There is a part of me that feels the twinge of being scolded whenever my name is spoken to me. “Jill, what are you doing?” “Hurry, Jill, we need to go.” (Perhaps those of us that share this idiosyncrasy got in trouble a lot as kids.) But I have often wondered how Peter felt when Jesus’ scathing rebuke confronted not “Peter,” which would have yet had its sting, but “Satan.”
In those days, Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law. He began to explain to those who loved him that he would be put to death. Peter, like most of us reacting to the suffering of our loved ones, swore to protect him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” I can only imagine his shock at Jesus' response. Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:23).
I cannot read that passage without picturing my reaction to those words. I probably would have been devastated. But I also know that when Jesus says something devastating it seems to be something I should pay attention to all the more. The intensity of his reaction to Peter portrays the intensity with which he knew he had to suffer, the weight of history, prophecy, and salvation he felt on his soldiers, and his severe understanding of our need for his affliction. To get in the way of his necessary suffering was to be as an enemy obstructing the plan of God.
As I look at Peter standing before Christ with good intentions, not wanting to see the one he loved broken or defeated, I wonder how many times I, too, have obstructed suffering God deemed necessary. My gut reaction in the face of pain—my own and others—is to make it stop. Like Peter I vow to fix it, not knowing what I mean, just wanting it gone. Yet in the midst of suffering, Jesus warns, we must decide whether we will have in mind the things of humanity or the things of God.
The Christian understanding of suffering might seem odd to the world around it, for it is forged at the foot of the Cross. At the Cross, is the unpopular suggestion that God’s plan for our lives includes suffering. Christ was wounded and crushed for our iniquities. By the suffering and shame he endured, we are healed. Can God not also have a plan for our own pain?
As one theologian notes, “Jesus did not die in order to spare us the indignities of a wounded creation. He died that we might see those wounds as our own.”(1) At the Cross, we see our sin and the suffering that we have caused because of it. But we also find meaning even in suffering that doesn't come as a result of our sin. We see, as Paul observed, that suffering produces perseverance, that we are purified in its fires, that what was meant for ill God intends for good. We see that Christ who suffered for us, so walks with us in our own suffering. “For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5). At the Cross, we see that some suffering is not only necessary but meaningful.
Peter not only picked himself up from a rebuke more severe than anything he heard Jesus give the Pharisees, he took Jesus’s words to heart. In a letter meant to encourage fellow believers, he wrote, “It is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19). Peter chose in the end to keep in mind not on human things, but the things of God.
Written by Jill Carattini
(1) Peter Gomes, Sermons (New York: Morrow, 1998), 72.
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