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“Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Peter has a stern warning for us: watch out for the devil! But when it comes to the work of the devil and what to watch out for, we often get it all backwards. We often get it all wrong.
We’re quick to pin on the devil anything that causes suffering or struggle or pain. We’re quick to think that anything that’s hard or difficult or disastrous is the devil’s work.
The devil has been mentioned more than once lately. “We have to be careful because the devil is hard at work these days,” I’ve heard it said, as if the devil were behind the spread of the virus, or the response of the government, or the restriction of our freedom, or anything in this pandemic that causes calamity or hardship or just makes life difficult. And, the thought goes, what we need to watch out for is that we don’t let the calamity of the present moment get its hands on us. As if anything that’s hard or difficult or disastrous is the work of the evil one in our lives.
And since we pin any suffering or pain or struggle on the devil, we’re quick to be worried over our circumstances, as if the suffering or pain or struggle were a sign that the devil has gotten hold of us, and the world around us was out of God’s control, off its chain, and unhinged. And we’re quick to get angry at the hardship we have to endure, impatient with all that’s wrong, and indignant that this is happening to us out of all people, as if the devil were getting the best of us.
But Peter gives us a far different view. Just because we struggle doesn’t mean the devil has gotten hold of us. The sufferings of this old age are not something to panic about as if the world were out of God’s control. In fact, Peter says, God is at work in them to bring about your good—to test you. Peter says, “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.” God is at work in the sufferings of this old age to test us. Not in the sense of a pass/fail test, like, “Let’s see if you have what it takes to pass.” But in the sense of purifying and refining, like you would purify and refine a precious metal like gold. But what God is at work to purify is something far more valuable than gold. He’s at work to purify our faith.
You see, God has given us a great gift. God has given us the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: that Jesus was crucified and buried, but death did not have the last word with Jesus. God raised Jesus victorious over death. Jesus will never die again but has death behind him once and for all. And everyone who is joined to Jesus has the promise that death will not have the last word with us, but that just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so too will we be raised from the dead to new and perfect life when he returns.
But God isn’t going to let that gift go to waste, sit on the shelf, and collect dust, as if it were nice and all, but what’s really important is our weekend getaways, or our sports teams, or our visits with the grandkids, or the success of our job, or anything else that we tend to cherish in life above and beyond the hope we’ve been given in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. So God works in us, sometimes even through suffering and hardship and struggle, so that we’ll grab hold of that gift and use it for all it’s worth, so that our hearts will rest in what is true and good and everlasting.
That’s exactly how God worked in the apostle Paul. There was a time that Paul was afflicted with something he calls a thorn in the flesh. Now, we don’t know what that was exactly. It could have been trouble with his eyes, or a speech impediment, or something worse. I mean, at one point in his life Paul was dragged outside the city walls, stoned and left for dead. There’s a lot Paul could have suffered. What we do know is that Paul asked God three times to take away this thorn in the flesh. But the Lord said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness. God refused to take away Paul’s affliction, so that Paul would find that he already has all he needs and more in the grace of God. God refused to heal Paul, so that Paul would find comfort and hope not in his strength and his smarts and his ability to figure it all out and get the job done, but in Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead. So that Paul would say, “I may not be strong, or in good health, or even well spoken. I may have to suffer and struggle. But I have something that come hell or highwater can’t be taken away: Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. As Paul says elsewhere, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
We don’t have to worry and panic as if the sufferings of this old age are the work of the devil to get the best of us. We can trust that, even in the sufferings of this evil age, God is at work as our heavenly Father to prune us. As Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” When the vinedresser gets out the sheers and starts cutting away, all the vine may see is what it’s losing, that parts are being cut off and thrown away. But the vinedresser is at work in love to care for his vine, to make it grow and bear fruit—fruit that endures. Or as the book of Hebrews and the book of Proverbs put it, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves.”
Our suffering is not the devil prowling around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. The work of the devil is to get us to give up on God in the middle of our suffering. The work of the devil is to lead us to worry that just because we’re suffering then the world must be out of God’s control. The work of the devil is to drive us to anger and impatience whenever we have to endure hardship or difficulty. The work of the devil is to push us to be indignant at the people who have caused us trouble and resentful that this is the life that we have to live. The work of the devil is to lead us to think that God is not a good gift giver, and that if we were in charge, we could do a whole lot better. That is what Peter warns us about: Be sober minded; be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
And that is why Peter admonishes us, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” Suffering is not pleasant. Hardship is not easy. But through it all we can trust that the one who has given us this day is our Father in heaven who cares for us. The same one who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. And even though we may not like it, and even though we may not want it, we can commend our days to God, knowing that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will not fail to give us what is good.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
1 Peter 4.12-19; 5.6-11
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. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And“If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” 19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
5.6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 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, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.