In 1997 I was preaching through 1 Peter when an elder made an interesting comment. Before the service, he flipped through his Bible to check out that morning’s passage. After skimming it, he said in mock exasperation, “Oh no! Not suffering again!”

Despite the light tone, there was a serious undercurrent to his complaint. He was tired of the theme of suffering. He wanted a change of pace.

His concern continued to fester. More than a year later he gathered together a revolt of the most “successful” (and therefore least suffering) men in the church. They wanted to see changes in my ministry. My overemphasis on suffering was one of the concerns.

But back on that morning in 1997, this elder was not yet aware how deeply he detested the message. He had so far been responding with joy as I preached the Gospel with a clarity he had not previously heard. His lament–“not suffering again!”–was an early sign that all was not well. The Gospel seed had fallen among thorns. Unless those thorns were uprooted, they would strangle his joy with earthly cares.

Meanwhile, notice how he arrived at his protest. It was not a response to the content of my sermon. I hadn’t preached it yet. But he’d read the text and he knew that I would preach what the text said. His unhappiness was occasioned by the Word itself. This elder opened his Bible and saw that Peter had, yet again, chosen to harp on suffering. He was starting to get fed up.

Sometimes we want the minister to “make the Bible relevant” to our lives. We want the Scriptures to meet us “where we are”. We want “application” (which becomes a code word for our desire to talk about our own concerns rather than those of the Word). The Scriptures do not need to be made relevant. They already are relevant. It is our lives that become irrelevant to the Scriptures. When this happens we often perversely demand that the Scriptures should change.

We don’t put it that way of course. It’s the minister’s fault, not the Bible’s. The minister is the one who fails to tailor the message to our circumstances, to shape the Gospel to fit our self-defined “needs”.

Yet it is often the Spirit’s design, working through the Word, to redefine our needs and to alter our circumstances and the way we perceive them. For this to happen, we have to submit to the Scriptures. We can’t force them to submit to us.

The elder’s life had become irrelevant to the Word. He wasn’t suffering for Christ and he didn’t want to be called to do so. Yet the Bible is shot through with this message of suffering. How could it not be? The message of suffering is the message of the cross and of our conformity to that cross. That’s the message this elder and his eventual cohorts rejected.

Let us rather seek to embrace this message. Let us have our lives defined–if necessary redefined–by it. This quest may cause us to ask first an uncomfortable question and then a seemingly ridiculous one. Why aren’t we suffering? And how can we start?

I’ll take up those questions in a later post.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to a nice sermon on suffering from 1 Peter 4:12,13.

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