It only takes a cursory glance over our poetry throughout the years, our art, our politics, and our thoughts, to realize that discontent is intrinsic to and misery is irrefutably part of our existence.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis famously wrote of deep, powerful yearnings within us, “longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.” He’s talking about all the things we’ve ever sighed over or dreamed up—every unuttered “if only.” I can identify my areas of interest and passion so that I can specialize in something I really love. I can surround myself with people who make me feel happy, or the one (who was going to fix everything). I can privilege the hobbies that make me unwind after a stressful day.
And yet, this world, with all its delights, is strange to me, and I am strange to it. Although I may be exactly where I planned, I still find myself wanting more, needing more, and feeling unfulfilled—always unfulfilled. I have friends but I need them constantly to affirm me, to encourage me—to need me. And when they don’t, or when I move (which I have done often in the last four years), I am exhausted and disillusioned. My passions at work and in leisure, even while glorifying God, never offer a convincing satisfaction. Most of all, I have a gaping loneliness that seems to bar me from making meaningful connections. In fact, I feel this so often and so acutely, that I believe myself to be a black hole such that no amount of input will ever make a difference. And even though this is the most isolating feeling, it is not unique to me.
Why is that? We are looking to heaven—we believe God’s eternity is more beautiful. Yet, why don’t we feel convinced of that here on the ground?
A Lonely and Incomplete World
In the book of 1 Peter, Peter explains what I have long suspected: life is lonely and incomplete. This may be a hard truth for Christians to grasp because we expect that our relationship with Christ will make the difficult times somehow more mild or less true. Christ does give grace for suffering—He is called "Wonderful Counselor" (Isaiah 9:6)! Yet, as Christians in the world, we cannot live with rose-tinted spectacles.
Peter warns us in 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you as though something strange were happening to you.” I don’t know about you, but “fiery trial” evokes for me images of either great, burning pain or the worst personal anguish. The New International Version translates this to “painful trial,” and Peter says these trials occur so frequently that they shouldn’t even have the power to shock us. This is the reality of the world we live in—the absolute isolation I can feel even from those closest to me (at times when they don’t know just how much it hurts); and the apathy and lethargy I can feel about something that used to give me great joy (and my terror when I can’t recover that passion). When we as Christians speak of a broken world, I tend to forget just how broken it is. This brokenness means gaps in me which can't be filled, no matter how much I want to believe another person can save me.
As believers in Christ, we rejoice in the knowledge that He has overcome evil. We know it is finished, even as we suffer through the aftershocks. But the truth is that we are in a “time of exile” (1 Pet. 1:17) and are only “sojourners” and “exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11) here on earth. This is some of the most exciting news the gospel has to offer: this broken world is not for us.
Imagine yourself an exile in a hostile country. You may be in cramped, uncomfortable living quarters, exploited by your superior who takes advantage of your vulnerability. It would be so much easier if you could converse in your own language, so much less stressful if you didn’t keep getting lost in the unfamiliar and dangerous streets. You may face xenophobia—violent, prejudiced, or cruel—the moment you step out of the door. What little pleasures you have are slight and fleeting. But you know it is only for a time because you have your ticket home. Think of how much you would yearn for those familiar neighbourhoods, the ease of communicating in ways and habits that are natural to you. Imagine the comfort of sleeping in your own bed again.
What to Remember in Suffering
The joy that Peter reminds us of is that this world is not our home. And my response to that is, heartily, thank God! “In this you rejoice,” Peter says “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6 -7). I love how Peter is filled with an infectious gladness. We are rejoicing in a “living hope” (1:3); Christ dying in atonement for sin which alienates us from God has brought about something “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1:4), and He is sovereign, even over this!
More importantly, we know that suffering is never without purpose, cause, and a fixed (not arbitrary) timeline. It is a hope which gives us cause for joy on an epic scale: “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1:8). When I read this, I am so glad that my quest for fulfillment and happiness should not stop here, perhaps at a great job and with a perfect spouse, because, glorious as God’s world is, it is not imperishable; happiness, no matter its intensity, will glow and fade again. But here, I am called “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9). And He has promised furthermore to “restore, confirm, strengthen and establish” us (5:10).
So, where does this leave us? Though still exiled, this is the Home we are headed towards—this the perfect relationship, this the perfect joy, this the ultimate fulfillment. Whatever glimpses and snatches I have here are borrowed from that glory. I do not have them yet. I am restless. I am lonesome. I feel estranged. This means I will face some times—or even constant times—of frustration with myself or depression at the prospects of my life. I will feel hungry for so much more. Even in my relating with God, I will ask myself, is this it?
By the grace of God, for all of us who are likewise stumbling away from God like idiot sheep, Peter reminds us that, yes, our hearts are prone to wander into sin. And moreover, this temptation is stalking us, prowling around “like a roaring lion,” ready to “devour” us (5:8). We are told, in readiness for this, “let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (4:19). This means we can know for certain (and I have to remind myself with every breath) that a) We are not suffering unnecessarily or by negligence, because it is in the control of a sovereign God; b) We are entrusting our souls, the imperishable part of us, to a faithful Creator—One who made us, who knows how we work, and who is faithful, nearby, and steadfast; and c) While doing good, we are similarly called to imitate God in our own faithfulness to Him and dedication to His directives, glorifying Him in whatever we do.
Exiles Who Are Not Alone
Finally, in this strangeness that we feel, we must remember two things. Whatever we are going through is nothing that God does not know about. Our feeling estranged is also, weirdly, something which connects us to the next person. We are all broken people. In recognizing this, especially under grace, we acknowledge that “the same kinds of sufferings are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). Although Peter was probably talking more about persecution of Christians, the principle applies: you are not alone. You are not the only Christian who has felt despair. You are not the only one who has felt that marriage was not all you had hoped for. You are not the only one who has felt terrible anxiety about the future. You are not the only single person who has felt meaningless. You are not the only one who has felt so very alone.
We are suffering, but it is only for a time. The captives have been ransomed. We have Home to look forward to. Therefore, I leave you with the words of Peter, words I also constantly have to remind myself of:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God…casting all your anxieties on
Him because He cares for you…And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace,
who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm and establish you.
To Him be the dominion forever and ever.