“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (I Peter 2:11-12).
All of us want to make a difference.
We want to make an impact while we are on planet earth.
After all, no one lives forever. Life is so short. We are here today and gone tomorrow.
We want to know that our life has counted for something.
We want to be sure that we didn’t waste it on things that don’t matter.
Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). That’s a frightening thought because it means you can be rich and famous and popular by the world’s standards, you can be at the top of the career ladder, and come to the end of your life only to hear God say, “It didn’t amount to anything.” If the soul is lost, the whole person is lost. You can’t make a deal with God to get your soul back after it is gone. There will be no crossing over from hell to heaven. When you forfeit your soul, you will never get it back.
Therefore, since so much is at stake, we need to heed what God has to say. As aliens and strangers in the world, Christians have generally done their best work when times were toughest. We always seem to do better as a minority. When we are in charge, we begin to take things easy and let things slide. That wasn’t a problem in the first century. In the early church, Christians faced repeated waves of persecution from the Romans. To his struggling readers scattered in many places, Peter says, “Don’t be surprised if times are tough. You are aliens and strangers in the world. It’s not supposed to be easy here.”
Since unbelievers watch us all the time and draw conclusions about what we believe, we need a plan for making a maximum impact for Christ. Our passage offers four key steps we must take.
I. Abstain from sinful desires.
The phrase “sinful desires” in verse 11 refers to the temptations that arise because we are still living in the flesh and the reality of sin remains with us until we die. There is a continual struggle in all of us between good and evil. We all live in the reality of Romans 7 every day. Peter says that these fleshly desires wage war against the soul. If you are a Christian, you are living in a war zone. Several weeks ago I had lunch with David Tyler, who has just returned from serving with the Marines in Iraq. He told me that whenever he was on duty, he always wore his bulletproof vest and his helmet. It didn’t matter how hot it was, you never went anywhere without your vest and your helmet because the enemy would launch mortar rounds from four or five miles away, any time of the day or night. The only way to be safe was to constantly be ready for an attack. He said when they first arrived in Iraq, the rules of engagement were, “Don’t shoot unless someone is shooting at you.” The Marines could see the insurgents come right up in their jeeps and trucks to the fence outside the Marine base, armed with machine guns and grenades. But the Marines couldn’t shoot unless the insurgents shot first. But after a few weeks, the rules were changed: If anyone or anything comes near the fence for any reason, shoot it! David said that after that, the insurgents didn’t come near the fence anymore. That’s how life is in a war zone. You can’t take any chances.
Brothers and sisters, we are at war and the real battle is not on the outside; it’s on the inside. Every believer is at war with the desires of the flesh that drag us down. All sin starts in the mind. If you can win the battle on the inside, you can win the battle on the outside. As resident aliens, we cannot and must not accept the world’s standards. As citizens of heaven, we will always be square pegs in round holes. The danger is that we will try to “pound to fit and paint to match” so that we look and act like everyone else. A few days ago a young man in the ministry came to see me because he has been going through a dry period. Even though outwardly he seems successful, on the inside he feels frustrated and empty. “I know it’s partly because I’ve been at my present ministry long enough that the honeymoon period is over. I keep telling myself that if I hang on, things will get better eventually.” That’s most likely true, but there are no guarantees. Those “desert times” can last for months or even for years. That reminded me of what a friend in Texas used to say to me, “Ray, don’t worry about it. This is as good as it gets. We’ve already peaked and now we’re sliding down the other side.” The great danger of being in the desert is that your judgment can become distorted and you can ruin your ministry by a few foolish decisions. I reminded my young friend that it’s not a matter of size. The larger your ministry, the larger your problems. Big dogs have more fleas. And ultimately no earthly ministry can satisfy you completely. The men and women who lead the megachurches face the same temptations as everyone else. They are just as prone to discouragement and just as likely to get upset. All of that is part of God’s plan to teach us that nothing in this world can truly satisfy us. Only God himself can fill the “God-shaped vacuum” inside the human heart. We’ll never feel at home here because we’re not supposed to be at home here. And the battle inside the heart is one more proof that our true citizenship is in heaven. That’s why looking on a woman lustfully is committing adultery in your heart (Matthew 5:28). As Jesus said, out of the heart come all the evils that make us unclean (Mark 7:20-21).
The heart is where the real battles of life are fought. And if we are to make a difference in the world, we must abstain from those fleshly desires. That leads me to ask some pointed questions:
§ Do you ever feel like hating someone because of their skin color?
§ Do you ever think about having an affair?
§ Are you ever tempted to cheat at work?
§ Do you resent those who get ahead by cutting corners?
§ Do you hold grudges against those who mistreat you?
§ Do you spend time dreaming about illicit sexual encounters?
§ Do you ever think, “I wish I weren’t a Christian just for a few minutes so I could do whatever I wanted to do?”
Don’t do it! Don’t surrender to sinful desires. These desires are at war against your soul. They are out to destroy you. There is no place for evil in the Christian life, so don’t make room for it! If you think about evil long enough, you will be tempted to do it. So don’t think about it. Even as I write these words, I realize how elementary they sound. But remember that the root of elementary is element. Anything that is “elemental” is foundational and not optional. We need the elemental truths because they lay the foundation for a strong Christian life.
Note that this is a warning to believers. Becoming a Christian doesn’t end the battle. In many ways, the battle doesn’t even begin until you come to Christ. And it doesn’t end until the day we die. George Muller was a godly man who in his latter years prayed, “Lord, don’t let me become an evil old man.” That’s the sort of prayer we should all pray:
Lord, don’t let me become bitter.
Lord, deliver me from arrogance.
Lord, don’t let me become cranky.
Lord, teach me how to love others.
Lord, free me from a critical spirit.
Lord, I want a merciful heart.
Lord, use me to win others to you.
So we are at war and we are to abstain from all evil desires. Where should we begin? Here are some practical suggestions:
A. Be honest about your struggles.
B. Cry out to God for his mercy.
C. Ask a friend to hold you accountable.
D. Don’t give up just because you struggle.
E. Look for small victories each day.
We will all spend a lifetime fighting sin in various forms. From that battle there is no relief as long as we are in these bodies of flesh. But with God’s help, we can be substantially changed, and through grace we can fight and we can win the battle.
II. Live an excellent life.
One translation says, “Live an exemplary life.” Another says, “Conduct yourselves honorably.” The NASB says, “Keep your behavior excellent.” The Greek text uses a word that means winsome, lovely, attractive or praiseworthy. Here is the principle: Live so that even unbelievers are impressed by your behavior.
Christians ought to be the most honest people on earth.
We ought to be the kindest people on earth.
We ought to be the most gracious people on earth.
We ought to be the most trustworthy.
Unfortunately, it’s often the opposite. I hear people say, “I’ll never do business with another Christian again” or “I’d rather hire an unbeliever.” What a shame when people turn to the world to do business because they are turned off by the way Christians act.
Our goal is clear: Make Jesus beautiful by the way we live! Peter adds a reason for living an excellent life. Do it so that “they may see your good deeds.” The word translated “see” is actually an unusual word that means more than a glance or a passing look. It means the seeing you do when you study something for a long time. Whether we know it or not, unbelievers watch us all the time. They study us from a distance and they pay attention to how we do things. People who don’t know Jesus are watching …
§ how you handle problems at work.
§ whether or not you laugh at dirty jokes.
§ how you dress.
§ how you spend your money.
§ how you raise your children.
§ how you respond when tragedy strikes.
§ how you deal with difficult people.
Christians in other countries understand this better than we do. In cultures that are more communal, local people will often stand at the window and watch what goes on inside the house. Sometimes they will stand on the front porch, and sometimes they will even come into the house uninvited and make themselves at home. In America the same kind of watching takes place, but in a more discreet fashion. Usually you aren’t aware you’re being watched until much later. Years may pass and then you receive a letter telling you that someone knew you way back when, and your Christian example played a big part in their coming to Christ.
Just remember this. Every day you are either drawing people to Jesus or you are pushing them farther away.
III. Don’t be surprised when you are unfairly attacked.
Peter adds an important phrase that we may tend to overlook. He reminds us that we are to live morally excellent lives even “though they accuse you of doing wrong.” The earliest readers of this epistle would immediately understand his words. The first Christians had to endure many cycles of persecution and slander from outsiders. They were accused of cannibalism (because of the Lord’s Supper, “This is my body, this is my blood”), immorality (calling each other brother and sister), atheism (because they did not worship idols), being bad for business (certainly true for the silversmiths in Ephesus, Acts 19), breaking up families (see Matthew 10:34-36), and disloyalty to Caesar (because they would not say, “Caesar is Lord”). When Peter wrote that Christians would be accused of doing wrong, he described a situation that happened every day in the first century.
The same thing happens today in repressive societies around the world. In the West, anti-Christian sentiment is more subtle and thus more dangerous. The threat we face involves a concerted attempt to remove all references to God from public life. Last Monday, Fox News ran a story with the following headline: “Students Free to Thank Anybody, Except God.” Here are the first few paragraphs:
Maryland public school students are free to thank anyone they want while learning about the 17th century celebration of Thanksgiving—as long as it’s not God.
And that is how it should be, administrators say. Young students across the state read stories about the Pilgrims and Native Americans, simulate Mayflower voyages, hold mock feasts and learn about the famous meal that temporarily allied two very different groups. But what teachers don’t mention when they describe the feast is that the Pilgrims not only thanked the Native Americans for their peaceful three-day indulgence, but repeatedly thanked God. “We teach about Thanksgiving from a purely historical perspective, not from a religious perspective,” said Charles Ridgell, St. Mary’s County Public Schools curriculum and instruction director. School administrators statewide agree, saying religion never coincides with how they teach Thanksgiving to students.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Teaching about Thanksgiving without any reference to God is not history. It’s propaganda. And that’s not some isolated example. In Cupertino, California a fifth-grade teacher has been ordered not to use the Declaration of Independence in his classes because it mentions God. In this case, a Christian teacher is being punished for nothing more than wanting his students to read a foundational document in American history.
As we think about these attacks on religious faith in America, we must avoid the two extremes of anger or isolation. It won’t help either to lose our temper or to withdraw from society. Peter’s answer is simple: Don’t be surprised when your faith is attacked unfairly. Live so that no one can make an honest attack on you, do good works anyway, and leave it all in God’s hands.
IV. Remember the Day of Visitation.
The very end of verse 12 mentions “the day he visits us.” In the Old Testament, the “Day of Visitation” refers to any time God visits the earth either in judgment or blessing. In Peter’s theology, this “Day of Visitation” will be the day when Jesus returns to the earth. That day will bring both good news and bad news. His coming will be good news for believers and bad news from everyone else.
Here is Peter’s advice: Live so that unbelievers will glorify God on that day. But how can unbelievers glorify God? I think there are two answers to that question:
A. Some unbelievers will see Christ in us and will become believers as a result of our testimony. They will join us in joyfully glorifying God.
B. Others will watch us but will not believe the gospel. They will have no excuse in that day, but will be forced to glorify God anyway. Their once-defiant knees will bow before the Lord they refused to worship in this life. As Philippians 2:9-11 puts it, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
This brings us back to a basic biblical truth regarding evangelism. It’s not about us, and it’s not about the people we are trying to reach. It’s all about God and his glory. We are to live in such a way that we make it easy for others to glorify God with us when Jesus returns.
Many sinners say, “I want to be different but I don’t know how.” Our text speaks precisely to that need. When those without Christ …
See peace in us,
See joy in us,
See truth in us,
See forgiveness in us,
See strength in us,
See purity in us,
See compassion in us,
See hope in us …
When they see those virtues in us over a long period of time, they will sooner or later ask us, “What makes you different?” And that opens the door to talk about Jesus.
Ruth Graham says that a saint is a person who makes it easy to believe in Jesus. I think Peter would agree with her. How many of us became believers because of the influence of someone else? When I asked this question on Sunday morning, the vast majority of people raised their hands. Almost none of us came to Christ on our own. Humanly speaking, we came because someone we cared about influenced us in that direction. For some, that person was a mother or a father or a brother or a sister. It may have been a friend from high school or a co-worker or someone down the block. On this Thanksgiving weekend, I urge you to give thanks for those people whose godly influence helped bring you to the Savior. Thank God for them. Thank them in person if you can. And then do for someone else what they have done for you.
So here is I Peter 2:11-12 put in a very simple format:
A. Remember who are you—strangers and aliens.
B. Live holy lives of visible moral excellence.
C. Don’t be surprised by spiritual hostility.
D. Do good anyway.
E. Leave the results in God’s hands.
F. Be ready to meet Jesus when he returns.
Would you like to make a difference in the world? Peter’s advice can be boiled down to just one sentence: Live for Jesus from the inside out. You will be blessed and unbelievers will be impressed. Some may scoff and mock, but they will notice how you have lived. Others may come to Christ through your testimony.
Next year our theme will be, “The Church in Many Places.” One of our goals is to train 500 people at Calvary to share Christ effectively. We’re going to give you more details soon. But this text tells us where we must begin. Your life is your most powerful evangelistic tool. It is more powerful than any book or tract or any method we can teach you.
Live for Jesus! The world is watching. And some will believe because of your example. That’s our challenge from the Lord. Go from this place, go back into the world, go and live such a beautiful life that others will be drawn to Christ. Make it easy for someone else to believe in Jesus this week. Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.