The world of the day is “threat.” We pray daily for those who are persecuted. But the thought that we also might suffer hostility for our faith may not occur to us. However, in today’s reading, James writes, “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (vs.15). Put in this way, we can agree that even in our tolerant society, we are likely to confront challenges to our faith that express opposition. Today’s reading of 1 Peter 3:10-22 teaches that we should boldly respond to these tests of our convictions without fear.
Persecution was the norm for the early church, and stories of martyrdom and suffering for the faith’s sake are a central part of the narrative of the growth of Christianity. There are at least 60 key verses that give counsel and consolation for suffering for the sake of Christ. It is a persistent theme in the books of the New Testament.
Rejoicing in Persecution
Consistently the New Testament often repeats the Word of Jesus that the faithful should rejoice when persecuted (Matthew 5:11-13). Thus, in our reading, James echoes the Sermon on the Mount, “…even if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed (vs. 13). In keeping with this instruction, James urges us to disregard the opposition and hostility that is meant to discourage the sharing of the “hope within us.”
On Disregarding Threats
The apostle begins with the point on which the daring witness to Christ depends. The threats of those who oppose the faithful should not cause them to be alarmed and fearful (Strpmg’s #5401, 265). We find the word translated as “fear” in the English word “phobia.” In Greek, it signifies great terror or fright (Strong’s #5401, 26). The followers of Christ should not let such daunting threats prevent them from standing up for their beliefs.
The power over those who oppose the believers does not lie in their capacity to do them harm. It rests in the ability to instill the fear of hurt. Consider what threats try to do. They intend to make the faithful renounce their faith outright. Or they attempt to compel them to go against everything that the Lord taught them and to strike back against their adversary. In either case, those who submit to the coercion have compromised their convictions.
What Can Man Do to Me?
In contrast, the declaration of Psalm 118:6 promotes and defends the faith. The apostle repeats this pronouncement in Hebrews. He proclaims, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6).
For the faithful, only one fear is appropriate. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; Let Him be your fear, And let Him be your dread (Isaiah 8:13). In the same vein, the Lord said, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
This kind of awe of the Almighty equips the faithful with a shield against the intimidation of those who would persecute them. The choice is clear: The harm that men can do, though dreadful, is but for a short time. The far more terrible judgment of God is eternal. That realization should be enough to deter believers from denying the faith they hold.
But besides that, the Lord stands by to strengthen, comfort, and embolden those who persist in their witness to him. Thus, the priest says in the Divine Liturgy, “I will love you, O Lord, my strength; the Lord is my foundation, my refuge, and my deliverer (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and Psalm 18:2).
We may think that the teachings of our reading do not apply to us in our free and tolerant society. We rarely face overt threats that would dissuade us from witnessing to Christ. And yet, perhaps we hold back because of implicit threats of argument, discomfort, and condescension. Do we hesitate to give voice to the Word of Life in Christ to avoid crossing the unspoken line of outright expression of conviction? Perhaps we honor the undeclared rule against trying to persuade others about questions of religion. However, our reading says that we should be ready to give a defense of our faith. But does that mean that before we speak a word for Christ, others must explicitly ask us about our convictions? Do the unspoken rules of toleration discriminate against those of us who have been called to witness to our beliefs?.
In a fully secularized society, religions must be invisible. No sign or suggestion of religious faith must upset the sensitivities of those who might have contrary opinions—or none at all. Yet if the secularists have their way and our faith must be put out of sight, how can we let our light shine? How can we share with others the Gospel of their eternal salvation if we cannot put it into words?