The final portion of St. Peter’s first letter centers primarily on the reality of suffering as Christians in this world, and also on the attitudes towards that suffering and towards one another which will be most helpful in the long run (which is not very long, really, in light of Christ’s imminent Second Coming to both judge and reward all human beings). I am going to use J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase (see Sources and Resources) in the Scripture passages I want to highlight. Chapter 4 begins, “Since Christ had to suffer physically for you, you must fortify yourselves with the same inner attitude that He must have had. You must realize that to be dead to sin inevitably means pain, and you should not therefore spend the rest of your time here on earth indulging your physical nature, but in doing the will of God….We are near the end of all things now, and you should therefore be calm, self-controlled (people) of prayer. Above everything else be sure that you have real, deep love for each other, remembering how love can ‘cover a multitude of sins.’ Be hospitable to each other….” (verses 1-2, 7-9). So we see that the suffering which Peter describes first is the pain which comes from persevering in the fight against our own human tendencies, still alive in us until we reach perfection.
Only then does he speak of the suffering, the persecution which comes from the cultures in which we might find ourselves as committed Christians: “And now, dear friends of mine, I beg you not to be unduly alarmed at the fiery ordeals which come to test your faith, as though this were some abnormal experience…” (verse 12) Now, as then, these fiery ordeals do not exclude the worst–imprisonment, beheading, expulsion from one’s home and land. “You should be glad because it means that you are called to share Christ’s sufferings. One day, when He shows himself in full splendor to men, you will be filled with the most tremendous joy. If you are reproached for being Christ’s followers, that is a great privilege, for you can be sure that God’s Spirit of glory is resting upon you.” (verses 13,14)
“The time has evidently arrived for God’s judgment to begin, and it is beginning at His own House. And if it starts with us, what is it going to mean to those who refuse to obey the gospel of God? If even the good man is only just saved, what will be the fate of the wicked and the sinner? And if it is true that we are living in a time of judgment, then those who suffer according to God’s will can only commit their souls to their faithful creator, and go on doing all the good they can.” (verses 17-19) When we read these troubling verses, we are reminded of what Jesus told us from the beginning of His ministry, that “the way is narrow that leads to eternal life” and “the way is broad that leads to destruction.” As Ralph Martin reminds us in his recent book, Will Many Be Saved?, we like to believe that few people are traveling that broad way, and many are traveling the narrow way; but, if we listen carefully to Jesus’ words, we find that it is just the opposite! (See Matthew 7:13,14) And so, while we are prayerfully refusing to be “unduly alarmed,” and while we are, from day to day, “doing all the good (we) can,” Peter reminds us to take very, very seriously our responsibility as baptized Christians to share the gospel, the good news of Jesus, with as many people as we can, in all of the ways God leads us, with wisdom, discernment, discretion, and love.
Peter goes on to give some of the most wonderful encouragement which can be found in the New Testament: “So, humble yourselves under God’s strong hand, and in His own good time He will lift you up. You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon Him. for you are His personal concern.” (Chapter 5:6,7) How amazing! Do we regularly throw those anxieties upon Him and claim His promise of personal care? Only Christians know this promise of being the personal concern of the God who created the universe and who keeps on creating embryos (!)…. because we have it here, in the Holy Scriptures. This is something so remarkable, so outrageous, and to certain other religions, so blasphemous, that we simply must sit awhile with this truth, letting it sink more and more into our consciousness. The seed of God’s Word must take deep root in us, over and over again. As Christopher Robin said about his dear bear, Winnie the Pooh, we tend to regress again and again into people “of very little brain.”
Finally, “Be self-controlled and vigilant always, for your enemy the devil is always about, prowling like a lion roaring for its prey. Resist him, standing firm in your faith, and remember that the strain is the same for all your fellow-Christians in other parts of the world. And after you have borne these sufferings a very little while, God himself (from whom we receive all grace and who has called you to share his eternal splendor through Christ) will make you whole and secure and strong. All power is his forever and ever, Amen!” (verses 8-11)