The first letter of Peter encouraged the Christians in Asia Minor to stay the course in the face of persecution as well as milder forms of social boycotting and verbal abuse. “Beloved,” says Peter, “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you” (1 Pet 4:12). He saw it as an opportunity to share in Christ’s suffering, preparing for the day when they could “be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13). His second letter was written to members of the church who were being led astray by false teachers who denied that the world would be brought to its conclusion by divine judgment. “Understand this,” he asserted firmly, “that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’” (2 Pet 3:3-4). Pointing out that the world and its flow of events seemed to be moving along quite nicely, without cataclysmic fire or dissolution, these teachers sowed seeds of doubt about the coming judgment of God.
But Peter took a strong stand against these scoffers, reminding his fellow Christians “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8). He wanted them to see that God’s timeframe was not the same as a human timeframe, and that God had an agenda at work: “the Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness,” he argued, “but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). From this perspective, a person could actually “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Pet 3:15). Christians ought to continue in their faith and good works, said Peter, leading “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet 3:11-12). While they “are waiting for these things,” they should strive to be found by the Lord “at peace, without spot or blemish” (2 Pet 3:14). Peter did not want Christians to abandon their faith and righteous living as they waited for the day when “the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire” (2 Pet 3:12).
In the 1990s, Reynolds Price, a professor at Duke University and author of a number of fine novels, received a letter from a medical student named Jim. The student had been diagnosed with cancer, and he wrote to Price for solace since the novelist had published a faith-inspiring account of his own recovery from spinal cancer. The young man had a simple query: “Dear Dr. Price: I want to believe in a God who cares ... because I may meet him sooner than I had expected. I think I am at the point where I can accept the existence of a God (otherwise I can’t explain the origin of the universe ... but I can’t yet believe he cares about us).”
After their initial contact, Price did not hear from him again, but learned several months later that the young man had succumbed to the cancer. Price then wrote a short book called Letter to a Man in the Fire, in which he honestly and compassionately responded to the student’s request for consolation and spiritual insight. “Dear Jim: It hardly seems appropriate to thank you for letting me know the hard facts of the cancer which has interrupted your medical training. ... I feel some thanks that the even harder questions you ask have pressed on me a need to think my way again, if only in the most personal manner, into the bottomless mystery of suffering. ... What I hear you asking is this: Was our universe created by an intelligent power, and if so, is the Creator conscious of its creatures and benignly concerned for their lives?” Price went on to affirm his strong belief in the existence of God: “What I assert with no serious doubt is that our one universe was created and is maintained by a single divine intelligence who still exists and continues to oversee his primeval handiwork.”
Like Reynolds Price, the apostle Peter was writing a letter to people in the fire. And what both writers tell us is that God is powerful but unpredictable, and that he is concerned for our lives but not likely to protect us from every form of suffering or stress. God is sometimes quick to act and sometimes patient and long-suffering; able to reveal himself clearly, but also in mystery; willing to soothe our hurts, but also to let us learn from our mistakes; capable of judging harshly and decisively, but also lavish in his great and unexpected mercy. Whatever fire we face, God desires the best for us. “It’s not the nature of love to create and then annihilate,” said the novelist Madeleine L’Engle. “If I believe God is love, then I have to believe that what has been made is going to go on being made.” The Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reminded us that our Lord never said: You will not be troubled, you will not be belabored, you will not be afflicted. But he said: You will not be overcome. This passage from 2 Peter is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it promises us that God is with us in the face of any fire, and we can “regard the patience of the Lord as salvation” (2 Pet 3:15). Although God’s timeframe is not the same as ours, we can trust that God’s loving agenda is always at work.
1. When have you faced a trial by fire, and what was the outcome?
2. What problems arise when we try to align God’s timeframe with our own?
3. How is God’s nature revealed to you in times of personal difficulty?
Join the conversation through a comment on Facebook.