The word of the day is “strange.” Most of us think that routine is a good thing. If things do not change considerably, we can make plans and carry on with our lives without interruption. Yet, the scriptures warn that we should prepare ourselves for the disruption of trials of our faith. For instance, in today’s reading, Peter writes, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to happen to you as though some strange thing happened to you” (vs. 12). Our reading of 1 Peter 4:12-5:5 advises how we might endure suffering for the sake of Christ with serenity and even joy.
You might notice that the New Testament writers often speak of the trials that their readers must endure. However, they seldom give any details about these tests of their faith. For instance, in today’s reading, the apostle speaks of a “fiery trial” (vs. 12). The word that is translated as “trial” comes from the idea of “proof” and suggests that the trouble to come will be a test of the stuff that the believers are made of (Strong’s #3986, 196). Further, the apostle calls the trial “fiery” to describe how fierce it would be.
Just Do Not Be Surprised
Apart from these generalities, James gives no information about what kind of trial it will be. Nor does he divulge the timing of the test. Will it come soon, as some commentators suggest? Or has it already begun, as others assert? We don’t have enough information to give a definite answer.
Rather than giving these details, the apostle’s concern is that his readers should not think the tribulation “strange.” A more exact translation is that his flock should not be “surprised” (Strong’s 3579, 174).
What is the danger of being caught unawares when such a trial comes? Imagine Peter sitting down for a Passover meal as he had done so many times before. He has misunderstood and disregarded Jesus’ forewarnings of His Passion. He is comfortable with the familiar ritual and delighted that he can celebrate it with his Master in Jerusalem. But when Jesus begins to speak of his betrayal, Peter is surprised. He rashly protests that he would never do such a thing. Jesus warns him that before morning, he will betray him three times.
Facing Trials With Composure
To be surprised at the ‘fiery trial” ahead is to be caught off guard like that. When we are attacked without warning, we are at the mercy of our impulses. The accusation of a lowly servant girl ambushed Peter as he waited outside in the courtyard while Jesus was tried inside. Despite Jesus’ warning, the impulse of fear overtook him. From then on, throughout that night, his fright controlled him.
To avoid failing our Lord when our faith experiences an attack takes composure. Such serenity under duress goes against human instinct. To overcome our natural reflexes and to keep our balance in times of trial takes preparation. For instance, Paul spent time thinking about and talking about his eventual martyrdom. Before his trial, he wrote, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (NRSV Philippians 1:20). Paul’s concern was that in his life, death, or even torture, he would not react shamefully. His earnest desire was only that in his endurance he would glorify Christ, His Lord (Philippians 1:20). But that took getting ready for his final ordeal.
Counsel on Preparing for Trials
How does one come to this remarkable point of equanimity in the face of severe trial? We should replace our fear with rejoicing (vs. 13). We should be joyful in suffering for Christ because when we are abused for the sake of our faith, we are blessed. When others denounce us because of our dedication to Christ, we can be confident that God’s “Spirit of Glory” rests upon us (1 Peter 4:14). We can trust that we are following the example of Christ who also was “mocked, spit upon, scourged, and killed” (Luke: 18:31-33).
We can expect that suffering for the sake of our faith will be unexpected. The devil will not show up to announce that a trial is going to test our faith. But the ordeal will come upon us before we are aware of it. Therefore, we must be ready to face whatever challenge comes.
How? We should pray that the Holy Spirit would nurture the growth of strong and steady faith in us. And we should cultivate the practice of patience, endurance, and peace of heart and mind. And we should consider that when we suffer for Christ, we participate in His sufferings. James puts it, you should “rejoice to the extent that you partake of His suffering, that when His glory is revealed, you also may be exceedingly glad…” (vs. 13). In the same vein, Paul speaks of participation in Christ’s sufferings, “And if children their heirs-heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we might also be glorified with Him (OAB Romans 8:18).
In our society, changes continually interrupt the comfort of our routine. We get ready for them as best we can. But the scriptures are concerned about more important preparations. The first is the sudden return of the Lord in glory. The second is the likelihood that we will be called to stand up for our faith and even face trials that will prove the spiritual condition of our souls. Watchfulness is the best way to make sure that these challenges do not surprise us. That vigilance that comes from constant prayer that helps us grow in faith and life in Christ.
The Philokalia gives special counsel for dealing with trials that surprise us. St. Maximos says, “When a trial comes upon you unexpectedly, do not blame the person through whom it came but try to discover the reason why it came, and then you will find a way of dealing with it (G.E.H. Palmer 1981, 72-73).
This wisdom deals with tests of our faith after they have come upon us. Yet the practice of reflection on such events can give us insight. And that wisdom will enable us to prepare for and respond to the trials that the Lord will permit us to endure.
Works cited: G.E.H. Palmer, et. al. Trans. 1981. The Philokalia: the Complete Text Vol. 3. New York: Farber and Farber