Prayer groups are tough for me. I sit and listen to people talk about hardships during their day, and I scratch the requests down like weekly reports that are oddly similar from the last week. Then we take our broken record requests and pray in a routine that makes the whole experience seem trivial. Suffering is usually brought up in the process and someone enlightens the group with stories of Christian dying in Iran, North Korea, and Syria and these examples and requests are usually taken more seriously than all the others combined. After prayer I don’t know what to do with these observations and I’m left with a feeling that their suffering is more significant than mine. I’m the mediocre follower of Christ on the sidelines with my water cooler prayers, while people are dying for what they believe and what for what I claim to believe.
I was reading in the book of 1 Peter where the Apostle writes to Christians who are suffering. The Believers in the first century are dispersed into many different cities of the Roman Empire that practice sensuous traditions and they are commanded to abstain. This holy restraint does not get them burned, killed, or hanged in the street, but it’s still not taken well. The affliction of these churches comes from being fully obedient to the empire and still being alienated by their neighbors and leaders. Peter meets those men and women who feel cut off from their culture and puts fresh blood into their body with an encouragement: “Though you do not see him, you love him (Christ) Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of you faith, the salvation of your souls.”
I found it refreshing to be reminded that Peter was not talking to believers who were experiencing the suffering of torture or the arena. Instead they were ordinary people who lived in the pressures of a world that snarled and scratched when they didn’t conform to its mold. They were people with day jobs: working class masons, farmers, builders, and craftsman. Some were slaves who worked in mines, cleaned households, ran stables, and repaired roads. They were scoffed at, perplexed over, and ostracized because they lived a life of obtaining the eternal joy through the salvation of a God man that they had never seen.
Peter tells them in their affliction to obey, look to the future, and to the past. He says “Concerning this salvation the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched carefully…it was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you…” and in chapter 2:4-5 he reminds them of their identity: “As you come to him a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus.” Peter does not see them as merely ordinary people because their day to day existence and hardship is brought into history; they were invited into God’s story and are fulfilling it.
The death stories of martyrs are repeated because their decision is clear cut and potent: Do you love Christ or your life? We glorify the end of a martyr’s lives because it’s visible and inspiring. But in comparison the believers of the dispersion are burdened by mundane affliction in obedience to Christ. If they believed that he was King of a world that was not yet in subjection to him then they were exiles and strangers; those who suffer.
If we live in obtaining the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls, then we live in the reality that the prophets prophesied for our benefit. This means that our daily suffering, no matter how small, is a fulfillment of the story of God. Our lives are pushed into the current of history past, the imitation of Christ in the present, and into the hope of glory. Our repeated, mundane requests have a place in the story of God’s salvation that started from Adam and is fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus. Perhaps in our prayer groups we need to ask to be reminded of a truth that the world, the devil, and our own heart undermine constantly: we are significant.