August 9, 2008

Harmony Among Christians: I Peter 3:8-12)

Few challenges or circumstances of life reveal us to ourselves as the experience of seeing how we react when faced with conflict.

In conflict, we can demonstrate the power of our faith or deny it by our actions, because the drive to win is a powerful force against the commitment to be Christlike. In situations of conflict, the struggle between responding in kind versus responding to evil with good is natural for the Christian.

While James and Peter often give us rules to live by-for example, "Do not repay evil with evil" (verse 9)-Paul describes the inner struggle: "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it" (Romans 7:19-20).

Paul also tells us there can be ultimate victory in this inner struggle: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24). It's not that this victory over the old nature is automatic, but it is possible for us. Interestingly, it if virtually impossible for the unbeliever to habitually repress his or her sinful nature, because he or she is a servant of sin (Romans 6:17). Victory over this old nature of serving sin and not the Savior comes with our continuing maturity in the faith and, frankly, a lot of prayer and just plain effort to become the people God wants us to become.

In a sense, there are two of us: one being our efforts to think and live according to our convictions and commitment to holiness, and the other the continuing temptations from the old nature, which are driven by self-centeredness and emotion.

Robert Louis Stevenson describes the conflict in his well-known allegory of good and evil, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson, who in much of his writing was obsessed with the inner struggle between good and evil, developed the character of Dr. Jekyll, a well-respected London physician who has a split personality. Whenever the evil personality, Mr. Hyde, takes over, Dr. Jekyll takes a potion he concocted to drive away the evil Mr. Hyde. But he runs out of the potion. As the allegory ends, he fears Mr. Hyde is about to become his permanent nature, and the only question he has is whether he will end up committing suicide or be tried and executed by the authorities for the crimes Mr. Hyde is sure to commit.

Today, the phrase "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" describes anyone who demonstrated markedly different behavior from one situation to the next and is a phrase used to express sudden personality changes between doing what is good and what is evil.

All of this illustrates the fact that is a biblical truth: it is possible for us to experience a struggle between our biblical convictions and our emotions, or, as we often put it, the old man and the new. When I take stock of myself and how I react to conflict, the question is this: Shall I let my convictions, or my emotions, guide me?

Peter has been writing in his letter about relationships. In verses 8-12, he summarizes with three principles that are applicable not just in times of peace, but also during conflict.

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12; Peter quotes Psalm 34:12-16 in verses 10-12)

Our manner of living should promote harmony (8)

Peter begins with the simple instruction, "All of you, live in harmony with one another." So what is the reason for the instruction? The reason is that, indeed, conflict can occur among Christians and, we can assume, was occurring among the Christians and the churches to which he was writing in Asia Minor. Remember, the Christians had fled the Roman cities because of the government-sanctioned persecution of Christians, whom Nero blamed for the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D. It was a time of troubles as the fleeing Christians settled in the rural areas of what is northern Turkey today. Inevitably, conflicts among the people arose as the displaced Christians sought food and shelter and tried to begin making a living again for themselves and their families.

But conflicts are not unique to those times and circumstances. From our life experiences, we know that they have the potential of occurring anytime anywhere. Most of us have strong opinions. From the earliest days of the church until today (perhaps it would be more accurate to say especially today), doctrinal differences have threatened to divide us. Even in those early days of the church, there were doctrinal conflicts, many of which arose as some Christian tried to incorporate their Christian faith into cultural practices. We find that in the Corinthian church, for example, where Paul found sinful practices mirroring the culture’s sexual permissiveness and tolerating polytheism. There were doctrinal differences between those in the church who sought to accommodate the faith to the culture and those who sought purity of faith in the way Christians lived and worshipped. In the Galatian church, he addressed the doctrinal differences between those who taught strict adherence to the Jewish law and those who valued their freedom from the law. In the letters to the church at Thessalonica, Paul dealt with the doctrine of the second coming and the differences between those Christians who had decided to take it easy and live off the generosity of others while waiting for the imminent return of Christ and those who (correctly) held to the doctrine of Jesus, upon His return, should find them living productive and faithful lives of service.

Doctrine still tends to divide Christians and cause disputes. Right now, I have a friend who came to Christ in his 60s, about 20 years ago. He is now in his 80s. He serves on ministry boards and, since retirement, has worked and continues to work more or less, at no pay, in the administration of his church. He gives huge amounts of money to local ministries and to the church. He is a strict five-point Calvinist and ardent amillennialist, and he is always ready to argue the accuracy of his doctrinal views. But I don’t argue with him. There is plenty of common ground for us to have fellowship and serve together in Christian ministries, and in fact we have served together for years as board members of the local crisis pregnancy center.

Doctrine is not the only potential conflict among Christians. We often have conflicting personal and business interests and political differences. One believer might hold extremely conservative views as correct for the Christian, even to the point of oppression of the poor in the name of free enterprise. Another, equally dedicated to his or her faith, may hold progressive political views to the extreme of enabling capable but disadvantaged people to rely on government handouts in lieu of productive employment. On the personal level, Christians also experience conflicts with others because of jealousies, arrogance, selfishness, and greed.

Peter gives us the bottom line, no matter our doctrinal and political views and regardless of the inner conflicts with which we may be struggling: live in harmony. The phrase rendered “live in harmony" is literally translated "be of one mind" or "be likeminded"; that is, unified in thought and feeling. It does not mean to merely surrender or become a doormat. It means to find ways to be likeminded. Where there are possible or probable differences on issues, or where your own self-centeredness may result in or contribute to conflict, resolve it before it becomes conflict.

Living in harmony is a proactive concept. Our Lord expects us to initiate ways to be likeminded; to prevent conflicts from even arising.

In verse 8, Peter gives us some ways to promote harmony or likemindedness:

First, be sympathetic (literally "be of one mind, sympathizing . . ."). Sympathy means more than feeling sorry for. It means sharing a feeling and it implies some kind of remedial or pain-relieving action. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a great example. The priest and the Levite who crossed the road and passed the injured man perhaps felt sorrow or regret for the injured man's condition, but they did not sympathize; the Samaritan took pity (a synonym for sympathize).

Second, he tells us to love each other as brothers. So how do we do that? We share in other Christians’ lives. We aren’t too shy about sharing feelings and how we are dealing with the ups and the downs of life. We become friends and take the time and trouble to know about and care about each other’s welfare, and we try to help solve each other's problems if possible.

Next, he tells us to be compassionate (literally, tenderhearted). This is related to sympathizing. A compassionate person is gentle, helpful, and genuinely cares about the needs of others.

Peter also says we should be humble (literally, "humble minded" or even "courteous" or "kind"). His meaning is to not be self-centered or seek to meet our own needs and desires, but to have the interests of the brother or sister in mind.

Verse 8 is one continuous thought, first telling Christians to live in harmony and they explaining how. A literal translation of the verse would be: "Live in harmony with one another, sympathizing, loving as brothers, being compassionate, and being humble." All of those attributes (sympathy, love, compassion, and humility) together constitute the ways to live in harmony with each other.

Don't contribute to conflict (9)

Growing up, I was always the one with a smart mouth in our house. As a teenager, few corrections from my parents went unchallenged. Sometimes I created conflict; almost always I escalated any conflict in which I played a part.

Peter tells us the two ways to promote harmony and end conflict when it arises:

First, do not repay evil with evil. That is, don't be vengeful. Paul expands on this in 1 Thessalonians 5:15: "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else."

Second, do not repay insult for insult, but (repay) with blessing. In the heat of the moment, how hard is that!?! Peter tells us why we are to do this: "because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." That reminds me of what God did for me while I was still rebelling against Him: "God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). In other words, not repaying wrong for wrong or insult for insult is just repeating what our Father in heaven has done for us.

Pursue peace (10-11)

Peter repeats himself and expands on the thoughts of verses 8 and 9 in verses 10 and 11, quoting from Psalm 34.

Two marks of a growing, maturing Christian who pursues peace in his or her relationships are (1) that we do not speak evil and deceit and (2) that we turn away from evil and do what is good (righteous).

Once again, Peter's instructions place the responsibility directly on us. Not speaking evil and deceit and turning away from evil to do what is good are decisions we make. As usual, there are, in fact, practical benefits: we avoid saying things we later wish we had not, we avoid the messy entanglement that always comes after we lie, and we don't find ourselves paying the price for (unrighteous) conduct.

God does not want us just to live with or ignore conflict. He wants us to help solve it-calmly, lovingly, and honestly-and not contribute to it by our attitudes or unrighteous responses and actions. Note that Peter doesn't say be peaceful or avoid conflict. He says "seek peace and pursue it" (verse 11). In other words, make an effort; have a strong desire for peace (seek peace); and make it happen with a strong, unrelenting effort.

Righteous responses please God (12)

Verse 12 confirms the truth that God blesses us and our efforts to do His will. When we seek to live in harmony, be likeminded, love as brothers, show compassion, demonstrate humility, turn from evil and do good, and pursue peace, God blesses and even empowers our efforts. But when we do just the opposite-seek vengeance, trade insults, and speak deceitfully-we cannot expect Him to help us succeed.

Some concluding thoughts

When conflicts arise, Peter is telling us, we must choose righteousness. We need to remember who we are on those occasions and that we can control whether conflict arises or escalates or whether peace and harmony prevail. As fellow Christians, God expects us to be likeminded, which means we must continually seek like-mindedness in resolving conflicts rather than to ignoring or running away from them.

Finally, we must remember God's will for us when conflict arises: that our very lifestyle promotes harmony, that our relationships are characterized by brotherly love, sympathy for each other, compassion, and humility, and that rather than contributing to conflict, we pursue peace.

(Note: While I usually teach from the New King James Version [NKJV], I am teaching from the New International Version [NIV] in this study in the book of 1 Peter because the NIV so accurately renders the thought of the original text. Regardless of the English translation used, I also compare the English rendering with the Greek New Testament. For those not fluent in the biblical languages, a Greek-English interlinear Bible and Hebrew-English interlinear Bible can be of great assistance in revealing the original nuances of meaning of words and grammatical structure. Many of the interlinear Bibles also include Strong's numbering and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries keyed to the Strong's for concise definitions of the original terms. The most helpful Bible I have found is the MacArthur Study Bible, which is available in the New King James Version and the New American Standard [NASB] translation. The notations in the MacArthur Study Bible are extremely accurate in reflecting the literal meaning of the texts and are invaluable in providing the accurate scriptural backgrounds for the basic evangelical Christian doctrines derived from the literal view of Scripture. Another helpful Bible for English readers is the Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, which is an NIV translation with numbering keyed to a Hebrew dictionary and Greek dictionary in the back of the book.)

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