Meditations in 1 Peter : 56: Suffering Again (2)
1 Pet 4:15-16 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
Righteous suffering or unrighteous suffering; that is what these two verses are about. Oh, not more on suffering and persecution, you might be thinking. I’m afraid yes, because that is what Peter does – he says more about it, more to help us. We said in the previous meditation that suffering and persecution are the ‘the elephant in the room’, being there in the background of Western Christianity, there but ignored mostly. But for Peter it cannot be ignored for it is a very real element in the life of the early Church.
Back in chapter 2, speaking about slaves and the possibility of them suffering unjustly, he said something similar to what we now find here: “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?” (2:19,20) i.e. it is good to bear up well under persecution when you have done no wrong, but if you are suffering because you have done wrong, there is no credit in that!
So now, in these present verses, he says something very similar. He sets up two groups of people and differentiates between them. The first group is made up of those who have done wrong: “a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.” Each of these people interfere with and harm others, from a murderer at one end of the spectrum to a gossiping busybody upsetting people at the other end. Frankly, he implies, these people deserve trouble. There is nothing commendable about getting into trouble for doing wrong.
Now we may think that this is a very minor bit of teaching but I wonder how many times Christians are unwise or foolish in their speech or behaviour and were not being Christ-like, but then bemoan the fact that they have received opposition or censure? How many times have we spoken arrogantly into the world and then been surprised when we have received hostile reactions in return? This is, in fact, a very significant piece of teaching and Peter says similar things elsewhere. Do you remember back in chapter 3 he said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Pet 3:15,16) That is a very significant teaching. Be ready with answers when you are questioned but make sure your answers come in gentleness and with respect so you give people no grounds to judge you, and if they do it will be them who are in the wrong, not you! We really do need to think about these things when the scripture exhorts us to be salt and light. The way we do it is crucial!
But he moves on: “However” i.e. by contrast, if you get opposition and suffer simply for being a Christian, that is something else! “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed.” The implication in the light of what has just gone is, shame on you if you do wrong when you say you are a Christian, but if you are living the Christ-life, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14) and you then get opposition, you do not need to feel bad, you do not need to feel ashamed. You haven’t ‘let the side down’, you have just received opposition from the enemy which is opposition to goodness. As we saw previously, it happened to Jesus and so it will happen to us. When it does (as long as you have given no grounds for it) don’t feel ashamed or guilty or bad about it. People get upset when they are shown up.
When Stephen started his final speech it was recorded, “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15) That was amazing. However, examine Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost and Stephen’s denunciations in chapter 7 and we find a distinct difference. Both men brought the truth and Peter saw tremendous fruit, but Stephen hit them in the face with their failure and gave them no time to think through the truth of what he was saying. His ‘in-your-face’ challenges simply stirred their unrighteous anger. Was he wise in doing it like that? Saul (who became Paul) stood there unmoved and it was only a direct encounter with Jesus that changed him. The account of Stephen is there in all its clarity, but is it there as a lesson on how not to do it, I wonder?
There is a difference between holding onto your beliefs in the face of challenge, and stuffing them down someone’s throat ungraciously. Peter’s earlier words about speaking with gentleness and respect, linked in with our verses above, should perhaps give us some grounds to think carefully and honestly. May we do that!