First Peter No. 17 “The Christian Spirit toward Others”
1 Peter 3:8-12
February 18, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
v.12 Psalm 34:12-16 is cited to confirm Peter’s point. The Lord will take care of his children who suffer at the hands of others in some way. You can return blessing for a curse without risk to your welfare! As so often in the Bible, he adds the warning to the promise, citing the first half of Psalm 34:16 “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,” but he tempers it by omitting the second half of the verse, “to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” The accent falls on the encouragement and the exhortation, understandably in a letter addressed to Christians who happen to be enduring persecution of some kind.
Having addressed selected groups within the congregation – citizens, slaves, wives and husbands – Peter now addresses the entire congregation. And he begins with their life together as a community, a family (note the “brotherly love”). He addresses what ought to be their attitude toward one another, the way they should speak to one another and treat one another. From there he will proceed to discuss the way they should treat unbelievers. But the Christian life begins in the family of God and it is there that believers are to gain and then practice gentleness, humility, and a loving spirit toward others. The spirit he is after is characterized by five adjectives, all single words in Peter’s Greek (the ESV renders them as nouns): “unity of mind”; “sympathy”; “brotherly-love”; “a tender heart”; and “a humble mind.” That is the spirit that forms the basis of Christian community and shapes Christian charity toward the world. That should lead to the distinctively Christian conduct he describes in v. 9: Christians not repaying evil for evil, but loving and being kind and generous and tender and sympathetic even toward those who treat them unfairly, poorly, or inconsiderately.
This is Peter’s version of the description of love that Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul spoke of patience, and kindness, of the refusal to be arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful; of a willingness to let others have their way, of a refusal to rejoice at wrongdoing and of a confidence in one another that only the full facts once known can overcome, and so on. But it is not at all difficult to see that both apostles are describing the same mind and the same spirit.
To bless those who curse you, to be kind to those who are unkind to you, was the teaching of the OT. There too we read that we are not to take vengeance ourselves but to love our neighbor as ourselves and leave the issue to God. The Lord Jesus, as you know, made a special point of this willingness to be wronged, this refusal to strike back as the distinguishing mark of his ethics. So did Paul when in 1 Cor. 6 he asked Christians who had a grievance with another believer, “Why not rather be wronged” than take him to court! It’s more important to maintain our unity in love, and failures to do so are dispiriting and harmful. The last thing Christians should do is paraded their inability to get along. Everyone thinks we ought to be nice to people. There is nothing particularly Christian about that. You can find that in the ethics of every one of the great religions and in many philosophies of life. And no one has any difficulty being nice to people who are nice to them or who agree with them or who do what we want them to do. But to be kind, generous, thoughtful to those who mistreat you or who disagree with you or who do something you don’t like; to return kindness for unkindness, blessing for cursing, that is more than most people think they have to do.
But Christians must do that because that was what the Lord did for them. To return evil for evil would be a practical repudiation of the gospel, a demonstration that this professing Christian clearly did not intend to follow the Lord’s example. Obviously, he or she was not impressed by the Lord’s gracious behavior toward him or toward her in defiance of bad behavior of every kind. We offended God, we took his gifts and abused them, and we ignored his loving interests in our lives – we are rarely truly grateful – and all that though he was our Creator, the one who had given us our lives. We lived in ways that grieved him, we showed ourselves indifferent to his kindness toward us, and yet when we were God’s enemies he loved us, redeemed us at great cost to himself, and has continued to put up with us even when, once we came to know his grace and once we had been forgiven our terrible sins, we continue to grieve him! How can we, who have cursed God but were blessed so mightily in return, I say, how can we then return a curse for a curse in our own behavior toward others? Could any of us say that we understand, could we even say that we really believe the gospel, if at the critical point, at the point where we might most clearly demonstrate our faith in a loving, self-sacrificing, patient God, such faith seemed not to leave its mark on our thoughts, words, and deeds? Are we not taught in the Word of God to forgive as we have been forgiven? Didn’t Jesus himself say that if we are unwilling to forgive those who sin against us God will not forgive our sins against him? And how have we been forgiven? Freely, repeatedly, and ungrudgingly. That is real forgiveness; nothing less. And that is the open heart we are to have toward others. We’re to be the forgiveness brigade! And not just forgiveness, but sympathy, tenderness of heart, humility of mind; people who rejoice in expressing the kindness the Lord has shown us to others, a kindness that defies our stupidity, cruelty, thoughtlessness, and bad behavior of every kind.
Now, don’t nod your head in agreement as if this is too obvious to need mention. What Peter says here, of course, we have heard before, many times. Sympathy, compassion, kindness, even to the unlovely; that is what God gave us when we were and have remained decidedly unlovely, and that is the blessing that we have to share with others in Christ’s name. And to share that blessing with others is, Peter says, our calling in the world. As we have freely received, so we are freely to give. Ho Hum! We’ve heard that before! But, NO! We can’t hear this often enough or think about it deeply enough. This is where Christians fail repeatedly and egregiously. This failure to be forgiving, to be gentle, to be kind; to be sympathetic; this tendency to rush to judgment, this suspicion of one another, this failure to treat others as Christ has treated us is the bane of the church and the cause of much of its weakness. So often it is in this way especially that the people of God seem very like the people of this world, not that different after all! So, let us take this to heart, no matter how many times we have heard or read this message. Put the question to yourselves. Are you living the Christian life in truth? Well, this is the test. How do you behave toward those you disagree with, toward those who disappoint you, toward those who have been unkind to you, or have ignored you? How do you think about them in the secret place of our mind; how do you speak about them behind their backs, how do you treat them in your interactions?
Don’t tell me that your critical attitude or your sharp tongue or your high-minded criticism is simply a case of your upholding the truth, or that you are standing up for righteousness sake. You can do that and still be someone who blesses when he or she is cursed, as the Lord Jesus did. You can still be kind, gentle, and tender-hearted. How do we, how do you and I excuse our so many failures at just this point: a total want of sympathy or tenderness of heart toward others we find at fault in some way? What should we have done instead? Well it begins as Peter makes clear here in an attitude, a state of mind. If someone behaves proudly or arrogantly, a faithful Christian thinks, “Well, he isn’t as proud as I am!” If he has blundered in some way, the faithful Christian thinks, “This reminds me of some of the impossibly stupid things I have said and done! I bet he’s feeling or soon will, as terrible as I felt when I realized what I had done!” And if you observe someone committing real evil, the faithful Christian will not, will never look down on that person, but say to himself or herself, his heart, her heart is too much like mine!”
Let me pause here and say to you all, if there is someone listening to me who does not believe that he or she could honestly say such things in response to the sinful or foolish behavior of others, come and see me. Don’t worry about taking up too much of my time. It will only take a minute or two for me to prove that you’re as bad, if not much worse, than anyone, I mean anyone, you find it easy to judge or condemn! Always happy to help!
A tender heart, a sympathetic soul does not rush to judgment. We wait to see if there is another side to the story, hoping for the best. We are careful not to say things to or about others that might indict us at the same time since we have certainly committed similar offenses, or at least what we take to be offenses. Sympathetic, tender-hearted, loving people treat others as we would like to be treated; we understand others as we would like to be understood ourselves; and we forgive others with the selfless abandon with which we know God has forgiven us.
Lord Robert Winston is a well-known British medical doctor, scientific researcher, Labor politician, and television personality. He was on a train the other day, traveling from London to Manchester. Lord Winston represents himself as mild-mannered and friendly, perhaps he usually is. But that day he found himself increasingly annoyed by a fellow passenger sitting near him, a mother who largely ignored her child while talking on her cell phone. She was speaking loudly enough so that Winston could not escape having to listen to her conversation, chit-chat about nothing in particular, that went on and on through several English counties. The annoyance he felt after listening to this for a full hour finally led him to begin tweeting about his experience. He took photos of the woman and sent them out to his more than 40,000 twitter followers! When the train arrived at its destination Lord Winston bolted; he’d had enough of the woman’s rudeness (his own characterization of her behavior). But the woman herself faced a surprise as she left the train. The press had picked upon Lord Winston’s tweets and were waiting for her on the platform. They gleefully showed her Lord Winston’s messages and, to her shame, she suddenly realized that she had been made a fool before the entire country. She described Lord Winston’s behavior as, you guessed it, “rude.” Both Lord Winston and the poor woman had called one another Raca, “Fool!” the term of abuse the Lord in his Sermon on the Mount said his followers were never to use.
What would you have done if you had been sitting close to that woman? Well, a Christian might well stop to think about how many times he or she has neglected his or her responsibilities while prattling on, making the Lord listen to an hour or more of useless conversation or worse. It would be easier to be patient in such circumstances while remembering one’s own faux pas and being humbled by the recollection!
There is a lot of this in the world in which we live; more than there used to be, though there was always plenty of rude behavior to go around. I remember on a trip back to Scotland years ago. Sitting in a restaurant, against a far wall, we changed the diaper of one of our children on the bench on the backside of our restaurant table. The action was hidden from sight behind the table and no one was sitting very close to us, but a bit later a woman came up to us and read us the riot act. How unbelievably rude that was, how thoughtless of others! I apologized up and down, told her that she was entirely justified in her criticism, but she was relentless. I didn’t slow her down one wit. Finally, she ran out of ways to describe our boorish behavior and got tired of my apologies. I did the right thing, I’m sure, in making no effort to defend myself, in acknowledging our rudeness, and in apologizing for having offended her, but, then, I had to admit to myself that my thoughts had not been as humble or as pure as my words! It is no small thing to practice what Peter preaches here! And to practice it regularly and to practice it when the events occur out of the blue without any preparation for them on our part is harder still.
But this is the true test of a Christian’s character! In our self-absorbed lives, we hardly know, we hardly recognize how much opportunity for this kind and compassionate living there is all around us, all the time. Every day we have opportunity to display the character and the behavior that Peter has described here in these five adjectives. This is not instruction for the odd occasion in your life when you might show sympathy to someone else or be kind to someone who has been unkind to you. This is to be the transcript of every day we live in this world. Surely when the Lord Jesus told us that if someone is to slap us on the right cheek we are to turn to him the other cheek as well or if someone should sue us and take our tunic we should give him our cloak as well, he was not describing a way of thought and life that would rarely be necessary in this world. He was describing the Christian way of life! As Charles Spurgeon once put it, Christians are to be the anvil when men behaving badly are the hammers! We can take it and we should! Christians can do this. They have resources with which to live this way that others do not. What else does it mean when Jesus commands us to “love our enemies” except that we are supposed to be kind, and gentle, and tender-hearted, and sympathetic toward those who one way or another have caused us trouble? True enough, it may have been easier for Eric Liddell to see what that meant and how that was to be done when confined in an internment camp by Japanese guards during the Second World War. But since this is Christ’s summons to us, since this is the distinctive Christian ethic, you and I ought to be thinking all the time about what it means and how it might be done in our daily lives. How can I deny myself for the sake of others?
There is, I guarantee you, a lot of sorrow in the hearts of people you rub shoulders with day by day, Christian people and unbelievers alike. And so there is a great opportunity for sympathy and the expression of a tender-heart. “What can I do to help? I hate to see you so sad! I wish I knew what I might say to lessen your sorrow.” Such statements should be coming out of our mouths all the time. And so: “That was very well done! I wish I could do that as well as you can. I really appreciate you. Let me help you. Believe me, I’ve done much worse!” And with such statements, apologies and confessions of your own failures you bless and obtain a blessing for others and for yourself. With our children, with our Christian friends, with our unbelieving workmates, such statements and many others like them ought to be commonplace; something we’re known for and appreciated for. And, believe me, if that is our way with other people, we will be known for it!
There is also a lot of bad behavior around us all the time, in the church and outside of it. A kind word to someone who probably knows only too well that he should have kept his mouth shut or who behaved poorly in some way is medicine to people sick of themselves as so many people are, if only in their private thoughts. A refusal to defend oneself is fresh air in a community where everyone seems always to be defending himself or herself.
I could multiply tales of woe, of sorrow, and of bad behavior a thousand times over. And the point is: the suffering all around us and the evil and wrong all around us ought to bring forth from us a constant stream of kindness, compassion, and humble fellow-feeling. There is so much in human life, however private or undramatic, that has the power to discourage, depress, sadden, and darken the sight of people old and young, rich and poor, righteous and unrighteous. There are sick children and older folk whose health and strength have departed them for good, for whom life is every day a chore to be completed; there are those who are sick and know they must die and leave behind so much that is precious to them; there are those who plod along in a loveless marriage and those who are so lonely that they ache when they go to bed at night and still ache when they wake in the morning are lonely for other reasons. There are those for whom it is a struggle to pay their bills or achieve a decent mark in school. There are those who have failed and never escape the shame of that failure, others who so fear to fail that they live their lives in a state of constant inner turmoil. There are those who are ridden with guilt and those who suffer because people who have hurt them deeply seem to feel no remorse for what they have done. It is not for nothing that the Bible itself describes this world as a “vale of tears.”
And, of course, people are behaving badly all the time or they disagree with us or disappoint us, whether or not they had any intention of doing so. No wonder then that the Bible should place front and center in its description of the Christian life, these virtues of kindness, sympathy, compassion, and brotherly love. You will never lack opportunities, brothers and sisters, to adorn the gospel by blessings those who have cursed you or who you think have cursed you. Indeed, there is enough opportunity in this single fellowship to keep all of us busy, genuinely busy, for the rest of our lives. And there is a whole world around us awaiting our kindness and love to cover a multitude of its sins.
I tell you, the more you embrace this calling, this Christ-likeness, my brothers and sisters, the more you will see the world as one gigantic object of compassion and sympathy. Every Christian should be unique in compassion, there is so much opportunity! I mentioned Simone Weil to you several Lord’s Days ago. The French Jewess, the socialist philosopher who became a Christian. Do you remember how she died? Sympathy killed her. Brotherly love put her to death. Compassion was her undoing. She was a minor member of the French government in exile during the Second World War. She lived and worked in England, longing for the liberation of her homeland. But in the truest sympathy and fellow feeling with her countrymen in occupied France, she refused to eat anything but or anything more than the official daily ration the German occupation government had appointed for French citizens, because they were taking so much of the agricultural product in France away to Germany. In fact, nobody in France ate as little as that meager ration, that totally insufficient diet. But, Simone Weil ate it and nothing more. And she literally starved herself to death in her fellow-feeling for those who were suffering at home. There is the heroic spirit – we may be tempted to think her stupid since she didn’t have to – but that’s the spirit of the noblest surrender of oneself for others, the spirit of self-denial for the sake of others, the turning away from all vengeance, all self-assertion so that one may take part with the sorrows and trials of others. I say there is the noble spirit that Peter is after here. I think Peter would have admired her; whether or not he would have told her not to do this I cannot say, but he would have admired the spirit that led her to do it. The Christian life is to be an extravagant thing. We cannot read the NT and not think that. It makes extravagant demands upon a man or woman. Someone who lives it faithfully will do all manner of things almost no one else in this world would ever think to do, including the vast majority of professing Christians. We must not domesticate Peter’s commandments here or those same commandments when our Savior utters them or the Apostle Paul. I know I am exposed by these commandments as hardly a Christian. But I also know this is the life for me – and for you – if we would be followers of Christ!
For, if we domesticate these commands, if we turn them into some bland obligation to be nice to people from time to time or simply polite, we have denied the gospel and the power of the gospel, which is, after all, a message of a great love, an extravagant love, to those in desperate need who had no claim, no claim whatsoever to that love but received it anyway. People who have experienced the gospel are to be changed by it into people who express in their relationships with others its principle of self-giving and love in the teeth of the aching needs of the comprehensively undeserving.
There is a magnificent passage in Bunyan — in both Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, and in Pilgrim’s Progress. It concerns a moment early on in Bunyan’s experience as a Christian, when he came fully to realize the extent of Christ’s love for him and the greatness of the gift that had been given to him in defiance of his sins and ill-desert. The fact that Bunyan saw fit to describe this experience in both the autobiography and in his immortal allegory is some demonstration of how profoundly he was affected and how much he saw his feelings at that time to be the true, authentic experience of Christian faith and love.
“Then I began to give place to [the Lord’s] word, which, with power, did over and over make this joyful sound within my soul, Thou art my love, thou art my love; and nothing shall separate thee from my love; and with that Rom. viii 39 came into my mind: Now was my heart filled full of comfort and hope, and now I could believe that my sins should be forgiven me; ‘yea, I was now so taken with the love and mercy of God, that I remember I could not tell how to contain till I got home; I thought I could have spoken of his love, and of his mercy to me, even to the very crows that sat upon the ploughed land, had they been capable to have understood me…’
Yet I saw my sin most barbarous and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God; wherefore I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him and my [heart] to yearn towards him; for I saw he was still my friend, and did reward me good for evil, yea the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire of revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that to speak as then I thought, had I had a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely ‘then’ have spilt it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Savior.” [Grace Abounding, Paragr. 92, 192; cf. 229-232]
Now, every Christian knows very well that that is how he or she ought to feel about the love that God has poured out into his or her heart. We ought, every one of us, to be taken up to that same marvelously extravagant extent with the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. And we ought, also, to reckon with how that love continues to accompany us even though we think so little of it, do so little with it, and are changed so little by it. This is our entire faith and our entire life as Christians –to love God back in some way like the way in which he has loved us.
But, then, if that is true, every Christian also knows that there is no more perfect embrace of that love, no more perfect response to it, nothing that would better demonstrate the place that the Lord’s love for us has found in our hearts, than just our living our lives by the same kind of love, by striving to put on compassion ourselves and as extravagantly as we possibly can, God helping us.
This is the Christian life in its integrity and its fullness: a life so dominated by the knowledge of and experience of God’s saving love to a profoundly unlovely sinner, that such love becomes the principle, the impetus, the guiding force of daily life. As the Bible everywhere says, Christians are people who, having been loved in spite of themselves, love others in spite of themselves. It is the compliment they pay to the divine love that they seek to enshrine it in their lives.
That was Bunyan’s instinctive recognition in that moment when he saw so clearly how the Father and the Son had loved him. A love like that has got to be served; honor must be paid to it. And so a Christian should cherish opportunities to show compassion and mercy like Christ showed him, in the same way that misers cherish gold. If you cannot have a thousand gallons of blood to spill for Christ’s sake, you have thousand people to love in his name. And the more undeserving, the better!
People often come to me with problems stemming from the mistreatment they are receiving at the hands of others. And I always tell them first, and I promise you, I will always tell you this first as long as I am your minister: if we understand the gospel aright, we ought to fall on our knees in the deepest gratitude when we find that we have an enemy – even if he or she is an enemy only in our own minds – because that enemy gives us an opportunity to do the greatest thing a Christian can conceivably do – viz. love our enemy, just as Christ loved us when we were his enemies. Our whole lives, our entire existence is compressed into such opportunities to exalt and honor by imitation the great love with which Christ loved us.
We have our goals for each day. We hope to accomplish this or that, complete this or that. It is good that we should have such goals. But chief among those goals we ought to plan to show compassion to someone, show kindness and generosity to someone who has been thoughtless or unkind to us or with whom we disagree, scarcely a day will pass without some opportunity to do so, if not outside of at least within our family circle (which is, after all, the great training ground of the Christian life). Young people, if you would live the Christian life in this radical way, start first with your brother or sister, a schoolmate, or a neighbor friend. To the man or woman who seeks first that spirit, everything else will be added, as Peter promises us here. Seize the opportunities day by day, until your entire life is dominated by this one glorious principle: “freely you have received, freely give.”