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?
a man who puts himself under the control of the love God acts, when a private personal injury has been done to him, as though nothing had occurred. In this way, by simply ignoring the unkind act or the insulting word, . . . he brings the evil thing to an end; it dies and leaves no seed. . . . This consideration gives dignity and worth inestimable to the feeble efforts of the most insignificant of us to make love the controlling principle in our daily lives.
You may have heard of the Presbyterian pastor and author Tullian Tchividjian; he’s Billy Graham’s grandson, and the successor to D. James Kennedy as the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church down in Fort Lauderdale. I haven’t read a lot of his work, but he wrote a remarkable little essay last fall called “Church, We Have a Problem” that I’ve been mulling ever since. In it, he writes this:
Spend any time in the American church, and you’ll hear legalism and lawlessness presented as two ditches on either side of the Gospel that we must avoid. Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law or rules, and lawlessness when you focus too much on grace. . . .
It is more theologically accurate to say that the one primary enemy of the Gospel—legalism—comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they’re told, maintaining the standards, and so on (you could call this “front-door legalism”). Other people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on (you could call this “back-door legalism”). . . . Either way, you’re still trying to save yourself—which means both are legalistic, because both are self-salvation projects. . . . We want to remain in control of our lives and our destinies, so the only choice is whether we will conquer the mountain by asceticism or by license.
This is a profound insight. Rev. Tchividjian goes on from there to talk about the importance of preaching grace, which is indeed the main point at issue. I want to take his comments in a different direction, though, because I think he highlights something important about the world. The world wants us all to be legalists, and on the whole, it doesn’t really care which kind. Put another way, the world wants us to be conformists. Some times and cultures favor “keep the rules” conformists, while others favor “break the rules” conformists, but what really matters either way aren’t the obvious rules being kept or broken. What matters is the deeper set of rules you aren’t allowed to question.
This is important to recognize when we talk about our individualistic culture. It is indeed individualistic in the sense that it values the desires of the individual above the well-being of the group (hence no-fault divorce laws, for example). It’s quick to praise self-expression and denounce “conformity”—by which it means keeping the standards of previous generations, which are now hopelessly passé. But have you ever noticed that non-conformists run in packs? It’s great to be an individual and chart your own course, as long as you’re an individual just like everyone else. Be “different” in one of the approved ways, and you’re golden. If you’re actually different from the world, you’ll be attacked—as, among other things, a conformist. And no, no one will see the irony.
Obviously, the world isn’t monolithic. It has factions—different groups that want different things and approve of different things. They’re rather like political parties. But just like our political parties, they only fight each other when there’s no common enemy. Introduce a threat to the system and the existing power structure, and they band together to defeat it. We see an example of this in the gospels. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians hated each other, but they teamed up willingly to kill Jesus because they hated him even more. As long as you’re in the system and belong to an accepted group, you might get flak from other groups, but you’ll be okay.
The key question from the world’s perspective is, are you a part of the system? Do you follow its rules and honor its priorities? If so, you might think you’re the one calling the shots, but it’s the world that’s running your life; you’re under its management, in its employ. For example, you might be a spender or a saver; you might believe in working hard and living frugally, or you might live one paycheck behind and borrow from everyone in sight. These are different factions which honor money in different ways, but they agree on its importance. That’s what the world really cares about. Even as Christians, it’s easy to fall into these patterns, thinking and acting much like everyone around us does—acting as if the world owned and ran us, too.
Now, on a quick read of 1 Peter 4, it looks like the apostle is only concerned about obvious bad behavior, as he seems to be describing an extreme group of sinners—acts of lawlessness, lust, orgies, drunkenness, carousing, and so on. There are two points to consider, however. First, with the exception of the final item on his list (idolatry), everything he’s denouncing was also condemned by pagan writers. These were vices that society recognized as vices. Second, I don’t think we can assume that the Christians to whom this letter was written had all been addicts of the worst sort. It’s probable that most of them had lived reasonably respectable lives before their conversion. And yet, Peter tars all of them and their whole society with this broad brush. Why?
I think the answer lies in the fact that this list ends with the condemnation of idolatry. Most if not all of the rest of the terms in verse 3 refer to behaviors which, though generally recognized as wrong most of the time, were practiced every year at some of the Greek and Roman religious festivals. If you participated in the religion of the culture, however upright and upstanding your daily life may have been, there would be times you would abandon self-control and any sort of moral constraint as a part of your worship of the gods of the culture. To refuse to do so was to mark yourself off as someone who followed a different Lord than the world around you and gave your allegiance to a different authority—and thus as someone not properly under control.
That’s what it’s all about. The world always talks about morality—even those who denounce traditional morality speak in moralistic terms—but the underlying theme and purpose is control. Remember, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this present darkness, as Paul says in Ephesians 6. The world wants to make us legalists, either striving to use law to control our desires or letting our desires determine our law; either way, it has us in its grip.
Peter reminds us that we’re free of that grip, and calls us to live free of it. Christ suffered in this world, the perfectly just bearing the weight of all our injustice, to buy us out of our slavery to sin—and he is now done with sin. He came into this world resolved to defeat sin, he carried that through and broke its power by his death and resurrection, and he has now left it forever behind him, passing through and returning to the presence of God the Father. Because of his work, we no longer belong to this world, and we are no longer slaves to sin and death; instead, we too look forward to the day when we will leave them forever behind us, passing through them to live with God, in whom there is neither sin nor death, eternally.
Peter says, fix your eyes on that, and arm yourselves with the same resolve to live your life to do the will of God. We are no longer slaves to this world, we are slaves of God; we’re under new management, accountable to a new master. We need to set our hearts and minds to live in that freedom, even though it will mean suffering abuse from others, and possibly worse. We need to steel ourselves to bear that suffering as Christ did, neither running away nor fighting back, but trusting in the justice of God the Father and accepting suffering as an opportunity to bear witness to the love and the grace of God. As that translator said in the video of the Masterworks China trip from a couple years ago, “Don’t pray that we will not have persecution, but pray that we will prevail and stand throughout persecution.”
We are no less in Christ when we doubt than when our faith seems strong; and we are no weaker when we doubt, because it was never about our strength anyway. Christ has risen from the dead by the power of his Holy Spirit, and he has breathed his Holy Spirit into us—the Spirit of resurrection, who makes the dead ones live and the dry bones dance. The power is not in our faith, but in the one in whom we put our faith; and he holds our faith firm even when we can’t. He holds us together even when we can’t. He has given us his life, which has overcome death. No matter how dark things may seem, he will bring us through, and in the end, we will see the Son rise.
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.
More than that, we can only carry out our mission if we live with each other in love and grace—to frame it positively—because how we live with each other is how we earn credibility to preach love and grace to those around us. Why should anyone believe in the sacrificial love of Jesus if they can’t see us laying down our lives in love for one another? Why should anyone believe that our God is a God of grace if we aren’t a people of grace? We can only teach people that Jesus lives if they see him living among us. The only way we earn any credibility to tell them Jesus saves is if we live together as people who have been saved. May we ever be so, to the glory of God.