“…not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9, NASB95)
How often have you heard said that one person wasn’t going to treat another in a positive way because he or she did not deserve it? More pointedly, I imagine that you like I have done this yourselves and have probably thought it even more frequently. After all, they are getting their “just dessert.” Engaging in a kind of tit for tat just seems the natural way of doing things, or at least it does until after you’ve done it and you then feel bad afterward for doing so. This is especially true when you discover some fact about the situation after the fact that changes how you feel.
Stephen Covey, in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change,” wrote,
“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly - some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
“Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
“The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people's papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
“It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn't control them a little more?”
“The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you're right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either.”
“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn't have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man's pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I'm so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.” (Note: I used this quote apart from the book which I have not read and for which I can make no recommendation either way.)
This story stuck in my mind because of a tendency I’ve observed working in retail to judge parents by the actions of their kids. Rather than taking a moment to enter into a struggling mother’s world, or in this case a bereaved father’s, there is this rush to judgment because our own senses are offended in some way.
In today’s passage Peter turns this table upside down by challenging us to restrain our fleshly tendency and respond as God responds to us. After listing five positive traits that are to mark us as Christians, Peter finishes the list by setting up a negative that we are to avoid in lieu of a positive that we are to engage in because of the positive we have been given by God instead of the negative that we deserve. And, unlike us, God knows everything about us and He still choose to show us incredible mercy and extend to us His grace. He did more than empathize with us. Out of His great love, He gave His Son for us knowing absolutely every detail of our lives.
It is in this context that Peter instructs us not to not return evil for evil or insult for insult. We are not to live “tit for tat” lives. We are not to dish out “just desserts.” We are not to act in any way where we return anything to another other than what God returns for us and what we are promised to receive from Him. In the examples cited so far there has been no direct action against us in one sense. In the supermarket we are outside observers, who have maybe been bumped into or have heard something we would have rather not heard. In the subway instance, sure there might have been some disruption in their tranquility, but we can see that the accompanying rush to judgment was based on facts assumed and not fully known. For all of us, though, there have been and there will be those times when our call to respond hits a lot closer to home and is a lot harder to deal with.
When we respond to another we have no idea what God will do with it. It might momentarily calm a situation or provide a hand in a time of need, or it might be used to bring eternal blessing. It might even be ignored in anger or hatred. It is not for us to know these things which rest ultimately in the hands of God. What is for us is to respond to every person in the way that God responds to us.
These times are not easy, and God knows that. Jesus experienced it, and Peter reminded us of this earlier in this same letter. “who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously;” (1 Peter 2:22–23, NASB95) Jesus did not deserve the treatment He received. He did not deserve the words hurled at Him. He didn’t deserve anything harsh from anyone, but He suffered this great evil so that we might receive a blessing. He came so that we could be brought back into a relationship with our Creator God, be completely forgiven, and fully embraced for all of eternity.
Jesus knew everything He would have to endure, and He did it anyway because of the Father’s love for us. Knowing this, we are told to follow His example. And God’s way of response is to return both evil action and insult (or reviling) with a blessing. This word “blessing” is not new to us. It is the Greek word “eulogeō,” and it means to speak well of or in response to. And the incredible thing is that we don’t have to do this in our own strength. We can’t do it in our own strength, and knowing this, God gave us His Spirit as our Helper. “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth….” (John 14:16–17, NASB95)
“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15–16, NASB95) This is who Christ is. And, looking back to 1 Peter 2:5 we read this of ourselves, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5, NASB95) In Hebrews we read of the task of the priests of old. “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness;” (Hebrews 5:1–2, NASB95) Every one of us has sinned and the reality is that we still sin. We all transgress before God, and He forgave us and blesses us. As His holy priesthood, we are called to respond to others in this same way that Christ responded for us, even when they are ignorant and misguided.
“But I [Jesus] say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” (Luke 6:27–31, NASB95)