A People of Grace

The NIV’s translation of verse 5 is a little unfortunate.  Peter has been talking about elders in the church, and he still is here; the distinction in this first sentence isn’t between younger people and older people, but between those who aren’t elders and those who are.  It’s quite clear from the way he continues that he’s addressing the believers as a whole at this point, not just one subset of them.  What he has to say is important, because if the temptation of leader­ship is to dominate and demand, servant leadership creates an equal temptation among those who are being served.  It’s easy to mistake humility for weakness and a servant’s heart for a servile spirit, and start to think of a servant leader as “the help.”

I first understood what that means on the occasion of a wedding I did for a couple who came from wealthy families.  They appre­ciated all I did for them, but when the service and reception rolled around, I realized that their families didn’t.  They saw me the same way they saw the people bussing the tables:  as little more than animate furniture.  That sort of attitude is the result of arrogance, and breeds arrogance—the same arrogance we were warned about last week.  In that, we can see that these two temptations, that of the leader and that of those who are served, are really one:  the temptation to arrogance instead of humility and a spirit of entitlement instead of a spirit of grace.  As such, they stand in complete opposition to the life which Christ has given and invited us to live.

Peter brings his letter to a close by telling his readers how to live that life in the face of persecution and suffering.  What he says amounts to this:  we are to be a people of grace.  He lays this out in three ways.  At the center of this passage, he calls us to live by grace toward God.  “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God,” he says, “and cast all your anxieties on him.”  Set aside the pride that says that you can do it on your own, that you’re good enough just the way you are, that you deserve to get what you want, that you deserve better than what you’re getting.  Give up the desire to run your life and the insistence on making it all happen yourself—that’s the only way you can cast your anxieties on God; as long as you’re trying to keep control, the anxieties will come with it.  To cast your anxieties on him, you must give up control to him.

This is an invitation to entrust ourselves and our lives totally to God, because he cares for us—much better than we do for ourselves, in fact.  I love the way theologian Douglas Harink puts it:  the Christian life is only possible if

we trust God absolutely in every circumstance. Only such trust will free us from the constant and normal temptations to assert our own power in circumstances, to take down the enemy or oppressor, to seek our own good, to establish our own rights, to attain our own position of honor, or, most basically, simply to defend ourselves and secure our own safety.  Without humble trust in “the mighty hand of God,” how would we be able to follow the way of the Messiah, who did not do any of those things, but rather, “entrust­[ing] himself to the one who judges justly,” walked the journey from divine glory to the cross?

As Dr. Harink continues, “a mere imitation of Christ carried out by the sheer power of human will” is not the Christian life.  You can live an impressively moral life that way (on the outside, at least) and convince a lot of people you’re a godly person, but you won’t be.  That’s a life lived apart from God, because it’s a life lived to impress God (and other people).  Following Christ begins in truth with the admission that wecan’t actually follow Christ at all.  All we can do is lay ourselves at his feet in abject humility and admit our utter inability to do what he commands us to do, and let his Holy Spirit pick us up and carry us.  It’s only as we are in Christ by the power of his Spirit, only as we’re completely surrendered to him and our own pride is completely abandoned, in total dependence on his grace, that we can live his life.

The other two points flow out of this reality.  One, Peter says in verses 8-9 that we’re to live by grace against sin.  It’s easy to miss that because it’s easy to miss that Peter isn’t talking about human opponents here.  If you look back at the rest of the letter, he never tells his readers to resist those who persecute them; quite the opposite.  Thus, when he says to resist the Devil, he has something very different in mind.  This is important.  As Dr. Harink points out, when we focus on “apparent flesh-and-blood enemies, we . . . miss the sneak attack of the real adversary—the devil—the one who has already devoured ‘them’ and now seeks to devour ‘us,’ exactly by setting us in warfare against them.”  When this happens, “the defeat of the messianic people [is] total, because the very messianic character that defines them [disappears].”

Our enemy is the Devil, not other people, not matter what other people might do to us, and we cannot resist him by our own strength or force of will.  We can’t, because he will turn those against us.  Our enemy doesn’t only seek to destroy us through our temptations, he seeks to destroy us through our highest goals and most noble motivations, by corrupting and twisting them and by teaching us to use them as excuses for sin.  We can only resist him by putting our faith entirely in Christ and resting wholly on his grace.  We can only resist the Devil by turning at every point to Jesus, entrusting ourselves as he did to the one who judges justly.

Finally, Peter commands us to live in grace toward one another.  Not for us the pride that presumes to look down on others; God opposes the proud.  Rather, the more we humble our­selves before God and confess our total dependence on his grace, the more this will determine how we regard and treat one another.  There are two aspects to this.  First, if the Lord himself didn’t come to be served but to serve, how much more should this be true of us?  He calls us to give up our lives in service to each other, not for a little while, not so that they will serve us the way we want to be served, not until they realize we’re too good for that, but in total, with no expectation of any earthly credit or reward.  He calls us to give up our agendas and our insistence on having things our way, not as a sneaky strategy for getting our way in the end, but as our sacrifice of worship to him.  He invites us to cast our anxieties on him and pour ourselves out in service, holding nothing back, trusting by his grace that all will be well, and all will be good.

Second, if we’re sinners who are utterly dependent on the grace of God for our own salvation—and we are, every one of us—and we’re grateful to God for his mercy when we sin against him, how can we not show that same mercy to those who sin against us?  None of us has standing to assume the posture of the judge, looking down on others from a height of moral superiority; measured against the goodness and holiness of God, the greatest height of moral superiority any of us can claim is no more than an anthill.  When others sin, it isn’t our place to decide what justice should be done to them, much less to impose it.  Rather, our proper place is to come alongside them in humility, on an equal footing with them as fellow sinners saved only by grace, and strive gently and kindly to teach and encourage them to resist the Devil.  In this, too, we are to serve regardless of any hope of reward.  Jesus commands us to forgive each other until we’ve lost count of how many times we’ve done it, then keep forgiving.

All of this will mean suffering.  It will mean suffering from the world, as we set an example that makes our society uncomfortable, and as God allows us to suffer so that he can use it for our growth.  It will mean suffering from the Devil, both the pain of conviction for our sin and the pain of resisting temptation.  It will even mean suffering from the church, as there will be times that others will take advantage of us.  To this, as he has all the way through the letter, Peter encourages us to trust Jesus.  Trust him, and after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.  This is the true grace of God.  Stand firm in it.
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