When Doing Right Gets You in Trouble
1 Peter 2:18-20
December 12, 2004
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (I Peter 2:18-20).
Recently I received a letter from a prisoner in Virginia named Frank. This is part of what he had to say:
Dear Pastor Ray,
I want to thank you so very much for An Anchor for the Soul. The book has and will continue to have a significant impact in my life. Despite the fact that I am an educated man, learning and understanding God has always been difficult. Your book was able to answer questions that I’ve had for years.
I am currently incarcerated at Riverside Regional Jail here in Hopewell, Virginia, which is just south of Richmond. I never expected to be in jail; after all, I have a good heart and would never hurt anyone. However, I got behind on my child support payments, and ended up in court this past Monday. I truly thought I had gotten my life together after years of addiction to drugs. I was drug-free, working two full-time jobs, and paying some money to my daughter’s mother toward what I owed.
Unfortunately, neither the judge nor my daughter’s mother thought that I was doing enough. The judge gave me the maximum sentence of 12 months to be served immediately. Needless to say, I was devastated, bitter and extremely angry. I began to blame everyone but myself for my current state of affairs. Over the course of the next couple of days the anger subsided only through the grace of God. My first night in jail, I found your book, An Anchor for the Soul, on the floor. Without anything else to do, I began to read your book.
As strange as this may sound, I have no doubt whatsoever that I am exactly where God wants me to be right now. I know that I have been placed here with very little distractions so that I can develop my relationship with him and grow spiritually. I’ve already learned two things that are essential in my journey. Unwavering faith and sincere, committed repentance are the keys to my spiritual growth. Please pray for me that I will be able to seek his will for my life with a willing heart and an obedient spirit according to the truth.
God bless you,
I call your attention to one particular phrase in this letter: “I have no doubt whatsoever that I am exactly where God wants me to be right now.” It is a tremendous advance spiritually to be able to say that. All of us would say that jail is not a good place to be. Yet this man can say three things:
It is good for me to be here.
I am here by God’s design.
I am here so that I can grow spiritually.
Can you say that about your current situation?
No Fear of Death
On Friday afternoon, Marlene and I did some hospital visitation. We spent some time with Catherine Faires, who was then at West Suburban Medical Center and has since been transferred to Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital. Then we went to see Pam Steger at Loyola University Medical Center. Both Catherine and Pam are battling serious cases of cancer. Let me tell you what struck me after those visits. If I boiled it down to one word, it would be faith. Catherine and Pam are women of faith, and you can see it on their faces, and you can hear it in their voices. Both of them are praying and hoping for a cure. And we join them in praying fervently to that end.
I tell you it is humbling to be around believers who are going through deep water, and yet whose faith shines through their suffering. Sure, they have hard times and discouraging moments, and times when they are filled with fear, but underneath there is a bedrock faith in God that will not be shaken.
Last night, MaryAnn Spiegel sent around an email with an update on Catherine. After a bit of medical news, this is she wrote about Catherine’s spiritual condition:
She’s in the ICU at Rush. This is a serious disease and it is so encouraging to see how she is living out her faith day by day. She is still fighting, but she is also ready to go home to heaven. As a Christian, she takes Jesus at his word when he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” She is also well aware of her shortcomings and how she has failed to live up to God’s standards, sometimes out of sheer rebellion. But she is also confident that Jesus is the Lord Most High and that his death on the cross pays the penalty for her sin. She has no fear of death because she knows and trusts the One who experienced death, and then rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory over death and the efficacy of his blood as payment of the penalty we deserve for our sin.
That’s as powerful a statement of the Christian gospel as I have ever read.
Three Perspectives on Suffering
Let me offer three perspectives on suffering in the Christian life that we need to keep in mind:
1) Sometimes we suffer for no apparent reason. By that I mean that sometimes things happen to us that aren’t connected to anything we do or don’t do. I would put Catherine and Pam in this category. Because we live in a fallen world, bad things sometimes happen to people who don’t seem to deserve it. We don’t understand and we can’t explain why things work out the way they do.
2) Sometimes we suffer because of mistakes we have made. I think Frank’s letter is an example of that. The Apostle Peter would say it this way: If you break the law and find yourself in jail, don’t complain. You did the crime; now do the time.
3) Sometimes we suffer unjustly at the hands of others. That’s what Peter has in mind in our text. We may do right and play by the rules and get in trouble anyway. Or we may work hard and be passed over because of an inside deal. Or the cheater may be promoted and we may be fired. Our boss may be a mean-spirited jerk who has it in for us. In other words, we may do right and still get in trouble. Acts 3-5 records the ongoing confrontation the apostles had with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Peter and John preached on the temple grounds and healed a lame beggar (Acts 3). They were arrested, threatened, and released (Acts 4). Eventually all the apostles were arrested for preaching Jesus publicly, an angel released them from prison and commanded them to continue preaching, whereupon they were arrested again. After being warned not to preach Christ, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than man.” The apostles were beaten and released, and started preaching Christ once again (Acts 5). It was preaching, arrest, threats, release, arrest, more threats, refusal to stop, beaten, released, and preaching again. Peter knew from experience that sometimes Christians suffer even when they have done nothing wrong.
How should we respond to unjust suffering? Our text suggests three answers.
I. The Command—”Submit … to those who are harsh” 18
Peter’s answer in verse 18 is very clear. We are to submit to those who are harsh, not just to those who are kind to us. The word harsh translates a Greek word from which we get the English word scoliosis, curvature of the spine. Some people are so morally twisted that they intentionally brutalize everyone around them. Even in those cases, we are to submit. That’s not the answer we would prefer to hear.
II. The Promise—”For this is grace” 19-20
The first phrase of verse 19 and the final phrase of verse 20 literally say, “For this is grace.” It’s not just that bearing up under unjust suffering is commendable or praiseworthy (though that is true). When we bear up under unjust suffering, “this is grace.” That is, it demonstrates to the world what the grace of God is all about. And I think it means that we experience the grace of God in a powerful way.
When we are threatened and refuse to compromise our faith, this is grace.
When we suffer for what we believe and do not complain, this is grace.
When we are passed over and refuse to get bitter, this is grace.
When we endure harsh treatment and still praise the Lord, this is grace.
When we are falsely accused and do not retaliate, this is grace.
When we are ripped off and can still smile, this is grace.
When we lose the game but not our temper, this is grace.
When we face countless trials but still count it all joy, this is grace.
When we love the Lord through our tears, this is grace.
III. The Reason—”Because he is conscious of God” 19
Nothing I have said in this sermon makes much sense without this point. We must grasp this in order to fully understand what Peter is saying to us. How can anyone submit to unfair treatment graciously? How do we continue to praise God when we (or our loved ones) are being mistreated? We endure unjust suffering for one reason and one reason only—because we are conscious of God. Let’s flesh this out in a series of statements:
A) I am where I am right now by God’s appointment.
B) If God wanted me to be somewhere else, I’d be somewhere else.
C) When God wants me somewhere else, I’ll be somewhere else.
D) Because God is good, it must be for my good to be where I am right now.
E) The fact that I can’t see any good in my present situation doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just means I can’t see it right now.
F) I don’t have to understand the big picture in order to believe there is a big picture.
G) God’s promises cover the details of my life even when the details seem random and out of control.
H) God sometimes allows things to happen to me that seem unfair and even harsh.
I) I won’t understand those things while I am going through them.
J) The one thing I can do is endure them patiently, because I believe God is right there with me every moment of every day.
In order to find the right application, we need to keep in mind Peter’s original audience. When he tells the slaves to submit, he doesn’t mean that slavery is good or that it’s wrong to seek your freedom. As the gospel spread across the Roman Empire, a vast majority of the early converts were slaves. Slaves had no rights at all. Aristotle said, “Masters and slaves have nothing in common; a slave is simply a living tool.” Converted slaves lived in a state of continual tension: “Christ has set me free, but I am a slave on earth. What should I do?” This was especially poignant in the case of a slave whose master was harsh and unreasonable. In most cases, freedom was not an option and escape was extremely difficult. The real question then is not about slavery at all. It’s about any unpleasant situation in your life that you cannot easily change. Peter’s words apply to anyone who is stuck in a job he does not like. And they apply to all of us who face circumstances we cannot easily change. What do you do then?
It all depends on whether or not you are conscious of God.
Do you believe God has you where you are for a purpose—even if you can’t see what that purpose is? If you answer yes, then you will endure suffering even though it is painful and frustrating. If you answer no, then you will almost certainly try to bail out of your situation and you will probably become bitter and angry in the process.
Slaves had no recourse. No labor unions. No advocates. No government board. No legal protection. No way to file civil lawsuits. No one to solve disputes. Peter speaks in stark language about submission because he is speaking about Christian slaves who had no rights. He is not addressing situations where you can protest or can file a grievance or can sue or can change your circumstances. But the principle remains because it touches the attitude of the heart. Actually it goes much deeper to the bedrock of our theology.
Do we believe God is involved in the worst moments of life? Is he there or not?
When we forget God, a number of bad things happen:
A) We give in to despair.
B) We begin to blame others.
C) We harbor ill-will.
D) We act hastily.
E) We seek revenge.
When we endure mistreatment patiently and without resentment:
A) We break the chain of violence.
B) We set ourselves free on the inside.
C) We demonstrate the power of Christ.
D) We prove our confidence in God’s justice.
E) We baffle unbelievers.
We are not angry with the world simply because we do not flourish in it.
We are not unhappy that others have it easier than we do.
We are not sullen when we are mistreated.
Why? Because we are conscious of God.
Your suffering is not about you. It’s about God. Learn that truth and it will transform your life.
“God Leads a Pretty Sheltered Life”
And so we come to Christmas once again, hoping against hope that the old story of Bethlehem will have something to say to us. Have you ever considered that the coming of Christ was the ultimate rescue mission? He didn’t come to save good people, because good people don’t need to be saved. He came for the bad people of the earth, because it is the bad people who need Jesus. And from God’s point of view, we’re all bad people. That’s a hard concept for some of us because instinctively we believe that we are “good people,” and compared to some others, we are good, but compared to God himself, we’re not good at all. Sometimes we have a hard time admitting the truth about ourselves.
When hard times come, and we feel mistreated, it’s easy to come to some incorrect conclusions:
“God doesn’t understand what I’m going through.”
“God has forgotten all about me.”
Almost 30 years ago, I ran across a reading called “God Leads a Pretty Sheltered Life.” Until this week I hadn’t thought about that reading for many years. But as I pondered how Christmas impacts the truth of our text, it came back to my memory. It’s a good answer to those who think God doesn’t know or doesn’t care about what they are going through.
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly—not with cringing shame but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can God know about suffering?” snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror, beatings, torture, death!”
In another group a man lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched for no crime but being black! We have suffocated in slave ships, been wrenched from loved ones, toiled till only death gave release.”
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people had been forced to endure in this world?
“God leads a pretty sheltered life,” they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he or he had suffered the most. A Jew, a slave, an untouchable from India, a person from Hiroshima, a prisoner from a Siberian gulag, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the center of the plain they consulted with each other.
At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather simple: before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their verdict was that God should be sentenced to live on earth—as a human being!
“Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Let him champion a cause so just, but so radical, that it brings down upon him the hate, condemnation and efforts of every major traditional and established religious authority to eliminate him. Let him try to describe what no-one has ever seen, felt, tasted, heard, or smelled: let him try to communicate God to human beings.
“At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him be indicted on false charges, tried before a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured and let him die! Let him die the most humiliating death—with common thieves.”
As each leader announced a portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the assembled throng. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved.
Suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.
For God so loved the world that he didn’t send an angel.
For God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee.
For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.
The Word became flesh and lived among us.
Though he was God, he did not try to hold on to his heavenly position.
He made himself nothing.
He took on the form of a servant.
He was born as a man.
He traded heaven for a stable.
He exchanged the trappings of deity for a mother’s womb.
He gave up the throne in favor of a feeding-trough.
Though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor.
He humbled himself as no man has ever done.
He endured mockery, hatred, ridicule and contempt.
He was savagely beaten, then crowned with thorns.
He was betrayed, tried, denied and crucified.
He died a humiliating death.
He was buried in a borrowed tomb.
When the angel came to Joseph, he repeated the prophecy from Isaiah, “A virgin will conceive and bear a son. And they will call his name Immanuel, which means God with us.”
God with us.
There are so many things we don’t know, so many mysteries of life that we cannot fathom. As we ponder the great question of suffering in the world, we do not know why some things happen to one person and not to another. Much less do we understand all that happens to us personally. Life is a winding road, with many unexpected twists and turns.
But at Christmastime, we know this much for certain:
God is with us.
God is with us.
God is with us.
Joy to the world.
Joy to the world.
Joy to the world.
The Lord is come. Amen.