asked why God didn’t answer all those prayers. And we told them that he did. He answered the most important one of them all. He answered Scott’s. He gave him that guarantee that he wasn’t going to need any more surgeries. And he’s alive and he’s whole. At his funeral, one of the songs they sang was “Because He Lives,” Because he lives I can face tomorrow. I know it’s about Christ, but I can’t ever sing it without thinking about Scott. Because Scott lives, I can face tomorrow.
Rick: At times we felt like, “Why did this happen to us? Why Scott?” But then we realized that God is no stranger to suffering. He gave his only Son and I know personally I’ve come to a deeper relationship with him as a result, knowing that he not only gave himself, but he gave his only Son for me and for you. I gladly would have gone through that surgery for Scott had I been able to. I couldn’t. Scott was the one with the defective heart and Scott had to face the circumstances. Likewise, Christ had to be obedient and fulfill that for his Father. I have come to a deeper relationship and understanding of how much God loves me; that he not only gave of himself, he gave his only Son.
Shelly: We didn’t give Scott willingly, but we’ve been blessed. We were blessed to have Scott as a son. We’re proud that the Lord chose to use him. We’re glad he gave him to us for the 11 years.
Rick: It brings heaven close to home. It makes it a very real place. It’s something we look forward to. I no longer fear death. I know that fear, partially, is what led me to the Lord as a youth, thinking about dying and remember the sense of relief I felt when I came to know Christ; but even more so now, there’s no fear of dying. That will be my ticket home, not that I’m in a hurry. We long for the day to be reunited not only with Scott, but to see our Savior face to face.
Shelly: I think of that day when Christ will be there and say, “There’s someone here who you’ve been waiting to see.”
Rick: On a lighter note, I don’t know how God orchestrated this, but the night Scott died we were in a conference room with our pastor and our family and he was leading us in prayer. We were holding hands and praying and when it came to our daughter, Darcy, who was about 8, she too was looking forward to the future. She’s praying, basically to Scott, “Scott, you look out for Snooky, (which was a dog that we had to put down), and I’ll look after Andy, (which is Scott’s cat.)” Then she reminded Scott that she likes Pedigree, the one with the brown label. And through all our tears we were able to laugh. Again, hard to describe; but through all our tears and in the midst of our grief, we were still able to laugh. God is good. He has truly blessed us. At that time, I think Shelly and I both would attest that we were never closer to the Lord. We not only wanted to be in fellowship and wanted to be in his Word, we had to be. We were totally dependent on him; and one of my prayers was always that I would remain somehow at that level where I’m totally dependent.
If only we could learn to live life
I know of no stronger testimony to the message of 1 Peter than that. “Brings heaven close to home.” “Makes it a very real place.” “Something to look forward to.” “God is good.” “We are truly blessed.” “We want to live totally dependent on him.”
If only all of us could learn to live life knowing that we are separated from eternity by only a thin veil; and that one day very soon our three seconds will be up and we will go home, blowing a kiss back to our loved ones: that we’re going to a place where Jesus will “wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Then we will fully understand how our sorrow and pain was for our good and for the glory of God. Amen