Suffering as an Exile

By: Spencer McCorkel
Suffering is unpleasant. Suffering is also not monolithic; it has various types. Right now the most famous bike race is going on, the Tour de France. In 21 stages over 23 days, riders test their pain thresholds and what determines the overall champion is how well he can suffer compared to his competitors. This is a type of suffering that is aimed at a certain outcome. In the Christian life this would be more akin to the practice of spiritual disciplines, which in the moment may not be pleasant, but are producing within us the fruit of righteousness.[1] There is also the suffering that is brought about by sin or just poor decisions. This kind is meant to be avoided by the Church.[2] But the suffering that Peter is particularly preparing the church for is a kind of suffering that is the result of persecution, the actions of others to harm or disadvantage us. This is a suffering that comes because we follow Jesus and treasure Him above all the world has to offer. The Christians in Asia Minor are going to experience expulsion from the markets, lose their homes, face interrogation over their refusal to worship Caesar. In the decades following this letter, the Church finds itself hotly pursued for the purpose of eradication. Peter wants them to be prepared for the days that are coming, the days that he is already beginning to see unfold in Rome.

One of the certainties presented to Christians through Scripture is that suffering is inevitable. Jesus Himself told us, “In the world you will have tribulation (affliction, distress), but take heart; I have overcome the world.”[3] Suffering became the general experience of Christians in the early Church, exemplified by the suffering of the Apostles and those connected with them.[4] Suffering was not an exception, but the expectation. And it was expected because they were “sojourners and exiles.”[5] This present ordering of things is a foreign land occupied by hostile powers, yet we reside as citizens of a Kingdom that is not of this world. As Tertullian wrote, “[The Church] knows that she is but a sojourner on the earth, and that among strangers she naturally finds foes.”[6] The present darkness is working to shut out the light and, yet the light only shines more brightly in the darkness. Suffering, rather than muting the gospel of Jesus, serves to amplify it. And regardless of the type of suffering experienced, one thing is sure; suffering reveals what we truly value, what we treasure above everything.

Peter to this point in his letter has sought to encourage the believers living in Asia Minor that even though persecution is increasing throughout the Roman Empire and their present possessions and way of life may be threatened very soon, their true home can never be threatened. Their inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven.”[7] As this persecution came, the Church only became more powerful in its weakness. They were threatened with death if they did not denounce Christ and worship the Emperor; their response was to reassert their worship of the true God revealed in Christ and gladly lose their life. For their death in the present age grants them entrance into the presence of God, their reward. It was unimaginable to consider trading the eternal hope of Christ for the fleeting comforts of life in the present. May we seize upon the same anchor, to treasure Christ in such a way that our life in the present world serves as a witness that there is more; there is more beauty, more goodness, more comfort, more justice, more life than what can even be imagined in this mess of a world. Jesus is coming to make all things new!

One of the testimonies during this era of the church that exemplifies what Peter is teaching here is that of Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop of Syria (Antioch). Writing to the church in Rome during his guarded transport from Syria to Rome through Asia Minor (the area where Peter’s addresses reside), he explicitly asks them not to intervene in his inevitable death, for he sees this as his way of faithfully testifying to the gospel of Jesus and obtaining the outcome of his faith. He writes:
I am writing to all the Churches and state emphatically to all that I die willingly for God, provided you do not interfere. I beg you, do not show me unseasonable kindness. Suffer me to be the food of wild beasts, which are the means of my making my way to God.[8]
Fire, cross, struggles with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crunching of the whole body, cruel tortures inflicted by the devil­–let them come upon me, provided only I make my way to Jesus Christ.[9]

Ignatius did not force his death, but willingly and fearlessly walked towards it bearing witness to the hope of the resurrection. He did not seek to be freed from his fate, but entrusted his soul to his faithful Creator and glorified Him by holding fast to his confession even unto death.

May we hold fast to our confession of faith in Jesus as we face the various trials in our day, knowing our brothers and sisters throughout the world are experiencing persecution unto death and may we faithfully pray for those experiencing these fiery trials that they may obtain the outcome of their faith, the salvation of their souls.[10]
[1] Hebrews 12:11
[2] 1 Pt 4:15
[3] Jn 16:33
[4] See Acts 4:1-3, 5:40, 7:54-60, 9:16, 12:2, 14:5,19, 16:19, 17:6, 21:30-31
[5] 1 Pt 2:11
[6] Tertullian, The Apology ch.1
[7] 1 Pt. 1:4
[8] Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans 4.1
[9] Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans 5.3
[10] 1 Pt 1:9

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