It's a shock to find you have a terminal illness. It's a shock when your father dies. It's a shock when a friend is lost in an air crash. It's a shock when you lose a child.
These are certainly shocking things, but they are not surprising. Everyone has to die. Bad things happen.
Unfortunately, some Christians make a shipwreck of their faith because bad things surprise them. In the Old Testament the rule was obey and you will be blessed; disobey and you will be cursed. If you read the books of Kings or Chronicles you can see this acted out. Good kings are blessed; bad kings are cursed.
But even in the Old Testament this is not a universal rule. Job, a good man, was cursed, not his whingeing companions. Joseph was sold into slavery, not his spiteful brothers. And look at David's suffering; a man after God's own heart. Consider Jeremiah or Elijah. They spoke God's word and they suffered for it.
The point is that the Old Testament is about Jesus. It is he who deserves blessing for his righteousness; yet it is he who volunteers for the suffering that is due to the unrighteous. Isaiah chapter 53 tells us this quite clearly
In the New Testament it is quite plain that suffering is part of the deal. There is glory to come, but suffering first. Anyone who expects plain sailing into the sunset hasn't read their New Testament.
In today's passage 1 Peter 4:12-19 we are told not to be surprised.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, "If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?" So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
Previous generations of Christians didn't need telling about this simple truth. There will be glory, but suffering is part of the deal. Romans 8:17 - Now if we are children (of God), then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his Glory. There is nothing strange about it.
The NIV translates this passage poorly. It's not a painful trial, but a fiery trial and it's a trial 'to test you'. The KJV has the fiery trial which is to try you, the NASB fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing and the ESV the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you.
We sing about "Refiner's fire" and such it is. "Our dross to consume" says the old hymn. How we react to the suffering is crucial. Fair-weather Christians who have been poorly taught, may crumple when hardship comes, but consider the Cuban Christians slaughtered by Castro. They went to their deaths singing, "Christ is the Victor!" and "Jesus reigns!" so that the guards had to gag them in an attempt to stop people who heard them from being converted.
Do you seek assurance? Do you want to know that there is glory to come? Then rejoice in present suffering and you will be overjoyed when Jesus comes or calls. Paul talks about 'sharing in the fellowship of his sufferings' (Philippians 3:10) To Paul it is a guarantee of the resurrection to come. Technically the Greek here links the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings as a single entity, with a single definite article. You can't have one without the other.
Many have testified to being especially blessed when suffering particularly as a Christian. We will all suffer because of the curse that is upon the world consequent on the Fall, but putting yourself on the line - in testimony or witness - implies a special blessing. We are easily cowed from witnessing by the fear of what men might think of us. The world can be a callous place. Mockers jeer at you if you wear your faith on your sleeve. Remember how Tony Blair's spokesman said for him, "We don't do God." I have sometimes held back from speaking to smart people for fear of being thought of as a God-botherer or some such insulting phrase - preferring the respect of my colleagues to the approval of my God. but on other occasions I have been forthright for the gospel and scorned their shame. On such occasions there is a special blessing. You feel exhilarated and true to yourself.
What Peter promises is that the "Spirit of glory and of God" will rest upon you. "Be bold! Be strong!" says the children's song. "If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed!" says Peter, "But praise God that you bear that name." Since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been much bolder. Perhaps because my journey's end is closer. Perhaps because I have nothing else to lose.
The Devil's current strategy, at least in England, is to try and make people ashamed of being called a Christian. Perhaps it is so in other lands? Alternative comedians mock the faith, judges dismiss it, politicians ignore it and intellectuals tell mendacious lies about it.
What do they know? What need have we for the world's applause. These people lead hollow lives, without purpose or meaning. Rather seek the Lord's approval, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant!" The Devil was ever the father of lies.
Are you afraid of judgement? Only those who are in the wrong need do so. When a soccer player is the victim of a foul, he will often leap up and mime the showing of a red card to the perpetrator. He seeks judgement. However if it were the one who committed the foul he will slink away into a melee of players, hoping to escape justice. There are many who have banked on this life being all there is, who hope to escape justice. What folly! The fool says in his heart there is no God. In a sense we all get out of this life alive, but then we have to face the judgement. Then you won't be able to cover your sins by hiding in a melee of players. They could be covered, though, for Jesus' blood never failed us yet. For those who are covered by his blood - will be seen a Jesus by the Judge of all the earth, who will surely do right.
Finally, be committed. Your Creator is faithful to you; will you not be faithful to him? You should not give up as you approach the tape. You have run the Marathon. You are scarred by the journey. You are battered and bruised. But do not give up. Last week in the London Marathon, the elite runners made it easily in near record time. But there were thousands who struggled to do it in 5 hours or more. There was one man, injured in Afghanistan, kept going by electronic implants in his muscles. He was going to take all day to do the journey, but he was going to finish. He knew that many charities depended on his finishing to raise their funds. He would not give up.
Peter tells us to continue to do good. Yet not Peter, but the Spirit of Jesus. If it were I that was telling you, you might ask who I was to dictate to you. My suffering might well have been minor compared to yours and you might think I have a colossal cheek. But Jesus suffered far beyond anyone else. He took the whole weight of your sin and mine on his shoulders. Such was the trauma that the whole godhead was wrenched apart. He literally went through hell for us.
He's telling us. Continue to be good.