I’m trying to tell the truth sideways, so this is a little different: a fictional piece, exploring the themes of suffering in 1 Peter. If you want to catch up, read Episode 1, and Episode 2. Today’s (Episode 3 of 5) is based on 1 Peter 5:6-14, 2:21-25, and 4:12-16. Take a cup of tea, settle down and enjoy!
I lay in my bed, thinking back over the past four months. One day in May, I woke up and my body was screaming with pain, my legs were weak and it was difficult to walk, and my breath had gone. I was holding onto the walls, thinking of nothing but the pain in my muscles, and the crushing feeling in my chest, needing more oxygen but not getting it. That state lasted for a few days, and gave way to weeks of exhaustion and weakness, and desperate rescheduling as we made different childcare arrangements, and once more Jon and I felt stretched beyond what we could manage.
I hardly dared to admit it, but in these past two weeks, my body and brain seemed to be functioning better: I could concentrate for longer, sit and stand for longer than I’d been able to manage for months. I was feeling more like myself. Maybe I had finally emerged from this M.E. relapse.
“But,” I whispered to God as I stared at the yellow walls, “why? Why did this relapse have to last so long?” Somehow suffering, when it comes, always feels like more than we can bear. I was feeling teary even recalling those days and weeks of gasping for air.
I picked up my Bible and read from 1 Peter: “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” But as I held my Bible, I thought it does always feel like a surprise, like it is a strange thing. Suffering always seems to come out of nowhere. How are we supposed to deal with it?
And silently, swiftly, the yellow walls faded and went dark, and I felt that now-familiar falling sensation.
When I came to, I was outside on a dusty floor, and the sun was bright in my eyes. Shielding my eyes, I looked up and saw I was outside a small stone hut. There was a tree to the left of me with green lemons on it, I could hear the gentle and persistent percussion of the cicadas, and it was hot, stiflingly hot. A little way away, with his back to me, stood a tall, dark-haired man whom I recognised as Joseph, Talitha’s husband, and beside him, taking a few wobbly steps, was a chubby, dark-haired, brown-eyed little boy.
“Oh!” I said out loud. “You had a boy!”
Joseph turned round and saw me, and I stood up, smiling my greeting to him.
“Well, I guess it must be a year since I saw you all last,” I said. “And who’s this gorgeous little one?”
“Ephraim,” Joseph said, and he smiled, but he was pacing from side to side, and kept looking up at a hill in the distance.
“Where’s Talitha?” I asked.
“That’s the question we’re all asking,” Joseph said. “I am needed by Captain Justus up at the house, and I need to drop Ephraim round to my sister-in-law’s house to be cared for, but – I’m worried about Talitha. I don’t know where she is. There was a messenger this morning – a letter from Rome. She got to it before me, and just ran off – up there…” He pointed up the hill.
I told him I would find her, and he nodded his gratitude as he went with Ephraim. As I climbed the hill, I could feel the sweat beading on my face, and my clothes were clinging to me uncomfortably. The sun was already hot, though it was morning, and the air was clammy and humid. There were pine trees, all close together all the way up the hill, and in the distance I could hear a howling, like a dog or wolf in pain.
I walked on, into the woods, and I found myself worrying about Talitha. It was not like her to run off. I wondered what whether the letter contained bad news of some kind, and bit my lip, as I tried to recall bits of 1 Peter that might be helpful for her.
The howling noise grew louder, and I looked around me, fearing a dog was following me. But it wasn’t a dog. It was Talitha. There, in the distance, I could see her in the middle of a clump of pine trees, kneeling on the ground, her head-scarf on the floor and her long dark hair in disarray. She was clutching her head with her hands, and howling in pain.
I ran to her, and asked her what had happened. She continued to sob, tears flowing, and pointed to the parchment on the ground. I picked it up and began to skim-read: “a friend from Rome…bad news…a fire in Rome and Nero needed a scapegoat…”
Oh no. I had read about this in my church history. After there was a fire in Rome, a rumour went round that Emperor Nero was responsible. He responded by blaming the Christians, and started killing them to deflect blame on him. Nero was particularly cruel, and I felt a little sick as I recalled his method of execution: setting Christians on fire and burning them as night lights for his garden parties.
Talitha sobbed, and I could just about make out the words: “Sarah… my sister… I can’t…. believe…”
I bit my lip and skim-read the rest of the letter. Talitha’s sister, her sister’s husband, her sister’s children, all had been taking by Nero and burned alive. They were all dead.
I stood helplessly, my eyes full of tears. Talitha’s sobs turned into heaving, and I stood back as she turned and vomited onto the dusty ground.
After a few minutes, her crying had subsided and she sat staring into the middle distance. I was sitting on the ground next to her, feeling the heat, and feeling awkward and not knowing what to say.
Eventually she broke the silence.
“I knew she should have come with us. I knew it wasn’t safe.” She started crying again. “How can people be so evil? I hate him… I hate him.”
I stayed quiet. This didn’t seem like the moment to be spouting something from 1 Peter.
“She was always my protector,” Talitha said. She dragged her finger slowly through the dust on the ground. I remembered her telling me about her sister the last time I had come. They sounded like they had been close, especially since their parents had died. “I wish I could have protected her.”
“I know,” I said, which felt stupid and inadequate, and I put my arm around her gently.
The cicadas continued their steady percussion, and we sat in silence for a while.
“I just can’t bear the thought of her suffering. I can’t bear the thought that I won’t see her again,” she said. “This seems so unreal. How am I supposed to carry on without my big sister?”
She started crying again. I didn’t know, so I didn’t say anything.
She was in shock. The words from 1 Peter echoed around my mind again: “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you…” Should I be saying those words to her?
I don’t, in general, expect to suffer. I would be in shock, too. Peter knew that they would be taken by surprise. He wanted them to know that although persecution and suffering were hard, they were not unexpected, and not a sign of God’s displeasure or lack of control: we have a suffering saviour, and Christians are called to suffer, to follow ‘in his steps’.
I stopped awhile to think of the cross. So often, I think of Jesus’ dying as a theological construct, an abstract concept. Here, in the middle of a pine forest, with a woman weeping next to me, I remembered that there was real wood on that cross, real blood, deep pain and a gasping for air. This brought tears to my eyes. Jesus knew what it felt like to be in pain and gasping for air. He knew what it felt like when I was in the middle of my M.E. relapse, gasping for air. That helped, somehow, just to know that Jesus had had that physical experience.
Should I be reminding her of this? “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps”. Suffering was a normal experience for Christians, and we should remember the cross. I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to say. I opened my mouth, but then closed it again, and remained quiet.
The forest was still and silent too, and though it was dark and shaded where we were, the air still felt uncomfortably hot.
Talitha looked straight into my eyes. “I don’t think I could do it,” she whispered. “I worry that I would deny Jesus to protect myself, or my boy…” She began to cry again. “I don’t know if I can take any more of this. It was hard enough already.”
I thought of 1 Peter. He points to the resurrection and heaven, and tells them that God, “who called you to this eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong.”
A ‘little while’. Huh. It never feels like a little while when you’re going through suffering, and heaven always seems so distant. (Darn it all, but that Peter was so focused on heaven.) God calls us to eternal glory, he had said to the suffering church. Focus on that. God restores us and makes us strong.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to say to her. I knew that later she would probably find comfort in knowing that her sister was in glory with Jesus, and that even if she herself faced persecution and death, she would also go to heaven too. But she wasn’t able to think that way just yet: she was filled with fear and doubt and sadness.
A warm breeze came from out of nowhere, and I felt the air on my face; the shadows of the trees shifted and flickered on the ground, the sunlight breaking through the leaves.
Peter’s words kept echoing around my mind: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
I said them aloud, softly, tentatively.
She sobbed quietly, and I held her hand.
It felt like a prayer: “That he may lift you up in due time.” She was so low, but God’s mighty hand can always lift up, there is always a resurrection. Death and weeping are never the end of the story when God is writing it. Rejoicing comes in the morning.
“Cast all your anxiety on him,” I said, “because he cares for you,” and she sobbed more loudly, and she put her tired head on my shoulder, and I put my arms around her.
“He cares for you,” I repeated, and I stroked her back as she cried, and I was tearful too, because I realised that is what I most need to hear when I am suffering.
Sometimes when you are suffering you need to see the cross – that you are walking in the footsteps of the one who has suffered before you – and Peter knew that.
Sometimes when you are suffering you need to see the resurrection, the glimpses of heaven and glory, and Peter knew that, too.
But more than those things, Peter knew that when you are in the midst of suffering, the truth that has the most power is the simple theology that God loves you. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” It can be so hard to feel it in those times of suffering; you need it spoken over you.
“He cares for you,” I said again, and the surroundings went dark, and I found myself back in my bedroom, staring at the yellow walls, with no evidence that I had gone at all, save for the tears on my cheeks and the dust on my hands.
- When you were last suffering, what did it most help you to remember: the cross, the resurrection, or God’s love for you?
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