This is troubling.
I can’t find a single passage where Jesus himself suggests that he wants any of us to suffer. In fact his message seems to be that his entire reason for being was to end suffering. So why is it that his first followers seemed to believe that we are called upon to suffer?
This passage in 1 Peter follows shortly on the heels of verse 18 which reads “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
This makes me cringe. Not because of its meaning, but because of how badly its meaning has been twisted and abused to justify one of the worst institutionalized evils in history. The abuse and misuse of this passage has been cause for many to reject it, the Bible, and the entire Christian faith outright. I can pass no judgment on anyone who makes such a rejection. I can only say that they, like those who have abused this passage in the name of God, are missing the point.
The point, as is so often the case when passages of the Bible are taken out of context and turned into bumper stickers, is right in the next verse. “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.”
I love those last three words: “conscious of God.” Nothing in the Bible can make any sense unless we first understand what these words mean, and everything in the Bible is directing us towards attaining this understanding. To be “conscious of” something is far more than simply knowing, or thinking, or mindlessly asserting the truth of something you haven’t bothered to think about or understand. To be “conscious of” is to be awake to reality in a way that implies a prior state of unconsciousness.
In this case the author is referring to the most dramatic kind of awakening possible. The author does not condemn the institution of slavery, but this should not be taken as a tacit endorsement of it either. He is writing about an emancipation of consciousness that presupposes the undoing of all such systemic and institutionalized injustice as the necessary outcome of all mankind awakening to this reality.
This emancipation is by necessity preeminent to any other, and it then follows that the slave who is “conscious of God” is first called to emancipate her master. Once her master becomes “conscious of God” the inevitable and only outcome must be the end to the injustice of their relationship.
Let us make no mistake. To ask anyone, slave or otherwise, who is not “conscious of God,” to suffer blindly under their oppression because some book says they should is a fool’s errand that will lead to nothing. Liberation is too sacred to leave to the whims of cruelty.
But this is not who the author is writing to. This obligation is placed specifically on those who are already awakened. It is only then that Jesus becomes a meaningful example. Suffering has no power without salvation.
Those who are “conscious of God” cannot sin. This is the underlying assumption of the entire book, a theme which continues into the next (equally problematic) chapter which begins, “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands.” The point is not that we are called to passively endure suffering because God is a fucked-up psychopath that wants us to be miserable, rather that the spiritual liberation of our oppressors can only be achieved through perfect Love in spite of the suffering they inflict upon us, and the outcome of this liberation is necessarily the return of this perfect Love to us.