19It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.
This section of 1 Peter must be listened to with great care. There is a deeply important difference between the heroic suffering modeled by Jesus and the abuse suffered in families and schools and churches. I write this as carefully as I can; if I have it wrong, if I haven’t said it well, I apologize.
The whole passage is this:
19It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
I have heard frightful stories over the years. I have seen some abuse close at hand. I recognize that it is complicated. It is confusing. It is an experience where it is hard to keep track of reality. Thinking gets twisted. Fears are both real and imagined and it is hard to know which is which. And the invisible scars can be debilitating.
When I read of Jesus casting out demons, these are the situations I think about, wishing that Jesus could stand before them and with a word cast out these destructive corruptions of the human spirit that so distort and devastate lives.
There is no counsel in this text for a spouse to endure an abusing partner. There is no counsel here for a child to endure an abusing adult. There is no counsel here for keeping secrets. What there is, is the presence of the one who has faced violence without being destroyed by it, the one who has walked the darkness and comes to us now as our light.
Violence did not beget violence in Jesus. He did not respond in kind. Nor did violence get internalized in Jesus. He wasn’t trapped in the violence around him. He wasn’t deceived or manipulated or confused or controlled by his abusers. He was Gandhi and his followers before the batons; he was King and his followers before the fire hoses. He acted from strength. He took the blows without being broken by them. He was Nelson Mandela in Robben Island.
Jesus is not a model of enduring abuse, he is a model of dignity in the face of injustice when dignity in the face of injustice is the only way to fight the injustice. He is a model of courage in the face of cruelty, courage that denies cruelty the power to destroy.
We must not allow this text to get twisted around so that it perpetuates patterns of abuse by counseling endurance. Rather we should look for Christ to meet us here so that we could begin to “follow in his steps”. In his strength is strength for us. In his clarity is clarity for us. In his courage is courage for us. In his dignity is hope for us.
Where the text says “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” we should recognize it does not mean that Jesus surrendered to his fate hoping for a miracle – or hoping in heaven to come. Rather he found dignity, power and courage in the knowledge that there is “one who judges justly.” Cruelty, abuse, manipulation, lies, deceptions – these do not rule. They do not endure. The cross of Jesus is more than sympathy for the suffering; it is power. For Jesus is not broken; and he is not abandoned to the grave. And he comes now to the broken to lead us in that journey through the wilderness into the light of God’s complete and perfect love.