To put this in context, Nero has begun persecuting Christians. Believers are being imprisoned and tortured and executed for their faith. I would have thought that Peter would warn these scattered believers to be alert to the danger of government authorities who are cracking down on Christians, or to be alert to soldiers who are out to get them, or to be alert to spies who may be bribed or coerced to turn them in. Those may, indeed, be dangers the Christians were facing, but that’s not what Peter warned them to be alert to. Peter was concerned about a danger more severe than imprisonment or physical pain or even death. He was concerned about their soul. He warned them to beware the attacks of the devil whose aim is to destroy our spiritual lives.
It struck me that I often go about my life fretting about the wrong dangers. I worry about my physical health and finances and whether I am doing my job well enough and what people think of me and so forth. But Peter’s focus was on the health of the soul, warning us to be alert to the attacks of the devil, and encouraging us to stand firm in the faith. He seems to have remembered Jesus’ words in Luke 9:25, “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”
Dear Savior, help me to focus my heart and mind and soul on that which matters most, the health of my soul. Help me to be alert to threats to my soul, and help me to stand firm in the things that will strengthen my soul.
I realize now that for many, many years I have been running up against a barrier to my spiritual growth—a barrier which I didn’t even notice was there but kept blocking me from going further in my spiritual growth. I don’t believe I have gotten past that barrier yet, but at least I now recognize that it is there and that it blocks me from the growth I desire.
The barrier I have been running up against for so many years is pride or self-sufficiency or reluctance to face my faults or my desperate longing to be perceived as “good.”
David Benner describes me and my barrier perfectly in his book, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery. He writes,
“The roots of our pretend self lie in our childhood discovery that we can secure love by presenting ourselves in the most flattering light. A little girl hides her hatred of her brother because she knows that she should love him. This lack of integrity is then reinforced by her parents, who commend her loving behavior. A young boy denies his resentment after he fails to get something he desires. In so doing, he takes a step toward a loss of awareness of what he is really feeling. In short, we learn to fake it, appearing as we think important others want us to be and ignoring the evidence to the contrary.” (p. 61-62)
In my longing to be liked by my parents (and then by others) I became skilled at maintaining an appearance of being good. To maintain that appearance, I learned to cover up (and not to face) my faults and weaknesses; I learned to be self-sufficient (not needing anything from anyone); I learned to suppress my negative feelings (those emotions that others would not like to witness in me); and I learned to pretend that I am doing better and feeling better than is actually the case.
But such a way of coping and covering up and suppression and pretending does not lead to spiritual growth. It maintains a status-quo—a rather shallow status-quo.
What leads to spiritual growth is something very different. In their book, How People Grow, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend comment,
“There is a paradox in spiritual growth: People who are more dysfunctional yet poorer in spirit tend to grow more than people who are less dysfunctional and less poor in spirit. One would think that people with more problems would struggle more with growing, and they certainly do struggle. However—and I have seen this more times than I can count in clinical and counseling settings—poverty drives hunger. You can’t stop a needy person from grasping onto God, while many people in less severe circumstances easily fall away…. God reminds us, time and time again, that He likes neediness. Our life experiences might tell us to avoid need. If so, take a faith step and open up your soul to God and safe people. Spiritual poverty is the only way to be filled with what He has for us.” (p. 269 & 276-277)
No wonder 1 Peter 5:6 counsels us, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time.”
As I have been preaching through Peter’s first letter, I am struck by what a different person we meet in this letter than the person we meet in the gospels. Because of his relationship with Jesus, Peter was changed!
The Peter we meet in the gospels is doubtful and impulsive. He speaks without thinking, worries about what others think of him, and is inclined to fall asleep on the job or to collapse under pressure.
One of our first encounters with Peter is in Luke 5, when Jesus uses Peter’s boat as a speaking platform to address a crowd. When He finishes speaking, Jesus asks Peter to “put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Peter objects, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” He goes ahead with Jesus’ request, but makes it clear that he is not expecting anything to come from it. When Peter hauls up a net so full of fish that it is about to break, Peter blurts out, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” He doubted Jesus. We see his doubt again when Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies even knowing Him.
We see Peter’s impulsiveness when he requests permission to walk on the water with Jesus. That’s a good example of impulsiveness, but we also see his impulsiveness when he cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant (John 18) and when he denies knowing Jesus.
Peter spoke without thinking when he “rebuked” Jesus for telling the disciples that He must die and then be raised to life (Matthew 16:22), when he blurted out his plan to build monuments for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Matthew 17:4), when he announced that Jesus would never wash his feet (John 13:8), and when he denied knowing Jesus.
We observe Peter’s worry about what others think when he denies knowing Jesus and, some years later, when Paul confronts Peter for withdrawing from eating with Gentiles when Jewish leaders arrive (Galatians 2:11-14).
And we find evidence of him falling asleep on the job and/or collapsing under pressure when he falls asleep while Jesus is praying in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), when he begins to sink while walking on water (Matthew 14:30), and when he denies knowing Jesus.
But by the time Peter writes his letter to scattered believers, he is a greatly changed person. I observe the change in Peter’s character most clearly when he speaks to “the elders among you,” appealing to them as “a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 5:1). By this point in Peter’s life, Christ has grown in him the heart of a shepherd for God’s sheep, so Peter appeals to them to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving…not because you must, but because you are willing…not greedy for money, but eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). Gone is Peter’s doubtfulness and impulsiveness. Gone is his tendency to speak without thinking, his worry about what others think of him, and his tendency to fall asleep on the job or to collapse under pressure.
I am glad that Christ is still in the business of changing people’s character. I pray that He will continue to change and refine my character.
As early Christians began to face increasing persecution, the apostle Peter wrote (in 1 Peter 4:12-13), “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.”
When American Christians read such a passage, we sometimes think about such things as court rulings against displaying the manger scene on public property or employers telling workers to say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” I don’t want to take lightly the growing disdain in our country for the Christian faith, but I especially want to address seriously the grave dangers Christians face in many countries around the world today.
The World Evangelical Alliance estimates that over 200 million Christians are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. The Christian missionary organization Open Doors, claims that 100 million Christians face more severe persecution. In some nations it is illegal to own a Bible, to share one’s faith in Christ, to convert to Christianity, or to teach your own child about Jesus. Persecution against Christians has been known to involve beatings, physical torture, confinement, discrimination in education and employment, isolation, rape, imprisonment, slavery, and even death.
An article by Martin Shapiro in The Huffington Post on June 9, 2015 about persecution of Christians around the world today concludes with this challenge: “Shame on the Christian world for turning its back on their brothers!”
If we are to stop turning our backs on brothers and sisters who are facing persecution, what will that mean for us? When our backs are no longer turned, what will we find ourselves doing that is different than what we have done up to this point?
In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul describes Christians as a body. In verses 14, 21 & 26 he writes, “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many…. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
When we stop turning our backs on brothers and sisters who are facing persecution around the world today we will find ourselves hurting with them, and we will find ourselves praying for them, and perhaps we will find ourselves responding to a nudge from God to do something more to advocate on their behalf or to stand with them in their suffering. At our church this Sunday we will write letters to some fellow-believers who have been imprisoned because of their faith.