May 15, 2011

…When You Do Right and Suffer For It

Passage: 1 Peter 2:19-20

For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

Richard Weissbourd is a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard University. In a recent essay he asked: “Is it healthy for modern parents to be focused on their children’s self-esteem?”  Six years ago with a team of graduate students Weissbourd conducted research into students’ values and the child-raising priorities of their parents. Their findings suggest that modern parents’ intense focus on children’s happiness and self-esteem ... may imperil something ... fundamental: our children’s basic morality.

Their research showed that many children these days see “being a happy person” as their number-one goal in life – and many parents make their children’s happiness their top child-raising priority. About two-thirds of children considered happiness more important than “being a good person who cares about others,” and about two-thirds of children believed that it was more important to their parents that they were happy than that they were good.

Weissbourd made the observation that “adults in previous generations didn’t think that morality came from self-esteem or happiness. They commonly believed the idea, rooted in the Bible and much of Western literature, that morality came from suffering. Moral character came from making sacrifices, fulfilling difficult obligations, empathizing with the pain and burdens of others, and surviving hard times.”

Weissbourd is among a growing number who have begun to question the benefits of the modern emphasis on children’s self-esteem.  I am not sure that he is correct in his assertion that previous generations thought that “morality came from suffering”.  When the Apostle Peter wrote—“if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval”—he is not saying anything positive about the suffering as if the suffering itself produced some good.

1. Even though there is waning confidence in self-esteem the Apostle’s admonition is still shocking to modern ears, even of believers—“For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.”

If you were browsing for a book—online or in-store—looking for something to give you ideas for making improvement in life and you read the Apostle Peter’s admonition as the subtitle of a book entitled “The Joy of Unjust Suffering”; would you buy the book?  Who gives such advice and why would anyone want to follow it?  I don’t think this simply to be Peter’s long-winded way of saying “no pain, no gain” or “suck it up and take one for the team”.

Further, Peter says this in the context of calling slaves “to accept the authority of masters with all deference”; many are critical of Christianity—because of texts like these—as acting as a shill for the political powers of the day.  Is Peter promoting slavery?  Why would Peter say that you have God’s approval if you endure when you do right and suffer for it?  Is Peter at odds with the Good Shepherd who said he came to give us life and that more abundantly?

2.  It is the cross of Jesus Christ that is the prism through which Peter offers his teaching on how to confront the realities of life; in this case the reality that followers of Jesus often found themselves suffering for doing what was right.  Often such suffering is a blow to faith making believers wonder if God has abandoned them; or to ask is enduring such things worth it.

Peter gives us the logic for his admonition: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.  ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

Let me ask you a question that people outside the first century church (and in our day, for that matter) would ask; since crucifixion was reserved for the worst offenders why would anybody want to follow the example of a crucified criminal?  Further, if, as you Christians say, Jesus were innocent of the charge, why would anyone want to follow the example of a person who refused to say so and stand up for justice?  What possible virtue is there in silently being led to the slaughter?  Is there really some sort of virtue in suffering; perhaps Christians are simply pathological in their cherishing of the cross.

We are currently in the church season of Easter; in the sermons of this season I wanted to lift up to you how everything has changed in the bright light of Jesus risen from the dead.  It is in the blaze of Jesus risen that the meaning of the cross changes from an instrument of disgust to a great treasure of our sins forgiven.  Jesus raised is the vindication that what he endured for our sakes on that cross was and is effective.  Jesus raised is the reason the cross becomes the prism though which Christians view life.

There is nothing good or noble about crucifixion or the suffering that it inflicted; it is the identity of the crucified that makes all the difference.  The crucified One is the Lord of the universe giving his life to reconcile sinful humanity to God’s self.  It is because Jesus suffered unjustly that we should follow in his steps.

One of the earliest Christian confessions was that “Jesus is Lord”; these people lived in a world that insisted that Caesar is Lord.  Peter declared that believers are, by faith, now part of the enduring kingdom of God; “a holy nation, God’s own people”, as he put it.   “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use you freedom as a pretext for evil”.  This was how Peter called believers to live as citizens of a greater kingdom in a world whose kingdoms insist they are in control; we live thus because Jesus is alive ruling now.

It isn’t just an ancient or far away problem; it wasn’t only Roman Caesars who insisted on lordship over the people of their jurisdiction. Recently, in the province of Quebec, a Christian family who had chosen to home school their children were investigated after a complaint was received.  A judge ruled that not only must they send their children to school but also must send their 3 year old to provincially run day care appealing to some vaunted notion of “socialization”.

3. Even if we always knew that a positive life required more than confident self-esteem there still remains this underlying conviction we hope is true that if we do right good things will follow.  Our experience of life, though, belies that conviction—does it not?  Yet we want it to be true.

John Wesley’s mother Susanna Wesley had nineteen children, ten of whom survived infancy.  Her methods for the spiritual and intellectual development of her children were later used by John in the schools he established for children of the poor. One of axioms she followed she put this way: “give a child anything they ask for but nothing they cry for”.  Do we not do similar things with our children: if a child does as asked things go well if not a time out is upheld (or other deprivation).  We are unwittingly teaching that if we do what is right good things will follow.

What every parent knows is that the day is coming when we will have to help our children understand that life is filled with contradiction.  We will need to guide them through the bumps and bruises of what the gospel declares—while God is good and loves us to the end, the world of humanity is riddled with falsehood and treachery.  Further the contradiction is not only “out there” in the world it is also within our own hearts.  We experience it every time we know the good to do but feel like doing something else.  If we could peer into each other’s heart we would see a mess of contradiction.

Peter is a pastor; he is addressing this issue of the contradiction believers experience in the world; namely that followers of Jesus will know opposition and at times suffering for living the life Christ calls us to live. Rather than being applauded for doing good we will be ridiculed and opposed.

(As Dr Shepherd reminded us last week) The reason Christ’s people are opposed in the world is because our Lord was opposed; it will be no different for us. God is love; Jesus is the Incarnation of God’s nature; Jesus is immersed in conflict every day just because love is resisted every day, love is contradicted every day, love is savaged every day.

4. How is a Christian to live in a world filled with such contradiction of love? Peter addresses a number of topics common to everyday life of the people.  “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution”, said the Apostle about governments.  “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil”. (These sentences precede our reading today) Is Peter, a few sentences later, now contradicting himself when he writes that slaves should accept the authority of masters—not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh?

The Greek language of the New Testament has more than one word for “salve”.  The word Peter uses here is the word that referred to household servants—it included both indentured slaves and freemen who were hired into the household.  Peter has in mind the household as a common social institution—the church was filled with household slaves who comprised this underclass of Roman society.  Peter himself, for example, would not be a Roman citizen but of the underclass of occupied peoples.  In this text Peter has the household in mind not slavery as a class of people—he is addressing household relationships.

Those Christians of this underclass of Roman society have a double problem—not only were they treated as non-persons generally they now had added harshness because they were Christians.  Peter assures them that this suffering for Christ’s sake—when the world in not approving and in fact hostile—has no bearing on God’s approval of you as one of his own.  How is Peter able to affirm this?  Because of the cross of Jesus Christ; though Jesus suffered harsh treatment because the world is hostile to God’s love he was still approved of by God—shown most clearly in that he was raised from the dead.

When Jesus suffered crucifixion—bearing our sins in his body on the cross—and God worked our good in the midst of the mess and contradiction of crucifixion is God saying that crucifixion is somehow now a good thing?  Certainly not! Neither, I submit to you, is Peter commending slavery as an institution because he calls believers thus affected to endure unjust treatment as Christians.  We readily know that returning unjust treatment with unjust treatment often exacerbates the problem rather than solve it.

Some of these Christians may have been thinking that life was more tolerable before they became believers—and may have had reason to think so.  Like the Israelites, with selective memory, recalling fondly days of slavery in Egypt as the “good old days” in comparison to the lack of certain kinds of food in the desert while following God.  A return to submission to the contradictions of the world seemed memorable; it is, in fact, a miserable place.  Peter encourages these believers to keep on believing—you have God’s approval even when you do not have the approval of those in charge.  The risen One has not abandoned you.

According to Jewish-American scholar Michael Horowitz “Anti-Christian prejudice is the last respectable bigotry, and it's worse in Canada than anywhere else in the developed world”.  Consider, for example, how it is that being a Christian is an impediment on the resume for elected office in this country (if you are, the unwritten rule is that you had better shut-up about it).  There are times when we experience unjust treatment because we are named as Christ’s—promotions are given to others, friendships end, people avoid us, gossip is aimed at ostracising, deliberately overlooked for the guest list.  “Keep your religion private”, we are told.  Many other things are ever demanding to be Lord of our life; consider the competition for commitment by any number of organizations for your time on Sunday morning when it is known that this is when Christians worship.

In his book Jesus Among Other Gods Ravi Zacharias wrote: “Faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in his power, so that even when his power does not serve my end, my confidence in him remains because of who he is.”  We are much fonder of Jesus’ saying that he came to give life abundantly than the implication that Jesus’ suffering is also an example for us.  The Lord crucified on the cross and the risen Lord triumphant in heaven is the same Lord; both the promise of abundant life and the example of suffering are true because they are reconciled in the same person Jesus Christ.

5. There is a hard edgy side to Christian discipleship; the example of Christ as sufferer gets little play these days.  Our culture doesn’t think you should have to suffer for anything.  One day after a session of preaching where Jesus had delivered some hard teaching people left him in droves—so much so he turned to the twelve and in essence pleaded: “you won’t leave me as well, will you?” (John 6:66-67)

Somewhere in life we need to confront the reality of life’s contradictions; that this is precisely what they are—contradictions—not riddles to be solved.  No philosophy of life, no self-help guru, has or, I think, can completely resolve the mystery of these contradictions.  One of the lies of wealth, for example,  is that we think that with enough money we can shield ourselves from the reality of these contradictions.   According to the gospel these are resolved when Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.  The residue of these contradictions is periodically borne in the life of the believer now; the complete resolution is experienced in the resurrection.

... if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.