1 Corinthians 4:12b-13, 16
. . . when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; (13) when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now. . . . I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me.
Sometimes it is difficult to know how to respond to people when you are treated wrongly. My natural reaction, which I’m guessing is similar to most people’s, is to lash out, not necessarily in a direct verbal manner, but at least by venting to someone else – even if it is “innocently” in the form of a “prayer request.” While I think we all want the comforting support of another who commiserates with our hurt feelings, we should always give a prayer request sincerely motivated by a desire for God’s help. However in a world where persecution and unbelief is becoming all too common for Christians, Paul’s words above show us how we are supposed to act directly toward the bully himself.
Last year, we were informed by the IRS that we were going to experience a partial audit of our tax return. My initial reaction was to call down God’s wrath upon the IRS. My wife, Jenny, after a good cry, determined she was going to pray that it would go smoothly and for the salvation of the IRS agent involved. After our contributing several thousand more dollars to our CPA , providing six hundred plus documents to the agent, and waiting eight months, the agent admitted he could not find one penny amiss. While we were both relieved when it was over, Jenny, who had done all of the work gathering the documents, had a clear conscience that her prayers had been answered according to God’s glory. I, on the other hand, was grumpy that the IRS had not (yet) been cast into the abyss. [Just kidding. I knew she was right all along.]
Ok. So maybe that illustration does not quite fit the verses above. Paul is clearly speaking of a personal attack stemming from a hatred of Christ. Ours came from an impersonal agency wanting to make sure we were honest and legally accurate. However, they evoke similar temptations in our responses. And our responses in both situations are controlled by the same biblical commands.
Note in Paul’s reactions above, he responds positively to each negative action against him, and then tells us to imitate him. Reviled? You bless (speak well of that person). Persecuted? You endure. Slandered? You conciliate (win over that person). “Endure” means more than just “bear up under” the abuse that you are experiencing. It means that you pray for your oppressor, and even acquiesce beyond any demands they may make against you (Matthew 5.39-44). According to the unbelief of this world, Christians are equivalent to vile filth that is cleaned off objects and thrown out with the garbage (“scum” and “dregs”). Matthew Henry, considering Paul’s words, wrote, Christians “were the common-sewer into which all the reproaches of the world were to be poured.”
We are commanded to imitate Paul, as he imitates Christ (1Co 11.1), which humanly speaking is the opposite of what we would desire to do. But that is just the point: it is not natural. It is supernatural, and therefore it becomes an effective witness to a watching world.
However, two questions now arise. What about self-defense and the defense of innocents and family? And second, what about the many times when David in the Psalms called down judgment upon God’s enemies? I am not going to give a detailed defense of self-defense here (Phil 2.4), but with these questions, we see that Paul’s words in the verses above are not without qualification. Paul himself used the laws of the land to thwart those who had purposed to kill him (Acts 25.1-12). When David spoke of physically harming God’s enemies, it was in defense of God’s honor and glory. Jesus, while responding in loving gentleness most of the time toward those who treated him badly, also resorted to strong words at other times, and even violence, when it came to protecting God’s people and God’s honor (Matthew 23.13-29 and 21.12-13). We should never remain silent when we should be upholding the Gospel and God’s honor.
Also remember, King David was the political leader of God’s people. He was tasked to protect them. By extension, for example, the husband is tasked to protect and provide for his family (1Ti 5.8); the wife is tasked to protect and provide for her children (Pr 31.27-28 and 1Ti 5.10); and all men are commanded to protect the most vulnerable people in their culture (in biblical times, widows and orphans, Pr 31.9 and Is 1.17).
Paul’s words are focused upon individual believers who are being verbally and/or physically mistreated precisely because of their faith. A random thief who breaks into your home is not there to abuse you for your faith. Therefore protect yourself and your family first. If possible, subdue him, and witness to him as you are waiting for the police to come. In other words, do your duty, and always remember as you are doing it that you are an ambassador of Him who died for you. That is our highest duty.