In October 2015, a lone gunman entered Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, and created a scene of carnage and despair before turning his gun on himself. Within hours, our country’s political fires were raging at maximum intensity. Some blamed the lack of gun control laws; others railed against “gun-free zones.” No matter their political position, all the voices had one thing in common: Their imaginations were held captive to the idea that the only place where change can take place is in the legislature or courthouse. Everyone assumed either government was to blame or government was our only hope.
The gospel challenges this myth. It tells us that the political sphere is just one area in which change can take place.
“Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church,” says British scholar Oliver O’Donovan. “The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times . . . when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”
I see that kind of criticism in Peter’s letter to the early church. Imagine you are writing a letter to encourage and exhort 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. What would you say? “Beloved,” Peter writes, “I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
Now picture their surprise 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, “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 message for panicked Christians in the 21st century: “I’m less concerned about what the government may do with your church’s tax-exempt status than what compromise and complacency will do to your congregation.”
Peter’s focus flips our expectations. 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 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.
An edited excerpt from This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel by Trevin Wax. © 2017 B&H Publishing Group.