But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honour 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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
As I write this, I have just returned from visiting an elderly member of my congregation in hospital. She was doing okay, but she’s not getting any younger, nor getting any healthier. In fact, she is preparing not just for death but also for suffering. However, these are preparations she feels confident to make because (as she pointed out to me) Jesus, time and time again, warns his disciples of the persecution and suffering that is likely to accompany their confession of him. The apostles continue that theme—in word and deed!—and Peter, in his first letter, gives it great and careful attention.
The suffering in which Peter is most interested is Jesus’ suffering. The apostle, earlier in his letter, writes that the sufferings of Christ are to do with the salvation of the souls of those who hope in him (1 Pet 1:3, 9, 11), a purpose he returns to when he declares “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24).
Jesus’ sufferings are also an encouragement for Christians as they suffer in the many possible ways life brings. However, one of the ways they are notto suffer is for their own disobedience. Peter has very little sympathy for such criminals. But when Christians suffer because they “do good” and are “mindful of God”, such suffering, he writes, is a “gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Pet 2:18-21)!
It is so gracious a thing that Peter can hardly even imagine anyone wanting to harm those who are “zealous for what is good” (1 Pet 3:13). And yet he knows Christians will indeed “suffer for righteousness’ sake” and he calls such suffering a blessing (1 Pet 3:14). Peter has already written about how suffering and trials test one’s faith, that it may be proven genuine at the final revelation of Christ, and that Christians therefore should rejoice in suffering, difficult as that may be (1 Pet 1:6-7). But in 1 Peter 3:14-16, Christians are given another reason to rejoice in suffering. The assumption here is that their hope—that is, the “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” to which we have been born again (1 Pet 1:3)—will be evident in their suffering and, for those of us not currently suffering, evident in our lives. And that being the case, Peter envisages opportunities to defend and proclaim and speak the truth about the gospel of the one we are to regard in our hearts as holy, Christ the Lord.
Christians hold different views as to whether or not we are all called to be evangelists. But there can be no disagreement about this: all Christians have the responsibility and the divine commission to know what they believe and why they believe it, so that, when asked, they might give a clear and faithful account of the hope they have in Christ. Our responsibility to witness in this way is regardless of whether or not we are suffering, regardless of whether or not we are ‘in ministry’, regardless of whether or not we have formal theological or biblical training.
Peter does, however, add one caveat. Our defence of the Christian faith is to be done with “gentleness and respect” and out of “a good conscience”. The way we conduct our evangelism, answer questions, and interact with unbelievers… these things are not the gospel. But they must be done gently, respectfully, politely, kindly, truthfully and in a Christ-like manner, so that the gracious gospel of God is not contradicted by the ungraciousness of his people.
As I prayed with my dear friend in hospital today, this was her only prayer: that through her sufferings, and in every aspect of her life, she would have opportunities—and take opportunities—to speak clearly about the hope she has in Christ, doing this in such a way that honours him, even when she is slandered, and that she would consider this a blessing, being neither fearful nor troubled. That is a prayer all Christians should pray, and one that I need to pray before I next speak to a non-Christian.
This article first published in the Briefing magazine on 30 January 2013.