Your Greatest Evil: Sin or Suffering?
I hate to suffer. And I hate to see others suffer. I also hate to sin. I know it displeases God, and I yearn to please him.
But sometimes we need to choose between sin and suffering. And that’s when we need to decide which we hate more. If suffering is your greatest evil – the thing you most want to avoid – then you will choose sin over suffering.
That’s why the apostle Peter admonishes us to steel ourselves to prepare to suffer – “arm yourselves with an attitude of suffering, because he who has suffered in the body is done with sin” (I Peter 4:1). If we resolve at the outset that we would prefer to suffer than to sin, we’ll be prepared to choose the right thing.
Avoiding suffering is natural. We’re hard-wired to seek to avoid it. Most of the time, it’s an entirely sensible response. Our avoidance of suffering drives us to do many healthy things like exercising, eating right, not texting while driving, studying for tests, showing up on time for work, and the like.
Yet there are times when the suffering we must endure to avoid sin is sharp and feels overwhelming.
Peter was writing to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith in Christ. Their suffering was optional – if they would just deny Christ, their suffering would stop, but their sin (denying Christ) would win out. For them to be “done with sin” – not permanently done with sin, since we will fight it every day until we leave this fallen world – they needed to embrace an attitude of suffering.
What does it mean to have an attitude of suffering? It means to expect to have to sometimes choose between suffering and sin, and to be prepared to embrace the suffering to avoid the sin. This is no less than Christ did – choosing to suffer on the cross to be obedient to his Father, “leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
This is hardly a popular idea in our comfort-seeking culture. And it’s never been popular in any age because it runs counter to our nature.
It’s also true that avoiding suffering is impossible in the long run. No one can do it. Even if you orient your life around suffering-avoidance, it will catch up with you.
Think of the first-century Christians who chose to deny Christ to avoid a violent death in the arena: did they cheat death? They died by violent accidents, strokes, cancer, or heart attacks, but suffering still found them. By choosing sin, they delayed suffering in this world by a few years, but not forever (and I will leave it to God what their eternal destiny was). Had they embraced the suffering when they had to choose, they might well have suffered less than those who accepted the suffering up front.
The sooner we come to terms with the realization that avoiding sin often involves accepting suffering, the better prepared we will be to choose the right thing in the moment of deciding.
It will also tend to make us less surprised and less bitter when suffering comes. Many Christians are shocked when they suffer with the loss of their health, a loved one, job, or reputation, and this surprise makes some turn away from following Christ. Yet when we realize that suffering is unavoidable for everyone, and if we instead accept it as the better alternative to embracing sin, we will be better prepared to recognize that the path of salvation leads through the path of suffering. That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
Suffering is hard, but it’s unavoidable in one form or another. But sin is avoidable if we won’t count suffering as the greatest evil and do anything to try to avoid it.
To be “done with sin,” as Peter writes, means we won’t let it rule over us in our vain attempts to avoid suffering. Embracing a preparedness to suffer ensures that sin is the greatest evil that we avoid at all costs.