What Exactly is the Normal Christian Life?

I have a friend from Iran. He has a fascinating story. Formerly a Muslim, he and his wife left Iran on a false asylum account, claiming it was for freedom. They lived for a while on an island in the Mediterranean where my friend was introduced to a Persian Christian community. It had been started by Baptist missionaries, and my friend was downright irate that Iranians would convert to Christianity. He was, after all, a devout Muslim and a leader in the mosque. So, he decided to engage the group, attending periodically and hoping to dissuade the conversion of Iranians to Christianity. Over time, however, something surprising happened. My friend was confronted with the gospel and it began to tear at his heart. Before long it was too much, and the spirit of living God gave new life to my friend. That’s where the story gets interesting.

It was not too long before he could not live with the fact that his family had slipped out of Iran on false pretense, so he told the refugee officials he had been dishonest. He and his family moved back into Iran. Now back in a country that can legally kill people for converting from Islam to Christianity, my friend still could not keep his mouth shut about the gospel. He worked by day in a secular job and spent as much of his time as humanly possible sharing the gospel with people. They would take trips out to the nomadic peoples and share the gospel there as well. Soon, some people believed. In fact, enough believed that groups of Christ worshippers began to emerge and they looked to him for leadership. My friend became a pastor, starting and leading several house churches. Obviously, this is not the safest course of action in a country like Iran.

It was not too long before it came crashing down. It was during a church Christmas party, of all times, that the government forces stormed into their home, taking him and the Christmas tree. His family did not know where he was for months. In jail, he was told they were going to try him for apostasy. The judge wanted him executed. My friend told them he was praying for them. On the day of the trial, my friend was inexplicably let go. It would not be until weeks later that he would learn of the untimely death of the judge who was to sentence him to death. It occurred the night before the trial. Out of fear, he was released. Now having a very legitimate asylum case, my friend and his family fled for another nearby country. However, it was not too long until my friend was once again sharing the gospel and training Persian men to go back into the country and start more churches, a thing he could no longer do in person. He still prays for the day when he and his family can go back home.

If you are anything like me, you think my friend’s story is amazing. It is exceptional. It is not normal. We would say that my friend lives the exceptional Christian life, not the normal Christian life. And in part, that is probably right. He is a man of special regard in his community. He is esteemed, and God is using him to do special things. Fact is many many more Christians exist inside of Iran that have not been thrown in prison.

But today, I am preparing to deliver a sermon from 1 Peter. I cannot help but wonder if you and I may have a reversed understanding of normal. What if we, in fact, are the ones that are living the exceptional Christian life, and the normal Christian life looks more like that of my friend or the millions of other Christians across the world who experience radically different circumstances than our own?

What if suffering for the faith is the norm and not the exception? In writing his first letter to the churches in the region of Turkey, Peter’s main point, the whole overarching purpose of this letter, is to provide encouragement to the believers who are in the midst of hardship because of their Christian confession, gospel witness, and Kingdom ethic. We read about all of the trials Peter mentions and struggle to apply it to our present circumstances. For men and women like my friend, Peter’s letter just makes sense.

In chapter 4, Peter writes,

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

Rather than being exceptional, Peter here makes it perfectly clear that suffering because of our Christian identity is normal. Furthermore, we should approach this suffering, not as though something unusual was happening to us but as a circumstance that brings joy. Joy in suffering, that’s a hard concept for a lot of us here in the U.S. to wrap our minds around. Yet, there it is, in black and white, in the Holy Scriptures.

Suffering Because You are a Christian

Now, I need to take just a moment to point out that Peter is here referring to a very specific kind of suffering. This is the suffering that happens to you, Christian, precisely because people know you are a Christian. Peter is not talking about the regular inconveniences of life that happen to all of us, Christian or not, because we live in a fallen world. This “suffering” does not apply to your first world problems or the fact that your boss was a jerk to you today. Furthermore, this is also not talking about real suffering that is not the result of being a Christian. There is very real suffering, also a result of the fall, that happens to everyone, redeemed or not. A person gets cancer. A loved one dies in a car accident. A fire destroys someone’s home. These are real suffering, much more than the inconveniences we usually face, but they are the general suffering of living in an evil age.

Mere inconveniences and general suffering are not the suffering that Peter describes as part of the normal Christian life. There is, instead, an additional suffering that comes precisely because you are a Christian. However, for this to happen, we would actually have to out ourselves as Christians. This kind of suffering really only happens when we live the unique Christian lifestyle that Peter talks about in his letter, and we let people know why we are living that way (Hint: share the gospel message). Perhaps the reason we see Peter’s understanding of the Christian life as exceptional is because we are not doing one of those two things.

People who are quick to identify as Christians, and even the ones quick to share the good news of the gospel with people, yet do not live a lifestyle that authenticates this message will not suffer the trials Peter discusses. They will simply be dismissed as charlatans and disgrace the good name of Christ. We all know these people. We all blame these people for the increasing bad press given to Christianity. Need I say more?

The more pressing concern for most of us is attempting to live whatever we have deemed as a Christian ethic and going light on the gospel proclamation. Just being a good person is something anyone can do. We have to be quick to explain the why behind how we live, and call others to that same new life. It is one thing to do nice things for people. It is another to be clear with everyone about our new chosen identity, and to compel them to accept this news as well. Yet, that is exactly what Peter has in mind.

Only a few verses up, in chapter 3, Peter says this:

Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame (1 Peter 3:15-17).

Peter connects our life and our lips. We live in a way that authenticates our message. But, that connection is lost as soon as we cease to share the message itself. Oh, and do not miss Peter’s assumption in that verse. He assumes that people are not going to like the message. So should we, and that should not stop us from sharing it.

Finding Joy in a Normal Christian Life of Suffering

So far, Peter seems to be leaving us with a rather bad taste in our mouth for this normal Christian life that he describes. But he’s not done. Let’s go back to that first passage I mentioned:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).

Notice the result of this normal Christian life of suffering is actually joy, but how in the world can that be? Peter tells us. Rejoicing in our share of Christ’s sufferings now will allow us to rejoice with great joy when his full glory is one day revealed. Let that sink in for a minute.

Remember, Peter was present when Christ delivered his final marching orders for the church. Jesus has a mission to restore all things, and before his ascension, he gave a piece of that mission to the church. We don’t make all things new, but we can sure let people know about the one that will. Peter here is making a promise to his readers, participating in that mission now will produce joy for us despite our suffering, and it will make that day all the sweeter when our faith becomes sight.

Peter follows with these words, “But if anyone suffers as a ‘Christian,’ he should not be ashamed but should glorify God in having that name” (1 Peter 4:16). The gospel provides the fuel for and hope to live out our new Kingdom ethic everyday, especially when we suffer for it. This is the normal Christian life, and it is because of Christ that we can and should rejoice in these sufferings.

 

One Comment

Leave a Reply