This post is part of a series. In September 2016, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on the theme of human suffering in 1 Peter. The discussions are part of the weekly “Life Study” hosted by the Mantua Center Christian Church. These posts offer my reflections on the ideas that were discussed during the study, as well as some things that did not get addressed due to time constraints. To read my reflections on other parts of the series, click the links below:
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
In the first part of this thematic study of 1 Peter, we talked in a general way about suffering–the primary subject of the letter. Specifically, we sought to answer the question regarding the proper way to deal with our own suffering. 1 Peter is written to Christians in the 1st century who are being persecuted and finding themselves in oppressive situations. One question worth asking is how we share kinship with those early Christians through the suffering we encounter in our lives today…and how we can incorporate Peter’s advice in the contemporary world so that we may become better bearers of our burdens.
Coping with suffering, however, is not merely an existential ordeal turned inward. We encounter suffering in the world not just through our own experiences of hardship but also when we take notice of the hardship experienced by others. We can talk about how to deal with our own suffering, but I don’t think the conversation should end there. We must also address how we deal with suffering outside of us–the suffering we see other people undergoing in the world. The writer of 1 Peter also touches on this perspective of suffering. He uses one word repeatedly in order to reinforce to those early Christians their responsibility for looking out for each other–for tending to the suffering of each other; that word is love.
Woven throughout the letter in three different sections, Peter calls his readers to love, compassion, courtesy, and hospitality. “You aren’t the only ones who are suffering,” he seems to be saying. “Take a look around you. There is a world of suffering to which you can tend. There is a world of brokenness that you have the power to heal.” We aren’t just called to bear our own suffering; we are also called to bear the suffering of others. We are also called to love.
Here are the passages (NKJV) we read and built the remainder of the discussion around…
1 Peter 1:22-25
22 Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit[a] in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, 23 having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever,[b] 24 because
“All flesh is as grass,
And all the glory of man[c] as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers,
And its flower falls away,
25 But the word of the Lord endures forever.”[d]
Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.
1 Peter 3:7-12
7 Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.
8 Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous;[a] 9 not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For
“He who would love life
And see good days,
Let him refrain his tongue from evil,
And his lips from speaking deceit.
11 Let him turn away from evil and do good;
Let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
And His ears are open to their prayers;
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”[b]
1 Peter 4:7-11
7 But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers. 8 And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.”[a] 9 Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. 10 As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11 If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
What is the Meaning of Love?
The obvious thing to do when discussing any subject is to first get definitions out of the way. So, as we pressed into our discussion on love, we sought to answer the question, “What is love?” What does it mean to love someone? When I asked this open question, I got a number of responses from those in the group–all of which I think add something to the definition:
- Love is bringing out the best in the other person. Typically thought in terms of a romantic relationship but also applicable to close friendships, love can be seen as a way of enhancing the well-being of the other. We love someone when we make them a better version of themselves.
- Love is patience and grace. One member of the group quoted a funny way of describing love. When you don’t love someone, you will be annoyed when you hear them slurping their soup; when you do love someone, they can dump soup into your lap and it wouldn’t bother you! Maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point here is that love means treating people with patience and understanding.
- Love is putting the other person’s needs ahead of your own. In this sense, love is sacrificial. It means giving up something yourself so that another can gain. Love is altruism. It’s seeking the good of the other–even at your own expense.
- Love is enabling the other person to be who they are. Love is liberation. It is giving someone the permission and the means to develop into the fullest version of themselves. You love someone when you help them become who they were meant to be.
These are just a few possible definitions that were offered. I’m sure that if we stayed on the subject, we could have spent the entire evening simply trying to define love. It’s a complicated word covering a broad range of human emotions, attitudes, dispositions, and behaviors. Love isn’t easy to define.
Naturally, as I was preparing material for the discussion, I had tried to find a nice, simple Biblical definition of love (like we have of “faith” in Hebrews 11). The famed 1 Corinthians 13 does offer quite a long description of love, but it seems to be conveying its many attributes rather than its fundamental meaning. Alas, no straightforward definition exists in the sacred texts. However, I did come across another famous passage about love (Luke 10:25-37) and found something particularly striking about it:
25 And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
27 So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’[h] and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”[i]
28 And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
29 But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
This, of course, is the prelude to Jesus’s famous parable of the “Good Samaritan.” The lawyer, at first, seems to know the answer to his own question. If he wants to receive “eternal life,” he must love God and love his neighbor. When he wants to “justify himself,” he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Notice the question he doesn’t ask, though. He doesn’t ask, “what is love?” He knows what love is. The story that Jesus tells is the story of what it means to love. The definition of “love” here isn’t even up for dispute…
How Can Love Become Insincere?
One thing that struck me as I was reviewing the Petrine passages on love was the intensity with which the author describes to sort of love he expects of his readers. He doesn’t just say to love; he says to love fervently, deeply, and sincerely. In other words, the love we demonstrate must be authentic and complete–not merely “love in name only.” So, I brought this question to the group: in what ways can love be insincere?
Here’s another way of thinking about this question. Have you ever heard someone talk about something they’ve said or done out of “love” for another person but, when you look at their behavior, you think to yourself, “That isn’t love?” Well, what does that person’s supposed “love” look like? What is it about its character that makes it phony, disingenuous, or incomplete? How is such love insincere?
In our discussion of what distorted love might look like, we talked about a few different scenarios:
- Love as condemnation. In this scenario, we “speak the truth on love.” We condemn people to hell, because we are genuinely concerned for the state of their souls. We are thinking of their eternal destiny, so we do whatever we can to point out their “sins” to them. We feel fully justified in doing so, because we think we are acting in the other’s best interests. From the outside, though, people see LGBT youth being bullied and victimized out of “concern for their souls.” When we see the pain they experience in such persecution and read the raw statistics about how they commit suicide at much higher rate than the average person, it becomes hard to reconcile their condemnation with any sense of a “sincere love.” I do not think love is preaching. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the protagonist does not show love to the injured man by assuring him that his suffering is no big deal and that, if he would just accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior, he would get to go to heaven. No, he helps the man in a real, tangible, this-worldly way. Jesus is answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” But he could equally well be answering our question: what is love?
- Love as pity. This one is a little more tricky, I think, but there is a sense in which insincere love can be manifest in Christian service. In the study group, one person told the story of how he had once been an intern Pastor at a church. A man had come in to ask him for money. What an opportunity to help those less fortunate than me! He had thought. So, he went straight to his ATM and got the money for the man. Feeling proud of himself, he was shocked when the Senior Pastor took him aside and told him that he shouldn’t have done it. Why? What was so wrong about helping someone in need? By giving the man the money, he had unwittingly established a power structure in the relationship. He had set himself up as the benefactor and had placed the man beneath him in a position of dependency. We love someone by making them our equal; not by making them our mission. Even when our intentions are good, our love can be insincere.
In both of these versions of love, I think, there is a selfish character. To love someone means to mold them into the person you think they should be. You think you have a greater understanding than they do about how God will judge them, so you try to shame them into seeing religious life the way you do. Or, in the second scenario, you have no qualms about keeping them dependent on you because you love the feeling of being in the position of power.
Insincere love is love that possesses, controls, and exploits. Sincere love is love that liberates, empowers, and inspires. In our definitions of love mentioned above, I think the last one (at least for me) describes a sincere and fervent love most perfectly. Love is liberation. It’s letting go of control and freeing the other person to become the best version of themselves they can be. Here’s how Anglican Theologian John Macqurrie describes it in his Principles of Christian Theology:
Love is letting-be, not of course in the sense of standing off from someone or something, but in the positive and active sense of enabling-to-be. When we talk of ‘letting-be,’ we are to understand both parts of this hyphenated expression in a strong sense–‘letting’ as ’empowering,’ and ‘be’ as enjoying the maximal range of being that is open to the particular being concerned.
Love and the Oppressed
In 1 Peter 4:10, the author writes, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Typically, when I read passages such as these about “gifts,” we think in terms of talents or natural aptitude. I think this reading is perfectly fine and, most likely, what is primarily meant by the “gifts” we are graced with. However, in viewing these passages through the lens of love in the face of suffering, this idea took on a whole new meaning for me. Could it be that our “gifts” not only refer to our talents, but also to our privilege?
Most of us are privileged in some way. By this, I mean that we’ve inherited certain advantages, through no effort of our own, that allow us an easier time in life than others who aren’t so fortunate. In society today, we hear phrases such as “white privilege,” “mansplaining,” and “first world problems.” All of these terms function as cultural criticisms of the advantages that some groups have over others. Rich people have an advantage over poor people. Intelligent people have an advantage over people who are mentally disabled. We can also talk of straight privilege, Christian privilege, education privilege, etc. The list goes on and on.
Some of us are “gifted” with privilege while some of us are deprived. I think Peter is encouraging his readers to use what they have been blessed with to serve those who are lacking the blessing. The grace–the privilege we’ve inherited–isn’t ours; we are mere stewards of it. I’m not, of course, saying that there is anything inherently better or objectively more valuable in being white or male or heterosexual. But I am saying that, given the moral brokenness of the world in which we live, some groups do receive benefits to the detriment of others. What this passage can teach us who have inherited those benefits is that we should use our privilege to break down those barriers and serve the underprivileged, rather than exploiting them.
Although I’m aware of the exegetical nuance involved in interpreting the passage, I think this kind of privilege-consciousness is perhaps what the writer of 1 Peter has in mind when he calls husbands to treat their wives with honor as “the weaker vessels.” I tend to reject interpretations of this phrase that see women as morally inferior, as well as those who interpret the phrase simplistically to mean a lack of physical strength. Rather, I think the author may be calling attention to the structural inequity–that wives at the time did not have the same level of power as husbands and were therefore more susceptible to being take advantage of.
I think the same thing is happening with Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 19. Often, Jesus’s prohibition of divorce is used as a justification for imprisoning women in abusive relationships. It seems to me that the intention of Jesus’s teaching at the time was precisely the opposite. In that culture, as in many cultures today, a divorced woman was considered powerless and even shameful. Men had that advantage over women, that they could possess them and discard them on a whim. The person questioning Jesus on the subject was looking for confirmation that this type of behavior was morally acceptable. He didn’t get it. Jesus was essentially saying that the privileged have a moral responsibility to look out for the disadvantaged.
Perhaps in our American society today, the concept of privilege is expressed most vividly in the Black Lives Matter movement. As I write this, protests have erupted in Charlotte following the police shooting of yet another unarmed black man. I woke up this morning to a white friend in Charlotte marking himself “safe” on Facebook. This feature allows people to alert friends and family that they are “safe” during catastrophes and tumultuous events. While I understand the fear, I was struck by the “white privilege” manifest in this notification. There are many people of color that don’t have luxury of feeling safe in their everyday lives. If there were a feature that enabled them to mark themselves safe from police shootings, it would seem that they would never get to use it.
I recently read God of the Oppressed by African American theologian James Come, and there was a passage that struck me as quite poignant for this discussion. It sort of turned the way I think about the “Christian mission” on its head, and I felt that I needed to bring it up during the conversation. Citing Luke 6:20, where Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” Come writes:
The poor are the oppressed and the afflicted, those who cannot defend themselves against the powerful. They are the least and the last, the hungry and the thirsty, the unclothed and the strangers, the sick and the captives. It is for these little ones that the gospel is preached and from whom liberation has come in the words and deeds of Jesus.
It is important to point out that Jesus does not promise to include the poor in the Kingdom along with all the others who may be rich and learned. His promise is that the Kingdom belongs to the poor alone…Here the gospel, by the very definition of its liberating character, excludes those who stand outside the social existence of the poor.
How different this perspective is from what we’re used to! Usually, those of us in Western, middle class Christianity see ourselves as the noble heroes mercifully reaching out to the lost outside our sturdy, insulated wells. The kingdom is ours, and we’re just being nice enough to share it. This, however, is not the gospel of Jesus; in fact, it’s the complete opposite. If you look at Jesus’s life, work, and teaching, you see that he was all about the poor and disadvantaged. The oppressed were the church of Jesus–the rich and the advantaged were the ones who stood outside.
Putting this in today’s context, I think of the African American community. Of course, the black church has been extremely influential on communities of color. Yet, in the white Evangelical version of Christianity in which I was raised, people of color are often viewed as outsiders that we accept into kingdom on the condition that they become more like us. I also think of the LGBT community. They are outside of the church and, with a little “reconditioning,” we might consider letting them in. This list can extend to many other disadvantaged minorities–people with psychiatric problems, refugees, people of different religious traditions. The list goes on and on.
These people are the church. The kingdom belongs to them. We the privileged do not have rights to the kingdom; rather, we stole it from the oppressed to whom Jesus had given it. As we recognize this profound truth, we find ourselves in the position we’ve tried to place these outsiders. We are standing outside the kingdom, pounding on the door and pleading for the rightful heirs to let us in. Maybe if we get to work to right all the wrongs that have created the systemic injustices leading to so much suffering in their lives, they will be gracious enough to open the door and let us back into the church where Jesus really lives.
There is a lot of talk about reconciliation in contemporary Christianity, and I certainly think it is a noble goal–the outcome of a sincere love. Nevertheless, I reject the notion that we all have an equal responsibility toward bringing about reconciliation. For those of us who have been so privileged for so long, there is much more work to do. We cannot achieve reconciliation with the people we’ve exploited until we stop demanding their forgiveness and start begging for it. Reconciliation comes when we the privileged begin to see ourselves as guests in the kingdom of the oppressed.
God is Love
A little while ago, I found myself searching the scriptures in an attempt to refine my doctrine of God. If love is hard to define, try defining God! I found many scriptures attesting to God’s attributes: God is merciful, God is mighty, God is righteous, etc. But there is little that describes God’s fundamental identity. There is one passage, however, that does give a definition of God. You may know it. In John 4:8, the writer states, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
The passages does not state that God is loving, or that he has love. It says that God is love. This sort of definitive language is seldom used to describe God. Nowhere do we read, “God is mercy,” “God is might,” or “God is righteousness.” But we do read that “God is love.” Maybe that’s because love is so integral to the character of God that the two cannot be distinguished from one another. God is love…and love is God.
In what way is God defined by love? Well, recall our definition of love as empowerment. If loving one another means enabling one another to become fuller versions of ourselves, God can be said to be the cosmic manifestation of this liberation.
God is love in that he gives life. He sets us free to be the kind of people we were created to be. This is the kind of love Jesus conveyed in his healing and restoration. “It is for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1), and “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God is love not in that he rescues us from danger but in that he moves us toward the fullness of life (John 10:10). In the words of philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev:
Salvation from sin, from perdition, is not the final purpose of religious life: salvation is always from something and life should be for something. Many things unnecessary for salvation are needed for the very purpose for which salvation is necessary–for the creative upsurge of being. Man’s chief end is not to be saved but to mount up, creatively.
God is love.
May we as people of God also be people of love. If we are not actively engaged in the work of love, then we have no business calling ourselves representatives of the Divine. Suffering is not merely a burden that we bear; it’s also a problem that we seek to solve. It’s a call to action.
If suffering is the question, then love is the answer.