Rock and a Hard Place

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I once had a seminary professor who was fond of saying, “If there is anything you can do besides ministerial work, do it.” He didn’t say this because he thought such work was unimportant, but rather because it was hard…very hard. And it’s hard in lots of ways. The education is expensive, the hours are long, the pay is usually lackluster, and the expectations impossible. The average pastor is expected to be a literary critic, a motivational speaker, accountant, philosopher, therapist, humanitarian, CEO, and community organizer…oh, and be good with kids.

Pastors fill most of these roles, however, only by functional necessity, not by professional training. Such a pragmatic skillset cannot be easily transferred to other professions. So when pastors find themselves in bad situations, they feel trapped. It certainly seems that for most pastors the only way to actually leave their pastorate is to drop out, burn out, get thrown out, or die out. What’s a pastor to do?

Welcome to Jilted  by St. Asinus

The Homs are normally aimed at people in Christian ministerial professions—pastors, missionaries, church staff—and this one will be no different, but I also believe this will apply to anyone who feels trapped in a job or situation they can’t seem to help or leave. It might even be for the same reasons—lack of transferable skills, need for family stability, too old to change careers, but too poor to retire. In fact, the next homily in this series will even focus on marriage—what about a marriage that’s gone bad but which you feel pressed to maintain. That’ll be fun, but not yet.

To start with, why am I focusing on being “trapped?” Why not focus instead on useful strategies to help people change their situation? I agree, yes, that would be helpful, and if I had any unique suggestions, I would offer them. There are lots of valuable leadershipy, self-helpy sorts of strategies to help someone advance to a better position. These generally focus on being willing to take the big risk, or they speak of the next big thing God has for you. And they’re appropriately bubbly and optimistic about future possibilities. I affirm all these strategies and hope that are helpful to you.

But there is far less help for the person who, despite all the torture of their situation, still believes that they are supposed to stay where they are. Perhaps this gap exist because the idea that one might voluntarily remain in a sub-optimal situation is culturally anathema. The voice of the culture shouts self-actualization at any cost. But we are Christians, and this will not do for us. We can easily imagine situations where a person’s instincts tell them to bolt regardless of cost or fallout and yet they sense they ought to remain—that they are even called to do so. While I do not know much about other professions, I know from experience that pastors are frequently obliged to remain in situations that are downright ugly. And to that person the self-help, self-actualization industry has very little to say. What such a person needs…is the gospel.

When the choice to stay or leave really isn’t a choice, how are we to think about our situation? Is there still a choice that you can make? Yes, the most important choice of all is still yours to make.

When the choice to stay or leave really isn’t a choice, the most important choice of all is still yours to make.

I Peter 2:13-3:9 is a long passage and a rather extended argument, and it is not for the timid. But I believe that it may be the most powerful, most under-appreciated, and most counter-intuitive passage ever written on the subject. As such, even if we choose to disagree with or reject it, it deserves a solid hearing. But it means this homily will not be short and pithy; it will be of necessity sermonic. I am sorry for that in advance…

The passage says…

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

In the first two sections (I Peter 2:13-17 and 18-20), Peter writes to two specific classes of Christians who are suffering injustice at the hands of those who exercise power over them. The first class is that of the Christian citizen, who must deal with pagan governors and rulers, who do not agree with nor understand their faith. The second class consists of the Christian servant, who is under the authority of a harsh pagan master (he specifically identifies the harshness—“ not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.”). In chapter 3 he will add a third and similar group—disenfranchised wives—but again we are holding off on that until next time. In both of these cases—citizens and laborers—he invites them to “submit” to the injustice and to have a particular mindset about it.

The astute reader might object that I have chosen the word “invite” rather than “command.” Peter’s statements are indeed in the imperative mood—they are grammatically commands—“Submit!” This is one of those places where the wider context makes all the difference. If we simply take the isolated grammar of each verse, yes, we will end up with a sort of “door-mat” theology wherein all the Christian citizen or laborer can do is knuckle under humbly and take what they are given—and the evil world will go on as predacious as ever with no voice for justice. In such an isolated read of these passages, Christians are defanged—harmless as doves…and just as useless. I take this to be a mistake arising from failing to read the wider context of Peter’s argument.

For the moment, listen to the motives Peter attributes to the citizen or laborer who makes the choice to submit. To the first, “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men,” and to the second, “For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.”

Note three things. First, Peter clearly acknowledges the wrongness of the treatment. He calls such abusers “ignorant” and  “foolish men” and calls the suffering “unjust.” Hang on to that. Peter is not saying submit because what you’re enduring really isn’t wrong. Second, the very need to invite submission as a choice implies that another choice is possible—the choice to not submit to the injustice. We have yet to see what Peter thinks of that alternative, but the point is that “submission” here is not an inevitable consequence, not a forgone conclusion. You do still chose. Even in situations of grave injustice, you are not merely passive. You still have choices to make. Third, note again the motives he attributes to the Christian who makes the choice to willingly endure. He does not say “suffering is good or inevitable, so just suffer.” Something more is going on; something less obvious and less tangible. He tantalizes with things like “finding favor,” “for the sake of conscience,” and “silencing the persecutor.” He even (in vs 16) has the audacity to remind the persecuted citizen that he is acting as a “free man,” whose choices are that of a free man. Now at the level of the suffering, this sounds ridiculous.

Peter has prepared a trap for our expectations. He has said neither “revolt and claim your rights” nor “suffer in silence because it’s all you can do.” What he has said is rather unclear…at least until you see the example on which he grounds the whole thing.

In verse 21, he reveals that example—it is, of course, Jesus Christ. And he invites us to “follow in his steps.” He, “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.” Now this is remarkable. Here is Jesus, the innocent man, and more, the Lord of creation, willingly submitting himself to unjust treatment at the hands of godless men. Peter credits this choice as an act of great courage. I can take no meaning from this other than that it must have been voluntary. Does Jesus deserve this treatment? No. Is it within his rights to demand that it stop? Yes. Is it within his power to make it stop? Yes. And yet he endures—and more, he endures by entrusting himself to One who really does knows what it’s all about, One who affirms Jesus’ righteousness.

Jesus does not then revolt against injustice, as was his right. Nor does he submit to it as an inevitable necessity without meaning. Rather “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross,” why? “So that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” It is for the sake of another that Jesus endures this humiliation—for our redemption, for the sake of the mission he has received from his Father. This willful submission of Jesus is made, not because it would have been wrong for him to do otherwise—because he had no choice in it, but rather because he knew it to be an opportunity to bring honor to his Father and good to his brothers and sisters in the flesh—to us. And it has been efficacious. We who were “continually straying” have now “returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”

This is why I speak of the choice to submit as an “invitation” despite the imperative nature of the grammar. Could anyone have faulted Jesus had he refused to be falsely condemned and executed? Could anyone have blamed him for asserting his rights first as an innocent man and second as rightful ruler of creation? I think not. Jesus’ submission—his willingness to endure injustice and lay aside his rights—was a voluntary act done for the sake of another’s good and a greater glory.[1]

Jesus’ submission—his willingness to endure injustice and lay aside his rights—was a voluntary act done for the sake of another’s good and a greater glory.

What does all this then say to the question of whether to escape your place of suffering or remain in it? Well, the thing it does not tell you is the answer to that question. It does not say that you are obliged to remain or required to go. Of course, that’s to be expected. Peter could not know your unique situation any more than I could. To expect that sort of answer from the scriptures is to admit that we do not understand what kind of book it is or the even understand the sort of men who wrote it.

The Christian citizen and Christian laborer to whom Peter wrote were not even in the position to make such a choice. In the majority of these first century situations, they could only remain. The more trapped you feel in your situation then, the more like Peter’s audience you are, and thus the more his message should speak to you.

What Peter has given them—and us—is a way to understand our situations christologically, that is, to see them through the example of Christ. What did Christ do in a situation like yours? He neither demanded his rights to be free of it nor did he merely endure it as a passive agent. His answer was a conscientious choice to embrace his suffering, while acknowledging that it was for the sake of others.

Perhaps there is a perspective there for us. I want to be clear, Peter does not in any way suggest that those who can change their situation should not. We are speaking of those who are for whatever reason unable to change their situation. What frame of mind is appropriate and salutary for a Christian in a truly powerless situation?  As with so many other things, the answer in short is: Be like Christ. But how?

First, acknowledge the injustice of your situation. We are not to call evil good. We must avoid the sort of self-deception that would say “this really isn’t so bad.” Yes, it is. What you are experiencing is unjust and a breach of peace. Assuming, as Peter does, that we have done nothing to merit it, then our first choice is to be truthful about the situation.

Second, like Christ, we must entrust ourselves to the One who knows all and is working in all. This may require a disciplined act of faith, but the reward is that same sense of peace that allowed Christ to stand silent before his own accusers. It is a call to rest in the fact that you are completely known and completely loved by the One who matters most.

Finally, Christ’s suffering was not without benefit. Look for ways in which the Father may be working your situation out for the advancement of the Kingdom, for a greater glory. Your suffering is not meaningless. I’m sure any witness at Christ’s trial would have said he wasn’t helping anyone by his silence, and yet by the time the story was finished, men and women from every tribe and kindred would be given life. You cannot know what resurrections are in store because of your willingness to submit to death.

You cannot know what resurrections are in store because of your willingness to submit to death.

My friend, you may perhaps have never had such an opportunity to emulate your Lord, but you are not powerless. You have a choice to make. You can resent your situation and descend into bitterness, or you can embrace the ignominy, entrust yourself to One who knows all, and in that, show the world how deep runs your desire to look like Christ.

This has been Jilted by St. Asinus.

[1] Paul treats the same event similarly in Philippians 2

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