How to Suffer Without Being Harmed
By Jacob Riggs
I strongly dislike it when someone does not like me. A strained relationship can cause problems for anyone, but especially a pastor. I make decisions not everyone will like, lead people in directions that take convincing, and preach on Scriptures people don’t like.
The Bible calls my problem the fear of man—when what people think about me becomes a bigger priority than what God thinks of me. It is a serious issue, especially when you live among people who either blatantly aren’t following Jesus or who think they are but really aren’t.
This sin is grounded in the belief that God is not enough. It’s the same temptation the serpent gave Eve in Genesis 3. He successfully convinced Eve something outside of a relationship with God would bring true joy and fulfillment. The fear of man looks to the praise of people to do what we believe God cannot do. We long for the approval of others, thinking: If I could just get them to like me, I would be truly happy. In other words, God can’t make me truly happy. God isn’t enough.
When I’m threatened by others’ disapproval, it feels as though I’m about to suffer true harm. Why? Because I am looking to them for life. As Lecrae said, “If you live for people’s acceptance, you’ll die from their rejection.” This background will help you see why 1 Peter 3:13 has been a beautiful encouragement for me over the past six months: “Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?”
What You Do Lose
Can we take Paul’s rhetorical question seriously? If we’re zealous for good then no one can harm us? It certainly doesn’t feel that way in the midst of ridicule, uncertainty, panic attacks, or for some, even physical pain. Aren’t those kinds of harm? Is Paul giving prosperity gospel preachers ammunition?
Absolutely not! Some kinds of harm should be expected for those following Christ (1 Peter 4:12). But here’s the important part about all of this: some harm is redemptive. Redemptive harm does not harm the image of Christ in us. Instead, suffering harms our flesh—kills our flesh, in fact. But remember, our flesh is what we want dead. The passions of our flesh are what we did when we were “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:16). Don’t we want those things to keep dying in us?
It may be God’s will for us to go through emotional, physical, or psychological anguish in direct response to our being zealous for good (1 Peter 4:19). Christ did. He was in such anguish the night before His death that He perspired blood. Many followers of Christ have gone through similar hardship. The way of the Cross does lead home, but home lies beyond the valley of despair. We can rest assured, however, that what we lose is not true, ultimate harm. We only lose what keeps us from enjoying more of God.
Just a Sponge Bath
The late Nabeel Qureshi knew what it meant to lose and suffer apparent harm for his faith in Christ. A former Muslim, his family felt betrayed by his decision to follow Christ. He battled cancer as well, and recounted how he prayed to see Jesus in a dream. He wanted the Lord to answer some questions about his suffering. Jesus granted his request and appeared to him in a dream to comfort him.
Upon awaking, Nabeel only remembered two words from their conversation: sponge and bath. After talking with some mentors and his wife, Nabeel determined he was supposed to give his young daughter a sponge bath, something she thoroughly enjoyed. However, upon putting her in the bath and moving the sponge to wash her, she became adamantly opposed to being touched by the sponge. She screamed and turned her back to the sponge, turning her head fearfully to keep her eyes on it.
Needless to say, the bath did not go as Nabeel imagined. Why was his beloved daughter so afraid of something she normally loved? Upon reflecting and discussing the dream and his daughter’s reaction, Nabeel realized his daughter reacted to the sponge bath the way he was reacting to cancer. Like the sponge, the Lord was holding the cancer in His hand and using it to purify Nabeel. But Nabeel was objecting to God’s purposes in the suffering.
What We Get
If we are insulted for the name of Jesus, Scripture tells us we are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and God rests upon us (1 Peter 4:14). Those who mourn are blessed, because they receive comfort (Matthew 5:4). Those who receive reviling, persecution, and all types of evil for the sake of Jesus have a great reward in Heaven (Matthew 5:11-12). Those persecutions are actually God’s means of preparing us for our reward in Heaven (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The harm God allows is evidence we are His sons and daughters. He does these things to those He loves and treats us as His children (Hebrews 12:6). Yet the “harm” we receive for following Jesus is merely a sponge bath. Why scream at a sponge bath? David said, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). That’s suffering without truly being harmed.
Suffering That Harms
Unfortunately, there is also suffering that harms. Paul said we should avoid suffering as a murderer, thief, evildoer, or meddler (1 Peter 4:15). In other words, we should not do or be these things. Some suffering isn’t redemptive. Some suffering is destructive. Those who suffer for their wicked behavior truly suffer in a way that harms. They’re living for the world and losing the world. In their suffering they lose that on which they depend for purpose and life. They are most to be pitied. Their suffering isn’t a sponge but a torch.
Zealous for Good
Why not be zealous for what is good? Why not strive for what pleases God in spite of what people think or say? How foolish is the fear of man? Imagine the difference it would make in our lives if we kept this verse close to our hearts and our minds: “Who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” (1 Peter 3:13). Suddenly, threats of ridicule aren’t threats. They’re opportunities to know God more fully and to experience the presence and power of Christ more deeply. The pain we go through has meaning and purpose—ridding us of the dross of our flesh. If we keep this truth close, then we can say with the psalmist in Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”
A member of my church has endured ridicule at work for his faith in Jesus. I have never heard him complain or seen evidence of him turning his back on Christ. (Although I can tell in his tears that the ridicule he receives does “harm” him.) This man has more opportunities to share the gospel and influence others for Christ than anyone else in our church. I see a correlation between his willingness to suffer with Jesus and his fruitfulness for Jesus. Imagine what God could do through you if you are zealous for what is good.
It may be more difficult to live for Jesus now than at any point in American history. If you actually want to obey God’s Word, you will increasingly be looked upon as strange. You might get sued or fired for following your convictions. Your church might lose tax-exempt status or have bad press or get smaller to be healthier. You will suffer in some way, and so will I. But if we’re zealous for what is good, none of these things will truly harm us.
About the Writer: Jacob Riggs is husband to Lynsey and father to Caroline and Meredith. He pastors Central Oaks Community Church in Royal Oak, Michigan, and is a graduate of Welch College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.