On first glance, our reading from Peter sounds like some twisted version of the BT advert: "Christianity: It's good to suffer." Not exactly a life-affirming message, is it? You can guess how overjoyed I was the first time I read it in preparation for today. I suspect suffering isn't really at the top of any preacher's list of things they want to talk about, let alone someone as inexperienced as me.
Fortunately, that's not what Peter's saying at all. This is not the masochistic message it first appears, when you look at the conditions and reasons Peter gives.
Number one: It is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain and suffering unjustly. This isn't a case of pride, or trying to look stronger than others, or trying to attract sympathy. We need to be suffering for God's sake, not our own.
Number two: If you suffer because you've done wrong, you deserve it - acting like a martyr when you're reaping what you've sown does you no credit. It's when you suffer because you've done the right thing that God takes note.
Number three: The point of all this is to emulate Jesus. Christ didn't suffer for no reason - he suffered to give us life. He had a cause. As it says in John, "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again." Moreover, his suffering was not the end - he rose again. He knew there was more to life than we can see with our eyes, so he gave himself to God. As Peter puts it, "He entrusted himself to the one who judges justly."
So how does all of this work in the world today? Despite the vast differences between now and the time Peter wrote the letter, the basic principles are the same. Actions still have consequences, and that's what I believe underlies a lot of what Peter is saying. He's not suggesting we should put on hair shirts and suffer for the sake of suffering. He's saying there are things which are worth suffering for. If we do something to help people and end up suffering for it, God sees it and smiles for the sacrifice we've made. He doesn't smile because we're suffering - he isn't a cruel God who enjoys us suffering. He smiles because we've been willing to suffer for him.
We all know the quotation from Matthew: "Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me." That's what I believe Peter is talking about when he says it's to our credit to suffer being aware of God. We should know that in doing the right thing by our fellow men and women, we are doing the right thing by God and building his kingdom on earth.
That actually makes things more complicated sometimes - because often the right way to take care of each other is to speak out against injustice, whether it's against us or not. Suffering for God's sake isn't about being a sucker, being willing to be taken for a ride by anyone and everyone. It's not about letting people get away with things - it's about making the world a better place at the cost of possibly making your own life a bit worse. God doesn't want us to sit idly by if we're mugged. He's not calling for us to go home and forget about it, thinking, "It's okay, I'm suffering for God." That's not suffering to make the world a better place - it's suffering so we can feel pious. Someone who mugs me is likely to mug someone else too - so making the world a better place involves not just sitting there and taking it. It might involve trying to make the world a better place for the mugger in the long term, of course - it may well involve forgiveness, empathy, helping with rehabilitation, all of which could be emotionally painful - but all of those are very different from seeing injustice in the world and letting it go.
So what kind of thing is Peter really talking about? Is he only talking about people making political stands and risking their lives for peace? I don't think so. Struggling for others is all well and good, but I suspect it's not as common as the smaller matters I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about the inconsiderate neighbour whose parties are just a bit too loud. I'm thinking about the colleague who you overhear dropping an unfriendly comment about you. The little things.
Again, I don't believe Peter is telling us we should always just ignore them. He's telling us to think about the consequences of our actions, and work out why we're really doing whatever we decide to do. A quiet word with the noisy neighbour is to everyone's benefit, in the long run - playing your own music louder to annoy them isn't. If, after a quiet word, the neighbour still deafens you, it's probably worth thinking a bit harder: what are the consequences of any further action you take? Are other neighbours being affected, or is it really just you suffering? Would it do anyone any good in the long run if you got the police out? Sometimes the decision will go one way, sometimes the other - but the motivation for our actions should be to do with the consequences for everyone, not just ourselves. I reckon this kind of situation probably comes up much more often for almost everyone than the question of whether or not to stand up for the rights of others.
So far, what we've got is a situation any humanist could have come up with: if everyone thinks about the greater good of society, society will become a better place - if each person does their bit, even at some cost, everyone gains in the end. Even though not everyone will do their bit realistically, it's still a good way of thinking. But where's God in all of this? Does our faith boil down to just common sense and everyone being nice to everyone else?
Peter's answer (and mine too, incidentally) is a resounding no. While I'm sure God loves the sacrifices made by altruistic atheists, he gives us more than a pat on the back: he gives us strength to keep doing his work, and he gives us his promise of the life awaiting us after this one. This doesn't mean it'll be easy, but if we put our faith and trust in God, he will comfort us. To quote the psalm we just sang, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff - they comfort me." That takes more faith than I've got, admittedly - if I'm in a difficult situation I do get afraid, or stressed, or downhearted... but however much faith I have, that helps. Knowing that God is there beside me, and knows how hard it is for me - that's something very special. Again, this goes back to being aware of God while we suffer - fulfilling his purpose is the reason we should be willing to suffer, and his love gives us the strength we need to keep going for him.
What about the times when the going isn't just rough - it seems impossible? It's all very well to have enough strength to carry on when you can see the goal approaching, but what about when you seem to be suffering for nothing? Sometimes the road really will go nowhere, I'm sure - and that's when we need to pray for guidance. But if you know in your heart that this is what God wants you to do, but you still can't see any progress - that's when the example of Jesus is the most important thing to bear in mind.
Think how the disciples felt on Good Friday. They'd been working for a while with Jesus, and things had been going pretty well in some places - until Jesus was arrested. Now Jesus had been killed. What was it all about? Had they been wasting their time? Were they now going to be arrested too? Was there any point in keeping on going? Of course, they weren't able to see the most important point involved - Christ's resurrection, and his absolution of our sins.
Maybe God won't always give us the big picture about why he wants us to do something. We may not live to see the results of our work for him, or possibly we wouldn't even recognise it if it were right in front of our eyes. That doesn't mean the cause is in vain. Christ's death and resurrection should give us hope in many different ways:
His sacrifice was necessary, and it achieved a purpose. Even Christ didn't want to die for no reason - which is why he asked God in Gethsemane to find another way if there was one. He gave himself over to God's purpose, not to a meaningless death. If we are suffering in work which we know to be God's call to us, we have every reason to believe it will be worthwhile eventually. We'll never have the same effect that Jesus did, but we can all play our part.
The way in which Christ's sacrifice paid off was spectacular to say the least. "Tales of the Unexpected", eat your heart out - and that's after prophets and Christ himself had said what would happen. I've heard that Spike Milligan's gravestone has the words engraved on it, "I told you I was ill." Christ might as well have had something similar written on his tomb: "I told you I'd come back." Even after telling people what was going to happen, the final result was a big surprise - so it should come as no surprise to us that sometimes our calling might seem in vain: that doesn't mean God won't get results.
Finally, Christ's resurrection shows us our heavenly reward. Without wishing to get into frankly deep and murky waters about whether or not sacrifice with a reward at the end counts as sacrifice at all, Christ's death and resurrection promises everlasting life to us. Whatever injustices we may suffer on earth, or heavenly reward is far more than we can ever deserve.
So don't suffer for no reason - suffer for the only reason that matters: God's purpose. Find God's will for you, and pursue it without counting the cost. That is what makes God glad, and that is what will bring God's kingdom closer to earth.
Suffer knowing that you are doing God's will.
Suffer knowing that through God's power, you will make a difference.
Suffer knowing that God is with you, ready to help and comfort you.
Suffer knowing that God did the same for you.
Suffer knowing that through his sacrifice, everlasting life awaits you.
Put like that, it hardly sounds like suffering at all, does it?