Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. ~ 1 Peter 3:13-17
When reading through scripture it is interesting that sometimes certain phrases might as well be in bold because they jump out at you so distinctly. The problem with that is sometimes those words that may have been very encouraging to us in a time of trouble may color our view of an entire passage of scripture. In the passage above the general mood that I have been sensing in modern evangelical circles is that the words slandered, reviled, and put to shame have begun to carry too much weight in this passage. I write as a Christian in America in 2014 and while the verse above may have some individual applications to persons who have come across persecution within their work, school, or community, there is not the widespread persecution of Christians that is in the mind of Peter when he was writing this.
If you read the book of 1 Peter as a whole much of it deals with how we are to deal with persecution because he is dealing with a group of people who are being significantly persecuted. In a country where it is nearly impossible for me to leave my home without passing a house of Christian worship I have a hard time buying into the idea that we, as Christians, are a persecuted people within this nation. Since Peter is writing to a persecuted group of believers, and I don’t buy into our persecution, does that mean that I don’t think that this passage and most of this letter (and large portions of the New Testament) are irrelevant to us? Hardly, but I do think that we should potentially be giving our attention more to other portions of the text.
Even for those who are being written to in this letter as originally intended, the subject of persecution is not the main thrust, but just the context that they were living in. The subject is closer to that of personal holiness, and the way in which we live out our lives before the unbelieving world. This is not a letter to the unbeliever who will be put to shame for their treatment of God’s people, but a letter to God’s people with the admission that they will see mistreatment, and with instruction on how to live their lives in the midst of persecution. If we live in a nation today of relatively little persecution, how much more of the positive instruction of this passage should we take to heart. If we are to give a reason for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect even to those who are persecuting us, with how much more grace and understanding should we act when we are merely dealing with people who disagree with us. When it speaks in verse 17 of suffering for good rather than evil, I think that it puts into perspective some of the perceived persecution in our culture. In many cases we are not suffering for standing by the word of God, but suffering for the very lack of gentleness and respect that this passage calls us to. In the same vein, when we talk about the wickedness of homosexuality or abortion, we are not testifying to the hope that we find in Christ, we are actually testifying to a hope in legalism, that in abstaining from those things (and other pet sins of the day) we have been saved. By dealing harshly with the world, by expecting them to live up to a biblical standard of righteousness, we are in a way proclaiming a salvation other than the one offered in Christ.
There is a false dichotomy that we have been presented with today. There are those on one side of these issues that would have us conform to the standards of the world in the name of love and acceptance. There are others who would have us speak out in condemnation of the wickedness of the world in the name of truth and standing beside the word of God. Both of these have the appearance of wisdom, but fall short of what we have been called to. In 1 Peter 1:14 we are called to be obedient, and to not be “conformed to our former ignorance”, so the idea of setting aside our obedience to God’s word, and setting our standards based on those of the world is not something that we have been called to. The term used, “former ignorance”, on the other hand does point to an enlightenment that has not been given to the world as a whole. That light that we have been given is the Holy Spirit, and if we can scarcely find it within ourselves to be obedient even with the indwelling Spirit, how can we expect the world which lacks the Spirit to obey or honor the things of God. Much of this letter is a call to personal holiness, so we are to hold the word of God in very high regard, but in relation to ourselves first, and in ministering to our brothers and sisters second, but as it relates to the world much of what we must realize is that it is a fallen one, and expecting for it to act otherwise is futile.
How do we interact with this world then, if we should not conform to their ways, and they certainly will not conform to ours? This passage would seem to say that we should merely do good, what reason do people have to persecute us if we are feeding the hungry, what reason do people have to hate us if we are clothing and sheltering the poor, and if they decide that they do not need a reason we are told that we will be blessed in that as well. Those will be the days when we are truly being persecuted, when we are doing the great acts of compassion that we are called to, and the culture that surrounds us hates each of us not only for who we are, but chiefly for who we serve. In that time the only thing that we will have to offer is really the only thing of worth we had to give in the first place. They may ask us how we can stand in the face of hatred and not be shaken, and the answer to that question is the reason for the hope that is in us… Jesus Christ. There are those who will witness the work of God and be stirred by the Spirit in this very act, and there are some who will not. Do good today, with our freedom, and let God work. Do good on that day, in our affliction, and let God work.