“Walking and Whispering”
1 Peter 3:8-17
August 26, 2018
We make a difference in a polarized culture by walking in integrity and speaking with civility.
I. Internal Preparation (1 Peter 3:8)
II. Words 101 (1 Peter 3:9-10)
III. Walking 101 (1 Peter 3:11-12)
IV. Walking 201 (1 Peter 3:13-17)
V. Words 201 (1 Peter 3:15)
This week, in our last installment of counter-cultural-Christian-character I’d like to think about the problem of incivility and the beauty of civility. So let me begin with a simple question. How would you define incivility? I won’t ask for answers, but now that you’ve thought about it for a minute, let me ask an easier question: where would you expect to see or experience incivility? All right, show of hands: how many of you said the internet or social media?
Of course. We’ve become accustomed to a nearly complete abandonment of civil conversation on the internet. Even a participant, like the Huffington Post, has had to notice this. They did an article called “Shame Nation: The Rise of Incivility in America” and reported survey results showing that “there is a severe civility deficit in our country. Sixty-nine percent of Americans blame the Internet and social media as the cause. One of the people surveyed said “You can’t even comment on a status without someone trying to argue and prove points about something you don’t care about.” And it’s not only online. Driving, politics, customer service and education are all venues for incivility
When I started looking into this I didn’t figure I’d have any trouble coming up with examples, but I dreaded it. I’d have to look into my Facebook feed and read comments I usually avoid and weed out those filled with curses and personal hatred. Not pleasant. Turned out I didn’t have to do that because I found a ‘perfect’ example on a Christian website. For the sake of civility I won’t use the author’s name, but he writes on the Patheos blog collective. Patheos is a mixed bag of good, bad, and at times ugly Christian commentary. This blogger in particular seems to be an equal opportunity snark. The post went after megachurches like Willow Creek. He said “It looks like the beginning of the end at Willow Creek. They aren’t saying that, but I feel like that’s what’s happening. If so, good riddance. And you can take the megachurch movement you spawned with you.” Even though I agreed with some of his criticisms, I was immediately put off by the incivility of the opening.
Then I clicked through to another of his articles, this on some lyrics that John Piper added to the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” for a particular setting. Before the blogger criticized the lyrics, he felt he had to give his opinion of Piper: “Worshiped by the legions of seminary students led astray by the early-2000s neo-Calvinist “Young, Restless, and Revoltingly Reformed” movement, most everybody else, once they actually hear some of the stodgy and weird things he has to say, find him to be smug, alienating, and creepy.” This is not civil discourse. This is not how believers talk to or about each other, or anybody.
But it is. You know as well as I that I could give examples for 27 minutes and we’d leave outraged. Let’s not do that. That Huffington Post article also asked what civility is. “Being civil is being thoughtful, kind, sympathetic, able to get along with others, understanding in thought and word.” It is to “Respect and honor people as you would like to be treated,” “Treating one another with mutual respect.” “Remaining polite, even if you don’t necessarily want to.” Those are good definitions. Let’s think from Scripture about those things.
1st Peter 3 teaches us about civility. It shows us that both our walk and our words are to be civil, even when the going gets tough. So my key thought that we make a difference in a polarized culture by walking in integrity and speaking with civility. Our text is 1st Peter 3:8-17. Verse 8 gives us a brief glimpse of the preparations we need to make to live civilly. Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
Peter begins verse 8 with the word finally. He’s wrapping up a long discussion of the value and effect of living good lives. It started in chapter 2, where he said: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Peter goes on to say that living good lives can have an impact in your relationship with government, with employers, and as husbands and wives. Now Peter generalizes for all believers living in a pagan or uncivil world. These things, he says, will make you ready to stand out against the culture.
First, live in harmony. The word literally means be like-minded, but it doesn't mean to think the same things. It means to be agreeable, and sensitive to each other's concerns. This is key to civility. Second, be sympathetic. Feel the needs, hurts and struggles of others. We talked this summer about putting yourself in another person’s shoes. If I can see things from their I am far less likely to be harsh about their words and actions. Notice that even in these first two things there is a strong implication of personal relationships. Living in harmony and being sympathetic don’t easily happen through two screens and a cloud. This is why small groups and intentional one-on-one time are so important. When we spend time with people we see their perspectives, what their lives are like. We learn how to pray for them. In the words of Paul, civility is to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”
Third, love the brotherhood. The word is 'philadelphia' - brotherly love, which is often used in the New Testament of love for fellow believers. In fact, this was one of the first things taught by Paul. In one of the earliest letters he wrote, to the Thessalonians, he said: “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.
Fourth, be tender hearted. That is, be compassionate, having a gut feeling of concern. It means you can be touched and moved to action by the plight of others. Finally, be humble in spirit, characterized by humility. This is the opposite of self interest. Interest in others can't occupy the space filled with interest in myself. And love for others says I’ll put their needs before my own.
These are the character qualities that stand behind civility, and without going further we know that being like this, humble, loving and sympathetic, isn’t something people naturally do. Fallen human nature is self-focused, unsympathetic and divisive. Just look at the internet. So we need Jesus. We need his rescue from our sins by his death on the cross, we need to be made new in his resurrection, and we need God the Holy Spirit living within us and bearing fruit. It’s no surprise our culture isn’t civil, but it’s sad that believers don’t stand out from the culture. In the earliest church it was said of Christians “behold how they love.” Far too often now, I’m afraid, the culture says “behold how they hate.”
We need Jesus, and we need to live out the life he gives us. The brief introductory course Peter offers us is Words 101, 1st Peter 3:9-10 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.”
Peter shows us how to react civilly, how to react to evil, especially in our words. He alludes back to comments he’d made in chapter 2 about the behavior of Christ. “When they hurled their insults at him he did not retaliate, when he suffered he made no threats.” Now Peter uses the same words when he says “do not retaliate evil with evil, but instead turn and bless those who insult and revile.” It is to this self-control in our use of words, following the example of Christ that you and I are called by God. How are we doing at this basic civility? To reinforce the point, Peter quotes from Psalm 34: “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” Civility is packaged in words. Even faced with opposition, God’s way, both in the Old and New Testaments, is to control your words.
I once sat at a lunch table with some folks from the Free Church in Lake Jackson. One of these guys was a shift worker in the Texas City refinery. He said that one day a co-worker really got on his case for being a Christian. He questioned him, then he mocked him, then he cursed him. "I was so tempted to just blow my top at him, but I went outside, and I calmed down, and when I came back I asked him why he had done that." And the guy said: "I just wanted to see if you were for real" Our civility or lack thereof even under pressure is a witness.
Verses 11-12 also quote from Psalm 34, but shift the focus from speaking civilly to walking civilly: let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
As we walk, we turn from evil to pursue peace. Much of our focus this summer has been on these practical things we can do to do this in our relationships. On June 10th we talked about radical, ordinary hospitality, that turns strangers into friends and friends into fellow believers. June 24th was about humanization, how love for others keeps us from objectifying and dehumanizing them. July 8th we talked about generosity, the concrete, joyful imitation of the grace of God. The following week we saw that humility is looking out for the interests of others. On July 22nd we talked about submission, voluntarily yielding our rights. On July 29th we chose grief over anger, being sad rather than being mad. And last week we said the alternative to idleness was not just working hard to provide for yourself, but for others. We’ve been talking all summer about doing good, and it’s fitting that the same call is found in this last text.
But verses 9 to 12 are really the introductory version of our words and our works. In verses 13-17 Peter gives the advanced course, our response under pressure. Most of this addresses our walk, though there is a key thought about our words mixed in. Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
Verse 13 reflects a norm and verse 14 an exception to the norm. Normally, Peter says, nobody will harm you if you are zealous for doing good. We see that all the time as we do Harvey response. Our neighbors have been gracious about the less-than-classy look we’ve had as a church hosting this response. Our next door neighbor just put his house on the market, and two realtors asked him about the tool trailer and other evidence of Reach Global’s presence. They told him he had to find out how long this was going to go on, because it might reduce the salability of his house. He very apologetically came and asked and I told him a long time. He said ‘well, it doesn’t matter because y’all are doing such good work in the community. If I lose a buyer because they’re upset, so be it.” The beautiful thing is that his house sold that week. So, no. Normally no one will accuse you or persecute you for doing good.
But occasionally, verse 14, you may suffer for righteousness sake. We could think of examples around the world. So many in Iran, Irag or Syria have suffered for holding faith in Jesus. The Egyptian Coptic believers who were beheaded by ISIS. The believers in China who are still being imprisoned or persecuted. Even here, though his stand is not defended by every believer, Jack Phillips has been targeted because he will not violate his conscience concerning God’s design for marriage by baking a cake celebrating a gay marriage. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor in June, saying the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had acted with “religious hostility” and “animus” toward Phillips. Less than two months later another suit was filed over a similar cake request, and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission again began to prosecute Jack Philips.
I am sure that Jack Philips has read these verses many times in recent years. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” That last phrase is from one of my favorite chapters of Isaiah, verses that speak directly to our responses to the internet and social media: “Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. 13The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” The reason we can be civil in our words and civil in our actions is that we trust in God, we fear him, we respect and honor him, take his opinion way more seriously than the opinions of people.
That’s what Peter means at the start of verse 15 when he says “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” If Jesus is Lord and Jesus is Holy then we give him first place in our lives no matter how loudly critique and condemnation and incivility shout. I delete profane comments on our YouTube channel, but I occasionally keep oppositional ones, like the guy who said “Oh please- I thought this was a Hawkwind track - not moron god-botherers- Oh- and I love Satan hah! hah!” I think the fact that we get those comments on videos or even sermons, reasonably often, is evidence that we take Jesus seriously. But do we do that individually? If we honor Christ as Lord that we strive to obey him 24/7/365 no matter what the consequences. If we honor him as holy, that means we confess the sin that we find in our lives and turn from it.
We’ll come back to the rest of verse 15, but Peter continues the thought in verse 16 by saying “having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” If you are going to survive the attacks of the enemy, it’s important to have a clear conscience. This doesn’t mean no sin. It doesn’t even mean no incivility. What it does mean is keeping short accounts with God, and when you confess sin, it means actually doing something to make turning from it possible.
We talked about this when we talked about anger, finding the wedge that allows you to get on the anger before it explodes, and crying out to God for the power to turn from anger to grief. A clear conscience could well require you to also go to someone and ask forgiveness and indicate your desire to not fall into that sin again. If you’ve done that and you’re honestly dealing with your anger problem, not trying to fool God, then you should have a clean conscience. The same would be true of incivility or really any other sin that you’ve sincerely turned from. But if you’re trying to get by, asking for forgiveness when you know you’re not truly repenting, then those who revile your good behavior will take satisfaction in your ongoing bad behavior.
I remember a lesson I learned years ago. When the primary form of social media was newsgroups, I belonged to one for home-schoolers. The moderator posted a joke that implied that non-homeschoolers were deficient. I sent her an email complaining about the post as putting fuel on a fire of judgment on both sides of the home schooling issue. I didn’t hear anything back, so I unwisely put the same thing up publicly. Only then did I learn that the moderator had lost her father that week and her mother that month, or something like that. My incivility and accusation was just another cut in that time of deep pain. We bring shame on ourselves and on Jesus when we resort to incivility.
Which is why, in Peter’s understanding, “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Earlier he had said to slaves, or employees, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 20How 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. 21To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” If you do evil and suffer, that’s a moral consequence. But if you do good and suffer, that’s an imitation of Christ.
So the Walk 201 is when your good behavior is met by angry words and vengeful voices, by cursing, abuse or even persecution. To be civil in this circumstance is to be like Jesus. This is true of Words 201 as well. Verse 15 “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Peter is calling us to words: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the reason for the hope that is in us. But we are to make a defense of our hope, we are to share the Good News that has saved us with gentleness and respect. That is, with civility. We don’t scream the gospel like some street preacher, we don’t shove the gospel like some used car salesman, we share what with know to be the best possible news, the truth in love.
I said at the beginning that I didn’t want to dwell this week on negative examples, so I want to close with a really positive example. On June 19th Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in New York City had the opportunity to speak to the British Prime Minister and members of both houses. John Stevens, a British pastor reviewed the speech and said “Tim Keller recently provided a masterclass in gracious apologetics when he spoke at the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. His address, “What Can Christianity Offer Our Society in the 21st Century?” ought to be watched by pastors and church members alike, as it will equip them with fresh arguments and models how to speak well of Christ.
Speaking of Christians as the salt of the earth he said “The metaphor Jesus is using is to say that his disciples, that's the Christians, should be dispersed in the societies of the world. We’re the salt of the earth, he says. He doesn't mean the ground he means the world, society. And in every society that means that Jesus says my disciples should be bringing out the best in that particular culture and preventing its worst tendencies as well. But only if Christians remain salt which is different from the rest of the culture. I'd like to unpack that a little bit and look at how Christians have been salt, in a massive way, in Western society, how they still can be salt, but only if they stay themselves. Salt only is helpful to the meat if it's not like the meat if it's itself.”
The entire talk, which I recommend you listen to, and which I’ll link to on the website, is gracious and respectful, while still honoring Christ as Lord and sharing the hope that we have in him. I believe that you and I, like Tim Keller can make a difference in a polarized culture by walking in integrity and speaking with civility. So whether it’s on the Internet, or behind the wheel of your car, or at a sales counter, or speaking face-to-face with your brothers and sisters in Christ, or with those who have never known him, the goal is to be civil, our goal is to act and to speak with gentleness and respect.