Do Not Be Surprised: A Reflection on 1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11

I don’t need to tell anyone that we are living in strange and frightening times. The world is changing in innumerable ways and it seems like society — and the people who make it up — are flailing in response. One of my only real consolations in this situation is that people have felt this way for a long time; there is hardly a time in history where people haven’t felt like things were coming apart at the seams.

As we saw a couple weeks ago in the series on understanding biblical genres, this season where nothing seems normal or in control is precisely the kind of situation for which Apocalyptic was created. And as it happens, today’s Epistle reading from 1 Peter contains a kind of ‘mini-Apocalypse’ that, I think, offers some very helpful advice that counters a lot of the more apocalyptic-minded rhetoric coming from Christians today. The text reads:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4.12-14, 5.6-11)

Here we have words written to a community experiencing genuine persecution (not the fake ‘persecutions’ dreamed up by so many Christian demagogues in North America these days to stoke the fears of their congregants). The advice to this community is simple but effective:

  1. Don’t be surprised: The world has always been in crisis somewhere; no one should ever be surprised when that crisis starts to touch their lives. This is particularly true for Christians, because inasmuch as we live like Christ, we will always be speaking truth to power, calling for social and economic justice, and living lives that get in the way of ‘the way the world works’ — precisely the things that attract the negative attention of the powerful and would-be oppressors. (And if we should find ourselves on the side of the powerful and oppressors, we need to really examine ourselves and values and make sure they actually align with the life and teaching of Christ!)
  2. Whenever we find ourselves suffering for doing the right thing, we can rejoice in the fact that we are living in solidarity with Christ. (While the Epistles of Peter definitely have their own perspective on things, as we saw back in 2021, this participatory understanding of our relationship to Christ is a major part of Paul’s teaching as well.)
  3. Accept the situation with humility: I don’t think this necessarily means passivity, but is a recognition that it’s not about us. If we look back throughout history, the chosen scapegoats of the moment are generally pretty random. Pogroms, genocides, expulsions, and legislated bigotry have nothing to do with the communities they target — be they Christians targeted by Roman authorities, Jews attacked mercilessly in medieval Europe and again in Germany a century ago, Black men lynched by White mobs, people of Asian descent blamed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, or gender non-conforming and queer folk targeted in the streets and sadly increasingly in legislation today. It’s almost always just a case of angry and scared people acting out in stupid and horrific ways and looking for anyone they can blame for what they’re experiencing. I think the call for humility here in the Epistle reading is simply acknowledging this fact: As personal as it may feel, it isn’t about you.
  4. Cast all your anxiety on God: On the surface this may sound like spiritual bypassing, but I think it’s actually really wise advise in this case. If we take the full weight of anxiety upon ourselves, we can become paralyzed in our fear. If we cast it on to others, we will almost certainly become oppressors and persecutors ourselves. By casting it on God, we can trust God to deal with our fears for the future, warranted or unwarranted, so that we can better manage the needs of the day ahead.
  5. Discipline yourselves: Regular readers may have noticed this by now, but one of the things about contemporary Christianity I find the most frustrating, problematic, and even frightening, is that so much of it seems to be focused on what other people are doing instead of self-examination and ensuring one’s own life is in order. But pointing fingers at others is the last thing a Christian should do. We are called to be completely transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ. This is all the more true in times of struggle and suffering. And that takes a lot of time, effort, and discipline.
  6. Stay alert: While we may be asked to accept our circumstances with humility, that doesn’t mean we are to be stupid about it. We need to have our eyes open, and to make sure as much as possible that the people we love have their eyes open, to know the signs of trouble to keep everyone as safe as possible.
  7. Resist the adversary: In context, this is about our spiritual adversary, whether conceive this literally as Satan / the Devil, or psycho-spiritually as social contagion. This is big stuff. If you see social contagion at work around you — things like vilification of any group of people so that they are thought to be enemies instead of neighbours, or mob mentality, or lack of taking responsibility for oneself — resist it at all cost. Remember who you are, who you are in Christ, and say no to anything other than Christ’s open-hearted, humble, self-sacrificial love.

The passage ends, in typically apocalyptic fashion, with an expression of trust that good and God will ultimately triumph: And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Two thousand years later, these words are still relevant. Whether our fears are due to actual persecution or to the uncertainty of a rapidly changing world, we would do well to remember and apply this wisdom, to remember who we are in Christ, keep our eyes on our own plates, resist evil and its false divisions and focus instead on doing good. This isn’t easy, but if we persevere in it, we trust that God will make all things right for us and, in time, for the world.

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