Understanding the Divine Design of Difficulties

By Marcelo A. Tolopilo

I thought I would take the next couple of Lighthouse articles to address a subject that many of our ministry friends are currently facing. The topic at hand: the varied sufferings believers encounter during their brief sojourn on this earth.

My desire and prayer is that we will discover the Lord’s perspective and comfort in our trials as we briefly look to God’s word together. If you are currently “distressed by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6), I encourage you to study our text (1 Peter 1:1-9) more thoroughly on your own. I promise you, it is a veritable goldmine of encouragement. Over the next two, perhaps three Lighthouse articles we will cover four great principles from this passage that will strengthen our trust in the Lord, and adorn our lives with His transforming promises – especially if you find yourself bearing up under difficult circumstances.

If the waters you are negotiating presently are smooth, enjoy the ride and file these articles away among your navigational charts because rough seas are inevitable in our voyage through life.

Playwright Tennessee Williams once said, “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering, because when it comes you’ll know you are dead.” Granted for the Christian, the day of our death is the day we stop suffering and the day we really start living, but Mr. Williams makes his point ~ this life is fraught with difficulties. Jesus put it this way, “In the world you have tribulation” (John16:33). That is the way of it in this age. The question that lingers in the mind is, “Is there a Divine design in suffering?”

“To be shot at and missed!”
Sir Winston Churchill once said, “The most exhilarating feeling in life is to be shot at and missed.” I suppose there would be an element of excitement to that experience. I’ve never been shot at, so I really don’t know, but in that amusing Churchillian quip we really find the basic human perspective on hardship and suffering. That is to say, suffering is random, arbitrary and you avoid it by a bit of common sense (don’t put yourself in a position to be shot at), and a lot of luck (being missed by the bullet), and if you get hit by the bullet, well, deal with that when it happens.

In other words, there really is no rhyme or reason to suffering. Often it simply comes “out of left field” and you deal with it by grinning and bearing it until it passes like a gallstone. Nietzsche, from his hopeless, nihilistic vantage point was a bit more morose – if not to the point – when he said, “life is hard and then you die.” To put it another way, life is suffering then you cease to exist. In the end, the sagacious perspective of man on hardship is that it is random, impersonal, pointless, and ultimately hopeless.

But what does the Bible say?
Into that dark void of finite thinking and hopelessness, we speak the one question that can dispel the shadows of despair and enlighten our minds with truth, and brighten our hearts with hope. With Paul we ask the question, “But what does the scripture say?” (Galatians 4:30). That inquiry leads us to the words of 1 Peter 1:1-9, and to the antidote for man’s poisonous conclusions. In our short study, we will discover God’s mind on the issue of Christian suffering. We will see that Our suffering is Not random (our present Lighthouse issue), Not impersonal, Not pointless, and most definitely Not without hope.

Our suffering is not random
Writing to a dispersed Christian community suffering the general hardships of life and the specific and pointed wrath of an increasingly hostile Roman Empire[1] (footnote #1) Peter wrote, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God …” (1 Peter 1:1, 2a) Let’s consider that first point that proceeds from our text and rises up to encourage our often-beleaguered spirits.

My friends, please understand that our suffering is not random. Peter’s reasoning clearly leads us to this anchor for our souls. The apostle Peter launches his epistle by pointing out a certain dualistic reality to the Christian’s existence on this earth. On the one hand, we are “chosen, i.e., the noble people of God (more on that in the next Lighthouse article), but on the other hand we are peculiar “aliens.” Christians are a transient people, ill-fitting foreigners, “scattered” throughout a hostile territory. As Peter’s persecuted audience could attest to, Christians are not simply “strangers,” but generally persona non grata, that is, unwelcome people in this age and often the target of its indignation and scorn.

What’s more, believers suffer the hardships indigenous to a corrupted, fallen creation (Romans 8:18-25). Christians get sick, lose their jobs, suffer tremendous loss, endure deep emotional pain, etc. because we live in a world affected in all its parts by the fall of man. We suffer because we live in a world at enmity with God, and also because we exist in a broken, sin-sick system that begets pain and needs fixing. Christians suffer the distress associated with “various (kinds of) trials” (1:6) whether the cause is persecution or the corruption of creation.

But here’s the important truth we must understand and embrace: both sides of our existence here on earth, our standing before God (“chosen”) as well as our status as “aliens,” and all of the suffering of our sojourn are “according to the foreknowledge of God.”

God is sovereign. This means He orchestrates all of our life, including our adversity. Scripture clearly teaches the Lord rules as the absolute Sovereign. King David wrote, “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). It makes absolutely no sense to believe God is sovereign enough to rule creation and the nations, but not sufficiently in control to reign over the lives of His people.

Furthermore the grammar in 1 Peter 1:1 & 2 clearly illustrates this point. You see, the clause “according to the foreknowledge of God” modifies all of verse one and not simply the word “chosen.” Unfortunately, most translations (NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, et. al) order the words in the text so that “according to the foreknowledge of God” follows the term “chosen.”

That’s not the word order in the Greek text. “Chosen” appears with the words “aliens, scattered” and reads literally “to [the] chosen aliens scattered [throughout] …” In fact, the phrase “according to the foreknowledge of God” does not appear in the text until nine words later. To structure the wording the way most translations do also gives the word “chosen” a verbal sense and it is not a verb. It is an adjective.

The long and short of it is this, the most natural, literal way to understand the clause “according to the foreknowledge of God,” is to allow it to modify all of verse one.  God has decreed our ‘exalted standing as His chosen ones, yes, but His sovereign control also extends to the affliction we experience in our sojourn upon this terrestrial ball. The comforting truth this verse proclaims to us is that our suffering, believer, is not arbitrary, but rather it is orchestrated. Take courage my fellow Christian; our God reigns in our affliction, and as we shall also see next time, the Great Conductor is not aloof, but intimately involved in our hardships orchestrating our trials for our good, His great purposes all the while sustaining us with the sweet melody of eternal hope.

[1] 1 Peter was most likely written just before Nero’s wholesale oppression of Christians. In the summer of 64 A.D., Nero burned Rome and falsely blamed its destruction on a favorite cultural scapegoat, Christians. Persecution of Christians intensified and became widespread during this era.

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