Peter has exhorted his readers not to fight fire with fire, but rather with blessing, offering the assurance of God’s word that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” He follows that in verse 13 with a proverb: “Who’s going to persecute you for being eager to do good?” The implied answer is “no one,” and in general—which is the level on which proverbs work—that’s true. In the normal course of events, if others see you doing things they consider to be good, they aren’t going to attack you for that. Peter’s appealing here, as he has at earlier points in the letter, to the fact that even a corrupt society recognizes much of what is truly good, and appreciates it as such. As a general rule, people who do evil are punished, and those who don’t, aren’t.
Still, that’s only generally true. It doesn’t always hold, and Peter knows it. Some people hate what is right, and enjoy tormenting “do-gooders”; others feel threatened by those whose example makes them look bad. Then too, there are those for whom it’s strictly business. Nothing personal, but the morally upright are just easier to rip off and abuse, that’s all.
Beyond that, while there is much that God calls good with which the world agrees, we know the world is in rebellion against God; it seems each culture and every generation rebels in different ways, but there are always aspects of his righteousness which the world declares evil rather than good. As we saw in the Beatitudes, anyone who hungers and thirsts for the righteousness of God will end up being persecuted sooner or later. If you hunger and thirst for his righteousness, then you aren’t hungry and thirsty for the bill of goods this world wants to sell you, and you aren’t aiming to go where it wants you to go. Instead, you will find yourself a walking contradiction to beliefs and commitments which the culture declares self-evident and non-negotiable, and the world will find it has no hold over you; that makes you a threat.
Instinctively, the fight-or-flight reflex drives us to react to worldly opposition by either backing down or going to war. Large sections of the church in this country have taken the latter course as official policy, whether by trying to wall the world out or through political and cultural offensives. Tellingly, their efforts do little to convince the culture of the love and grace of Jesus, and too often they end up being of the world even though they aren’t in it. But for the rest of the church, which seeks to remain engaged with the world, compromise is a constant, insidious temptation. There’s always the pressure to conform to the world—to look for some way to justify telling our society what it wants to hear. Though we learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness, the hunger and thirst for the approval and applause of those around us never quite goes away.
Neither combat nor compromise is the right course. As Peter tells us, we’re called to a third way: to oppose without fighting, to stay connected without compromising. Our job is to be different from the world—conspicuously, but not combatively, assertively but not aggressively. On the one hand, we need not fear what the world fears—and fear drives the world as much as anything does. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as the Scriptures tell us, in part because it puts every other fear in perspective: compared to him, every earthly threat is insignificant. If we fear God, we can be fearless with the world, and thus free to proclaim our faith boldly without feeling the need to protect or defend ourselves from anyone or anything around us.
Thus, on the other hand, we don’t actually need to fight for our faith. We’re to contend for it, yes, but not in the world’s way. It’s not our job to defeat others and win arguments, and nothing justifies tearing other people down or belittling them. You’ll notice Peter says in verse 15 that we should always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks the reason for our hope. We’re supposed to preach the gospel, yes, and do it without compromise, but Peter doesn’t tell us to push that conversation. Rather, he envisions us living in such a way that other people ask usabout our faith. What we say about Jesus ought to be credible, whether they want to accept it or not, because it’s backed up by what they’ve already seen in our lives. If people haven’t already seen the sermon, they aren’t going to want to hear it, or be likely to believe it if they do.
Toward the powers of this world, then, we are to live as nonviolent protestors, actively resisting without fighting back. Our strength is the strength of the Holy Spirit, which is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who suffered without even threatening to retaliate, and died to save even those who were killing him. In a culture which is increasingly convincing itself that orthodox Christianity stands against progress, we must stand firmly against what this world thinks is progress, but do so with only gentleness and respect. If we do so, there will be loud voices that will slander us in every way they can think of, and many will believe those slanders because they want to; but those who take the time to look at us will see them for the lies they are, and that will be a more powerful witness to Jesus Christ than anything we could devise.
Our culture, for all that it’s running on the fumes of the faith of generations past, still has a deeply-ingrained belief that love is the best thing there is—a belief which really didn’t exist apart from belief in the God of the Bible. This society has divorced that belief in love from any belief in God, but for now, that belief in the idea of love remains. As a result, we have a culture which loves to talkabout love, but is losing any sense of any obligation to show love, especially if that would require any sort of self-sacrifice. “Love” has become a weasel word, used to justify whatever the powerful and the fashionable want to justify.
>We can’t out-argue that. It’s hard to argue someone into believing what they don’t want to believe, and at this point, the cultural headwind makes it impossible. Even if that weren’t so, the best an argument could win us with most people would be intellectual agreement, and that isn’t our goal; that doesn’t change people’s hearts. Indeed, it often doesn’t even change their behavior, unless you have the power to require the behavior you desire—which only hides the fact that their hearts haven’t really changed.
But then, we can’t change other people’s hearts, no matter what we do. Only God can do that, and he does it through his love. We can’t argue the world into believing its view of love is wrong; we can only show it to be wrong by loving the world as God loved the world. We can only show the world the love of God by loving one another, and by loving our families, and by loving our neighbors, and by loving the desperate, the powerless, and the outcast—and by loving our enemies, and seeking to bless them rather than insult them or condemn them.
This is hard; and for a long time in Western culture, the church could believe it didn’t have to do that, because the cultural authorities were outwardly friendly. But now, even in America, we are riding out of Palm Sunday and toward the cross. We’ve been accustomed to the praise, and we’ve taken it as our due, expecting it to continue. Jesus knew better. He knew the crowd’s allegiance was shallow and fickle, and that they would soon turn on him; and he knew he wasn’t there to receive their praise, but to suffer and die for them.