In the Christian life, there are only two ways to grow. One is through people, the other is through pain. It would be hard to find a more important principle than this. Sometimes we grow through the influence of others. We sit at the feet of teachers, friends, mentors, disciplers, pastors, and gifted leaders who show us the way forward. Sometimes growth comes in the formal setting of a classroom. More often it comes through informal settings. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). We learn much from books, but we learn more from life. And the best kind of teaching is up close and personal. Life on life. We learn a little from a distance, we learn more as we draw closer, but we learn the most when we are face to face. Mark 3:14 says that Jesus called the 12 apostles “that they might be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach” (ASV). First they must be with him, and then they will be sent out to preach. So one way we grow is through people.
The other way we grow is through pain. Sometimes the pain comes because of the sadness of life. Cancer may strike, or a tsunami may wipe out a village, or we may share in the pain of a loved one who suffers greatly. That pain is often undeserved, yet it comes to us anyway and there is nothing we can do to stop it. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7 ESV). Sometimes those sparks ignite into a raging flame that threatens to consume us. No one is exempt.
Often the people and the pain go together. This is the pain that is hardest to accept. On one level, we all understand that bad things sometimes happen because we live in a fallen world. The wind may blow a tree down and the tree may smash our new car. Those things happen. We can’t stop the wind from blowing, and we can’t control the waves from crashing into the seashore. A volcano may suddenly erupt or an earthquake may destroy an entire city. A child may contract a debilitating disease. It is hard enough to come to grips with all of that. But it seems much harder to accept the pain that others inflict on us, especially when that pain is deliberate, premeditated, and personally directed against us. It may be a boss who hates us, or co-workers who envy us, or a spouse who is so critical they can never be pleased. The list of things that can happen to us is almost endless: betrayal, lies, accusations, slander, gossip, violence, fraud, deceit, unfair treatment, unfair punishment, humiliation, ridicule, sarcasm, rumors, the silent treatment, mockery, being called vile names, and being made the butt of cruel jokes. That pain is made much worse when it comes from someone close to us.
So let me say it again. There are only two ways to grow. One is through people, the other is through pain. And the worst pain often comes from other people. God has so ordered the moral universe that pain that teaches us the lasting lessons of life. Poet Robert Browning put it this way:
walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me!
A “Likeminded” Young Man
To be a Christian is to suffer. That is not the full truth of the Christian life, but it is part of it, and it is one we American Christians sometimes resist. Today it is popular to talk about Jesus as the one who solves our problems, improves our self-image, and above all, makes us happy. Sometimes the gospel is presented as if Jesus is the ticket to the good life. And it is true that our Lord said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). First Thessalonians 5:16 instructs us to “rejoice always.” But that abundance and that joy can never be separated from the truth that to be a Christian is to suffer. The Christians in China understand all about this. To publicly admit that you are a Christian means putting yourself, your career, and your family at risk. If you go to an unregistered church, you can be arrested for being part of an illegal gathering. During our recent visit to Beijing, we were warned over and over again to be careful about what we said. I met a young man from southern China who became a Christian last year through the influence of some Christians he met. That young man was so filled with joy and peace. When I asked someone if he was a Christian, I was told, “He is likeminded.” That’s safer than saying the “C” word. We spent ten days in Beijing and had a wonderful time. We greatly enjoyed our time in China and we loved meeting the Chinese people. It was an honor to be there. But there is another side to the story. In a city of 13 million people (millions more if you count the larger region), you can find almost no evidence of religion. During our visit, we didn’t see any church buildings at all. The guidebooks speak of a few historic church buildings, but they are few and far between. I know there are some church buildings in Beijing, but we didn’t see any. Imagine Chicago or Philadelphia or New Orleans or New York City with no churches. None. And imagine a society where religion is not discussed in public. And imagine a society where you are not free to voice criticism of the government. In America we talk endlessly about politics and religion. We argue about the impact of the “values voters” last November, and about how much President Bush’s faith influences his policy decisions. As divided as America may be, at least we are free to voice our opinions.
I spoke with a Chinese man who said, “You work for the church. That is good.” Then he said, “You are a priest?” (No time for technicalities, so I said yes.) “And your son, he is a priest?” (Again, no time for technicalities, so I said yes again). “Ah, father and son doing the same thing. That is good.” As we walked along, he said to me, “Religion is good. A nation needs religion because religion teaches you what is right and wrong.” In America we tend to make a difference between “religion” and Christianity, but in China it’s safer to say religion than to use the “C” word. He told me that he believes “religion” is good for a nation because religion provides a moral foundation. China needs that foundation, he said, and it does not have it today. “I have a Bible in Chinese and English and I read it,” he told me. “The State cannot tell you what to believe in your heart. And if the State says, ‘Don’t go to church,’ you can have church in your home.” He folded his hands and touched his heart as he spoke those words. I think he was telling me he was “likeminded” also. Life is not easy for Christians in China. Those who are too outspoken suffer for their faith. But the Chinese church fully understands that to be a follower of Jesus means that you will suffer. It is through suffering that we become like our Lord. This is how we grow in our faith.
First Peter 2:21-25 spells out what it means to follow Christ.
I. Following Christ Means Suffering Innocently.
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’” (I Peter 2:21-22).
I call your attention to the phrase at the end of verse 21—"in his steps.” In the book “The Top Ten of Everything 2001,” author Russell Ash lists the top ten bestselling books of all time:
1. The Bible - (more than 6 billion)
2. Quotations from the works of Mao Tse-Tung (900 million)
3. American Spelling Book - Noah Webster (100 million)
4. The Guinness World Book of Records (90 million)
5. World Almanac - (73.5 million)
6. The McGuffey Readers - William Holmes McGuffey (60 million)
7. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care - Dr. Benjamin Spock (50 million)
8. A Message to Garcia - Elbert Hubbard (40 million)
9. In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?” (more than 30 million)
10. Valley of the Dolls - Jacqueline Susann (more than 30 million)
In 1896 a Kansas newspaperman named Charles Sheldon wrote a novel based on an unusual premise: What would it be like if in every situation we asked, “What would Jesus do?” He describes a year in the life of an American city where everyone in the city—doctors, lawyers, merchants, salespeople, teachers, students, clergy, and newspaper editors—made that question the basis for all their decisions. In His Steps became an instant bestseller. Though largely forgotten today, it led directly—many years and many steps later—to the WWJD bracelets that were so popular several years ago.
According to Peter, following Jesus means that sometimes we will suffer even when we have done nothing wrong. The greatest honor for any Christian is to be like Jesus. When we suffer unjustly, we share in a tiny portion of what happened to him. Though he did no wrong, he was betrayed, tried, denied and crucified. Though he never sinned, he was hated by the power brokers who plotted to kill him. The same thing will happen to us. People close to us will disappoint us, and some will turn against us.
II. Following Christ Means Suffering Patiently.
“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23).
I submit to you that this is not a natural way to live. When we are insulted, our natural inclination is to return an insult for an insult. But Jesus chose another way. As the old spiritual puts it, “He never said a mumblin’ word.” “As a sheep before her shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). When he stood before Pilate and Herod, and when he faced the jeering mob, he uttered no insults, he made no threats.
When they scourged him, he didn’t retaliate.
When the soldiers pushed the crown of thorns on his head, he didn’t curse at them.
When they drove the nails in his hands and feet, he didn’t threaten them.
When the bystanders spat at him, he didn’t spit back.
When they swore at him, he didn’t swear back.
Peter’s point is this. This will happen to you too. And that’s the real test of your faith. You find out what you really believe when others mistreat you. Sometimes the real test of your faith is what you don’t do. Sometimes you’ll be a better Christian by not saying anything at all.
Years ago we used to sing a hymn called “Footprints of Jesus.” The first verse and chorus goes like this:
Sweetly, Lord, have we heard Thee calling,
Come, follow Me!
And we see where Thy footprints falling
Lead us to Thee.
Footprints of Jesus,
That make the pathway glow;
We will follow the steps of Jesus
Where’er they go.
It’s a beautiful song, but it doesn’t exactly catch the spirit of our text. According to Peter, the footprints of Jesus lead directly to the cross. We are called to follow those bloody footprints even though they lead to mistreatment by the world. What was his secret? How did he do it? The answer lies in the final phrase of verse 23—"He entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” In our day we hear a lot of talk about claiming our rights. That spirit comes into the church and we hear people getting angry and saying, “How dare you trample on my rights?” Most of our problems stem from claiming our rights. But the Bible turns that upside down. You aren’t to think of your rights first. You are to think of others first.
When you are mistreated, repeat these four sentences:
It’s not about me. It’s not about now.
It’s all about God. It’s all about eternity.
As you read these words, I encourage you to stop right now and say those four sentences out loud. Write them down on a card, and put the card where you can see it. Try repeating those sentences every day for a week so that the truth will be tattooed on your soul.
Let me ask you a question: Do you think Jesus was a helpless victim that day at Calvary? He was the Son of God. He had the power to call down a legion of angels to set him free. He had but to say the word and all of heaven would come to his aid. But he never said that word.
III. Following Christ Means Suffering Sacrificially.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (I Peter 2:24-25).
There is an enormous amount of gospel truth in these verses:
A. His suffering was personal—He himself.
B. His suffering was substitutionary—He bore our sins.
C. His suffering was severe—in his body on the tree.
D. His suffering was redemptive—that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.
E. His suffering was curative—by his wounds you have been healed.
F. His suffering was reconciling—you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
There is enough gospel truth in those two verses to save the whole world:
He takes our punishment.
He pays the price for our sin.
He gives us new life.
He heals our hearts.
He brings us back to God.
All that we want and all that we need are found in the cross of Christ.
It would have been easy for Peter to have said to his readers, “Follow Jesus and all will be well. He will make you happy and rich. Follow him and you’ll have an easy life.” But it wouldn’t have been true. And it wouldn’t have helped his readers in the first century.
And it wouldn’t help us either.
Let me pose a hypothetical question for a moment: What if Jesus had answered back when he was attacked? What if he had retaliated? What if he had insulted Herod, mocked Pilate, and used his divine powers to escape the Roman soldiers? He could have fought back. He could have told them off and even worked a miracle to free himself. What if he had? We would not be saved. We would still be in our sins. We would still be lost and on our way to hell. He entrusted himself to God in the midst of his suffering—and the result was our salvation. We’re going to heaven because Jesus didn’t lose his temper.
And what will happen if we do for others what Jesus did for us? Perhaps our powerful silence will convict them. Perhaps our kindness will disarm them. When you resist the urge to get even, when you stop claiming your rights, when you give up trying always to be understood, when you give up your anger and bitterness, do you know what happens? You become like Jesus! And that’s when your life begins to change the world around you.
Often the tongue is the last outpost in the battle between flesh and spirit. Peter emphasizes that Jesus was silent when he was mistreated. How hard it is for us to follow his example. It is amusing to think that this advice comes from Peter who never seemed to follow it himself. He was the man with the foot-shaped mouth. Perhaps that’s why he emphasized it here. He learned the truth the hard way.
Sometimes we just need to shut up.
Sometimes we talk too much.
Sometimes we become chattering fools.
And sometimes our constant talk about our grievances is a sign that we don’t really believe in God. You do not save your life by picking up a sword or by continually wagging your tongue. Nowhere is the power of the Cross seen more effectively than when the righteous suffer and in their suffering, they rejoice instead of complaining.
As I said, the Christians in China (and in Sudan and Iran and many other countries) understand this truth better than we do.
Let’s wrap up this message with a few final thoughts:
A. Jesus is not just our Savior from sin. He is also our example when we suffer unjustly.
B. The cross is not just the basis for our salvation. It is also the basis of our spiritual life and our response to suffering.
And so I end where I began. In the Christian life, there are only two ways to grow—through people and through pain. And the hardest growth often comes from pain inflicted by other people. It happened to Jesus. It will happen to us as well.
Tracing the Big Letters
Verse 21 says that Jesus has left us an example. The word means to trace with big letters. Kindergarten children learn how to write by tracing the big letters of the alphabet. The boys and girls see the big A and they trace over it. And the big B and they trace over it. And the big C and they trace over it. And that’s how you learn the whole alphabet—by copying the big letters. That’s what Peter means. The whole life of Jesus, especially how he suffered and died, is like a set of spiritual ABCs for us to copy. We see what he did when he suffered, and we trace that out in our lives. We see how he kept silent, and we trace those letters in our lives. We see how he didn’t strike back, and we trace the letters of his example. As we trace out the life and death of Jesus, we learn by copying the letters he left behind. And he left his biggest letters in those last few hours before he died.
The world doesn’t understand this truth. Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the people. He thought it was like a drug that keeps you from facing reality. That’s still the official position of the Communist Party in China. How wrong they are. We’re not deluded. We know this world isn’t all there is. Because they believe in heaven so strongly, our brothers and sisters around the world endure persecution to this present hour for the sake of his Name.
When John Piper preached on this passage, he commented that this is not a rule to be kept, but a miracle to be experienced and a grace to be received. That strikes me as exactly right. Apart from God, it is totally impossible to live this way.
When we are mistreated, we are to turn the other check, bless those who curse us, and return good for evil. We are not to retaliate, not to threaten, not to get even. Jesus showed us how to live, and he showed us how to die. He left the ABCs for us to follow.
When you are mistreated, do what Jesus did. Entrust yourself to God the righteous Judge.
Then experience the miracle and receive the grace.
Don’t return hurt for hurt. Take the miracle.
Don’t claim your rights. Receive the grace.
When you live like this, you are truly doing what Jesus would do.
When you live like this, you will baffle and astound the world around you.
Let me say it one final time. When you are hurt and you feel like getting even, don’t do it. Let your life trace the letters Jesus left behind. Take the miracle and receive the grace. This is God’s Word to us today. Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.