How To Suffer Well [Part 8]

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy. —1 Peter 3:15

Everyone wants to be happy. If you dig deeply enough into our motives for whatever we do, you will inevitably find some impulse reaching for happiness. This is not wrong. God made us for happiness. What’s wrong is taking our God-given desire to false hopes or even just settling for mediocrity. You’ve probably heard the famous statement by C. S. Lewis:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Peter is showing us the way to be really pleased, fully happy, deeply satisfied. And not with a happiness we think we’re supposed to want but with a happiness we will really flip over. The gospel is a call to human happiness. Look at verse 10: “Whoever desires to love life and see good days….” Who doesn’t? In fact, the risen Christ is building a culture of happiness, a culture of human wholeness that we share together as a community in Christ. That’s what Peter is talking about here, in three steps. A gospel culture—first, what it looks like; second, it will be worth it; third, it might be opposed.

A gospel culture: what it looks like

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. —1 Peter 3:8-9

The most important thing here is the simple word “Finally” at the beginning. That alerts us that this passage is linked to what precedes it. What is that? It goes back to chapter 2, where Peter showed us Jesus: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you might follow in his steps…. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (2:21, 23). We saw two things about Jesus there. He was our substitute, suffering for us at the cross, and he is also our example, that we might follow in his steps to the cross. As our substitute, he did for us what we cannot imitate. As our substitute, he bore a cross we could never bear and we don’t have to bear. He took all our hell onto himself at his lonely cross. He forgives us of all our sins. He alone atoned for us. And we believe it. That’s all we can do. Just believe. Further, as forgiven sinners who are trusting Jesus, we see him as our example. He did for us at the cross what we must imitate, as we take up our crosses and follow him. How did he show us an example at the cross? He did not fight back, and neither should we.

Going further back in chapter 2, we saw that following Christ makes us honorable and noble (2:12). There is nothing small about Christ, nothing to be ashamed of. Jesus is noble. And so are we, when we rise up and follow him. So Peter has been showing us how to follow the non-retaliatory, noble Christ, as citizens (2:13-17), as employees (2:18-25), as wives (3:1-6) and as husbands (3:7). Now in verse 8 Peter says, “Finally, all of you….” Here is how all of us together follow the noble Christ and create by his power a culture of beauty and honor in this world. It’s not just that each of us follows him individually but that together, as a church, we follow Christ into a culture of nobility here in a fifth-rate world. We are here to build a gospel culture, with high standards, called Immanuel Church. And we are here to multiply it by planting more churches. What the Bible Belt needs is churches so noble they’re surprising.

What does that gospel culture look like? Peter tells us, in verse 8. Unity of mind—not that we all have the same preferences, but we all pursue the same goal. Sympathy—we allow the joys and sorrows of others to get inside our own feelings. Brotherly love—we include one another as family. We don’t choose family; we accept family and make the best of it. A tender heart—we don’t judge each other but understand each other’s hardships. A humble mind—we’re just happy to be involved. That’s a gospel culture. It’s Jesus coming down and displaying himself today. The world, and especially the religious world, is like this Somali proverb:

I and Somalia against the world.
I and my clan against Somalia.
I and my family against the clan.
I and my brother against the family.
I against my brother.

When anything other than Jesus rules in our hearts, our emotional universe starts shrinking. But Jesus is building a culture of unity, sympathy, love, tenderness and humility that grows and spreads and brings life. It is a privilege to be involved.

But it’s not easy, is it? Here’s the price we pay. According to verse 9, we don’t repay evil with evil, which is natural, but we repay evil with good and an insult with a blessing, which is hard. How on earth can we do that? Inevitably we all feel, “I want to hit back.” And it’s the very reality of evil that makes pay-back easy to rationalize. If I take offense where none is given, that’s my touchiness, right? But what about when you’re doing the right thing and people wrong you for that very reason? How do you repay an insult with a blessing? It’s not easy.

Here is the gospel’s answer: “…to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” When you are insulted for Christ, it’s not an accident. It’s a calling from God. He is not taking away from you; he is investing all the more richly in you: “…that you may obtain a blessing” —the blessing of nobility. I was moved this week when I watched a video about Christians in Romania persecuted by the communists. One of them said, “God will judge us not according to how much we endured, but how much we could love.” That is the way of Christ. He showed us by example. He took our insults at the cross, and gave back love. And that is his call on us now, so that people in Nashville today can see what Jesus is really like. It’s not easy. Following Christ is hard. But not following Christ is a lot harder. A gospel culture is so worth it, worthy of our all. For Immanuel Church to become all God wants us to become will not be easy or cheap or convenient. But it will be worth it.

A gospel culture: it will be worth it

For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For 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.” —1 Peter 3:10-12

Peter quotes Psalm 34 from way back in the Old Testament. When Peter wrote this, Psalm 34 was already a thousand years old. He wants us to know that what he is saying is ancient wisdom that has been tested again and again and has been proven true. What strikes me most about this wisdom is how simple it is, how modest it is. We don’t have to be geniuses to follow Christ. Look at verse 10: “Whoever desires to love life (not just exist) and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil.” You mean, that’s where it begins? Just keeping my mouth shut? We today wouldn’t have written it that way. We would have written, “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him be brilliant and impressive and brash enough to elbow his way to the head of the line.” Isn’t that how this world works? Yes. But it’s not how Christ works, if I may put it that way. The face of the Lord is against those who live that evil way. So, if we factor God out of the equation, the only life worth living is selfish. But if we factor God into the equation and believe that his eyes are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayers, then the only life worth living is the way of Christ. Every other path leads to damnation – successful, smart, cool, eternal damnation.

But the risen Christ is bringing heaven down to earth. He is building gospel communities, called churches, where sinners feel forgiven and loved. They come to believe that his cause is worth living for. So they turn away from evil and do good – they don’t nothing, they aren’t neutral, they don’t just keep a low profile but they are a positive influence in their world. They do good. They seek peace, they seek shalom, they go after it with passion, they pursue it. Do you see that word “pursue” in verse 11? “Let him seek peace and pursue it”? That word translated “pursue” is the same word translated “persecute” elsewhere in the New Testament. Too many Christians are passive about following Christ. They aren’t pursuing him and his cause. They just show up now and then. The world isn’t like that. At its worst, the world persecutes believers. And in a way, you have to hand it to them. They’re in earnest. They’re pursuing what they believe. If you believe in Jesus, really believe in him, you will pursue peace and shalom and wholeness. Do you believe in Jesus?

Well, are you building community, or are you just assuming it’s going to happen somehow? Down with moderate, passive Christianity! Where is that in the gospel? Show me one verse in all this holy book that says, “Well, be careful not to exert yourself too much. Don’t stress out. Take it easy on yourself.” If that were the way of Christ, he had ample opportunity to tell us. But what has he told us? He told us to be “zealous for what is good” (verse 13). The NIV translates it “eager to do good.” The way of Jesus is a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat eagerness to do more for him. He wants to use us to build a culture of human wholeness here in this brutal world, and it will not be easy. But it is remarkably simple in how it gets traction. “Let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” It starts with restraining our tongues. How practical and non-grandiose. But it works. Words are powerful. 

As Americans, we have the right of free speech. As Christians, we limit our use of that right. The Bible says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Years ago I heard about a woman who took her life in Los Angeles. Her suicide note had just two words on it: “They said.” But Jesus breathes life into us by his words: “Neither do I condemn you. Your sins are forgiven. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Do not fear. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am you may be also. Peace be unto you.” The words of Jesus. Now we know why God gave us the gift of speech.

I heard about a man who invited a friend to church. He said, “Won’t you come to church with me?” But his friend said, “No thanks. I’ve got enough problems of my own.” Obviously, that man had never been to Immanuel Church! Jesus is building a gospel culture here. It is beautiful. It is worthy. But some people might not understand. They might find fault, even as we seek their peace.

A gospel culture: it might be opposed

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. —1 Peter 3:13-16

We don’t want to suffer, of course. But we might. And that’s scary. So Peter says, in verse 14, “Have no fear.” What might we fear? Rejection, being excluded, being disinvited, being cold-shouldered, being whispered about. It’s hard to bear. So the key to fearlessness is verse 15: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,” as sacred, as untouchable. The key is our hearts looking at Jesus Christ crucified for us, and then looking at all the smiling approval of this world, and saying, “I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause; I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause; I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame; I’d rather be true to His holy name; than to be the king of a vast domain and be held in sin’s dread sway; I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.” That reverence, that emotion, that choice deep in our hearts is how we honor Christ the Lord as holy. It makes us bold.

So when people think you’re an idiot for loving Jesus and pursuing his cause with all your might and they don’t ask you how it is that you are such a wonderful person but they ask you insultingly why you’re wasting your life on “religion”–as they perceive it–what they don’t want in reply is a torrent of theological argumentation and emotional overreaction, such that they wished they had never said anything. But let this be the impact of our witness–that the other person, however unkind they may be, ends up grateful they met us.

Some years before he became President, Woodrow Wilson walked into a barber shop one day. Here’s how he described what happened:

While sitting in a chair… I became aware that a personality had entered the room. A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself and sat in the chair next to me. Every word he uttered… showed a personal and vital interest in the man who was serving him.

As he thought about it later, Wilson recalled that before leaving that shop,

I was aware that I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr. Moody [D. L. Moody] was in the next chair. I purposely lingered in the room after he left and noted the singular effect his visit had upon the barbers in that shop. They talked in undertones. They did not know his name, but they knew that something had elevated their thought. And I felt that I left that place as I should have left a place of worship.

You know how that happens? It starts deep inside us, as in our own hearts we honor Christ the Lord as holy.