Some parts of the Bible remind us that its writers lived in places and cultures very different from our own.
Peter’s letters show the differences pretty clearly. Here, he writes about believers suffering trials for their faith. People in our culture and society have never really suffered trials like the one’s he talks about.
In later centuries, the Romans would crack down hard on Christians because their faith stood against many of the things Roman society was based on. We hear about these more often, and it’s where we get our images of believers being thrown into the arena to be torn apart by lions and such.
But even when Peter wrote, sometime in the 60s or 70s, the Christian faith caused problems for its believers. A Roman official who wants to know more about faith in “this Chrestus” some spoke about selects two believers and questions them under torture to learn what he wants to know. Even though Christians proclaimed and explained their faith at every opportunity, he believed they had to be tortured in order to reveal the full truth.
Of course, persecution like this could happen to anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen, so Christians weren’t unique. But Peter concerned himself with their persecution and trial, because he wanted to encourage and strengthen them in their faith.
He does so by comparing their trial to the process of refining gold. Gold dug from the ground has many other things mixed with it. Only by melting it down could these other metals and materials be burned away or separated so that pure gold remained. When Christians faced trials, the result was that some of their impurities, whatever they were, “burned away” as well. They clung all the harder to their faith because they understood that in the end, it was all they could depend on.
Today, most of the Christians in our culture don’t face persecution. At worst, we face some speed bumps. We might tell a Christian from China, say, that we are persecuted people in our land because we can’t start our school day with a corporate prayer. “Oh?” he asks. “What happens to you if you do?”
“We get told not to.”
“Ah. When I was giving away Bibles – giving, not selling – I was arrested and put in prison.”
And there are other people who face worse than that, as we know. My point is that we don’t face much difficulty in our faith in our culture, and it seems like even the difficulties we do face, we try to reduce or get rid of.
According to Peter, we really shouldn’t care about them. If anything, we should look at them as a way to strengthen and purify our faith. OK, so Hollywood can’t seem to make a movie with Christians in it unless they’re Catholic (because the shirts and cathedrals and incense and stuff all look better on film) or psychotic (because even though they claim that voice they hear is God, we all know that people who hear voices are nuts). Often they’re both.
Such movies and TV shows make it harder for us as Christians – we have to overcome the stereotypes they produce in order to share the gospel or speak to people about faith. We have to explain that not every Christian wears a funny shirt or shouts the King James Bible while beating some sinner unconscious so he’ll repent.
If we listen to Peter, we won’t complain about that extra step so much as we’ll see it as the chance not to rely on movies or the culture at large to shape and share our faith. We’ll rely on God and we’ll know our faith roots in him, not in all the cultural short cuts we think we should be able to depend on.
We have to understand our faith involves some work. If we listen to Peter, we rejoice when we have to work harder at it, because we know the end result will be a stronger faith. That’s the faith that will spread and take real hold in other people, because they will see it make real changes in our lives.
As Christians, one of our missions on this earth is the reproduction of our faith. And we all know that reproduction involves work. Yes, some of that work is a lot of fun, but it’s still work that we have to do ourselves without relying on someone else to do it for us.
God wants us to give ourselves to him completely. Sometimes that means what we give him has to be shaken out and refined. Rarely is that part of the process easy.