1 Peter 3 says: “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened. But in your hearts, revere Christ as Lord. 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 behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.”
This passage names the suffering that is inherent to our faith. For the first recipients of the letter, the suffering would have been pretty intense and obvious. In the previous chapter, Peter has just reminded his readers: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” This ominous sense of pagan powers seems to hover over the letter. The first Christians who had been commissioned by Jesus to preach the Good News to the whole world are now having to figure out how to do that in a context not always welcoming of that Gospel, a context often oppressive of whatever it perceived as a threat.
Of course, while Christians worldwide are, sadly, still killed, imprisoned, and kidnapped for their faith, today in Australia, we rarely suffer for our faith in that usual way. But this passage still has relevance for our experience. It helps us to name the less obvious ways our sharing of Jesus may bring about negative outcomes. Our efforts to share the Gospel may lead to conflict, to loss of relationships or respect or work opportunities. We’re social beings. These things hurt.
Of course, sometimes, we get negative responses to our Christian faith for good reason. Sadly, this very passage from 1 Peter 3— “Always be prepared to give an answer”—has been used to train Christians in a kind of belligerent defensiveness, an argumentative and judgemental spirit that is in direct contrast with the next verse: “But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Too often, we’re so sensitive to the abuses of evangelistic efforts that we just say nothing. We love the quote often attributed to St Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary” and often misuse it as an excuse to never use words. But 1 Peter 3 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” It’s assuming we’re living in a way that leads people to ask questions! And it’s asking us not to give an argument for our ideas but a reason for our hope. Not a wishful thinking kind of hope but a way of life that says, “I can’t see it yet, but I’m choosing to surrender everything for God’s promises.” To share our hope will require a more personal, vulnerable, humble way of sharing. Which, in my experience, is usually refreshing and disarming. It surprises those who have had painful experiences with Christians in the past, and it invites more conversation.
And even when we do share Jesus’ love with the right motives – gentleness and respect – it still may blow up in our faces. We may still be rejected or maligned. 1 Peter 3 names the reality that people will still speak maliciously against good behaviour, that sometimes we will suffer for doing good.
Even in surrendering to this reality, we find a strange kind of victory. Perhaps not the victory we’d expect in the way we usually imagine it. But the kind of victory that has an eternal effect. Because when we surrender to the call to keep sharing the hope, we have, even when we’re rejected, it has the opportunity to teach us even more about the source of that hope. The very suffering we experience in rejection can become an invitation to remember the suffering of Jesus. His suffering was not for nothing but brought us back to God. Although his suffering was so extreme that it led to his physical death, he was made alive in the Spirit. In every way, our surrender leads to suffering, like Jesus; may it have the surprising outcome of making us more alive, like Jesus. And may that unlikely life we live be a testimony to the strange, other-worldly truth of victory in surrender.