“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 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…”
(1 Peter 3:14-15 ESV)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The New Testament is full of a allusions to persecution which are mostly edited out when passages are cited in worship services and other uses.
For example, the citation above is normally cited entirely out of context as: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). The snipet is entirely upbeat and usually cited as the reason to argue apologetically for the faith. At least three things are missing when this is done. First, there is no recognition of the context of persecution. Second, there is no recognition of Peter’s admonition to speak “with gentleness and respect”. Finally, the verbal defend often highlighted entirely misses the point that the entire letter focuses on “lifestyle evangelism”—living out the faith, not talking about the faith, and only that one phrase mentions a verbal defend.
In fact, one could argue that practicing for a verbal defense is contrary to scripture, because Jesus says:
“And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12 ESV)
The tension that we feel with others over our faith is expected because of the work and power of the Holy Spirit manifested in our lives. Notice the order of events in this admonition:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)
It is the power of the Holy Spirit acting in us that leads us to become witnesses.
Because it is the power the Holy Spirit that leads us into this tension, it is neither our propensity to be vocal nor a desire to take risks that leads us to witness for Christ. The opposite is also true. It is neither our shyness in front of people nor our risk aversion that holds us back in witnessing for Christ—in our joy in salvation we want to tell the whole world! However, fear can quelch the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Barthel and Edling (2012, 101) note:
“When individuals in groups are motivated by fear of the opinion of other people (what others personally think about them) more than the fear of God, their hearts grow cold to the Spirit of God. Lacking God-consciousness, there is no restraining the motivation of the heart; only world passions and popularity with crowd control. This is common in church conflicts. Defensiveness, self-righteousness, and pride rule the day when people vien in to the fear of man.”
It is interesting that where we frequently pray for protection the early church prayed for boldness in their witness . The problem facing the church of Laodicea, so common today, seems to have come later. As the Apostle John prophesied:
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16 ESV)
Finney (1982,74-76) lists six consequences of quelching the Holy Spirit in our lives:
- Darkness of mind—the truth makes no useful impression.
- Coldness towards religion.
- Holding various errors in religion.
- Delusion regarding one’s spiritual state.
- Attempts to justify wrongdoing.
In this list we observe problems of tension with ourselves, with others, and with God. Fear of others, particularly persecution, leads us to abandon our faith both in God and in ourselves in a kind of downward spiral. Is it any wonder than in our times of timid faith, many are are burdened daily with debilitating anxiety and treated for depression even on sunny days? One wonders if increasing persecution is less about other people than it is about our own weakness and doubt—like a feeding frenzy observed among wounded fish.
Barthel and Edling (2012, 89) observe churches in conflict snapping to their senses when leaders are reminded of the need to remain God-centered and to reframe conflict around well-choice questions for reflection. Of course, this rings a bit like sound pastoral advice for us as individuals as well.
What is your favorite scripture passage?
 “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:29-31 ESV)
Barthel, Tara Klena and David V. Edling. 2012. Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.
Finney, Charles. 1982. The Spirit-Filled Life (Orig pub 1845-61). New Kensington: Whitaker House.