Imagine you are tasked with writing a letter of encouragement and exhortation to Christians in distress.
Your readers occupy the margins of society; they are maligned and falsely accused. Some of them face imprisonment, and a few have been martyred. The government is cracking down on any religious expression seen as subversive, and the Christians are prime targets. Meanwhile, the rest of society approves of the reigning authorities’ coercive methods of persecution.
What would you say to Christians in the middle of a culture war?
How would you strengthen believers in that situation?
Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you… (1 Peter 2:11)
Desires Waging War
What strikes me about Peter’s exhortation to the suffering believers scattered throughout Asia Minor in the first century is that the apostle is so focused on the battle for holiness in the life of the believer.
The same dynamic shows up earlier in the letter as well. Peter encourages the Christians in their struggle through suffering – “Don’t be afraid but rejoice!” – right before telling them to be holy and to “conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence.” (1 Peter 1:17) In other words: fear God, not man.
The War On Your Soul
Imagine these beleaguered believers, ready to open this letter for the first time, ready to receive fortifying counsel from the apostle. If there was any war they would have been concerned about, it was the war against them and their faith, right?
Now, picture the surprise of the earliest readers when they discover that Peter’s focus isn’t on the battle being waged against them by unbelieving authorities. Peter starts with the daily struggle going on in their hearts.
Peter doesn’t say, “Watch out! The bad guys are coming! The war is on! Defend yourselves from the world!” Instead, he says, “Abstain from the desires of the flesh that are waging war on your soul.”
In other words, “I’m less concerned about what unbelievers will do to your body than I am what sin will do to your soul.”
To update that for panicked evangelicals in the 21st century: “I’m less concerned about what unbelievers may do with your church’s tax-exempt status than what compromise and complacency will do to your congregation.”
The Battle Bigger Than a Culture War
Peter’s focus flips our expectation. We should be more concerned about this war than any culture war.
That’s not to say there aren’t real issues that press upon us and demand our attention. It’s not to say that political wrangling over religious liberty, the rights of conscience, and the preservation of societal space for Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic is unimportant.
It is simply to remind us of the frightening prospect of Christians who might win a culture war and lose their souls. Our focus on human flourishing and the common good is of little value if, while we focus on morality in the world, we fail to pursue holiness in our own hearts.
The character of God’s kingdom people in a secular age must be holy. For this reason, the battle against fleshly desires is always bigger than any cultural battle.
You can lose the cultural battle and still win the war against sin. But if you win the cultural battle and lose your soul through compromise and complacency, you remain with nothing but a societal façade that masks a corrosive hypocrisy.
Fighting for your rights in society is pointless if you’re not fighting for righteousness in your heart. That’s where the biggest battle is, and that’s why Peter calls us to root out sin and submit to the Savior.