Summary: In order to grow in obedience and godliness, we must start by having minds that are "alert and fully sober".
In this passage, Peter is addressing a question that each of us struggles with: how can we be good? Because we do want to be good, at least theoretically. Don’t we? We want to be people who do the right thing, who are honorable, who are worthy of respect, people who tell the truth. We want to be the kind of men and women that our parents can be proud of, that our children can be proud of. We want others to be able to say of us, sincerely, “he’s a good man”. Or, “she’s a woman of good character”.
And when I ask this question, I’m fully aware that the world sneers at the whole idea of being good; likening it to being a “goody-two shoes” who carefully avoids anything that might taint his or her reputation. Or calling someone who seeks to be virtuous a “boy scout” who is ignorant of grown-up, worldly realities. Not that actual boy scouts fit that description. The world twists the idea of being good and equates it with being—take your pick—un-adventurous, timid, naïve, self-righteous, a people-pleaser, a rule-keeper, a “good little boy”. And who wants to be any of those things? No one. But that’s not the kind of goodness I’m talking about.
The goodness I’m referring to, the kind of goodness that deep down we all want, is principled, and courageous, and willing to take a stand. It’s self-controlled, and wise, and firm. It’s fully aware of how the world works; it knows the score. And yet, even when it is not in its self-interest to do so, even when it is difficult, or unpopular, or costly, it chooses to do what is right. That’s the kind of good that in our better moments we desire to be—at least theoretically.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t live in a theoretical world. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with temptations to do what we know not to be good, to do what we know not to be right, to do things that are not particularly noble or praiseworthy. And so, while we want to be good people, we don’t always want to do the particular good thing that is in front of us. For example:
• We want to be patient, theoretically. But in the moment, what we are tempted to do is respond impatiently to the person in front of us in the checkout line who is counting out the exact change for their $19.73 worth of hot dogs and hot dog buns. And who is convinced they’ve been overcharged for the potato salad. Price check! No-o-o-o. Not a price check! Here’s a twenty. The picnic is on me. Just move along.
• We want to be truthful, but when the boss asks who made this stupid decision, and it would be easy to blame it on that guy who left the company six weeks ago, because who would that really hurt, and besides he probably made some dumb decisions that nobody knows about — then our motivation for being honest diminishes.
• We want to control our tongue and not speak ill of others, but when we find out that one of those “others” has been saying bad things about us, what we want at that moment is to say bad things about them. Attack their character and their motivations so that no one will believe those nasty things they are saying. And anyway, they deserve it for being gossips.
• We want . . . but I don’t need to give any more examples, do I? Because you could cite a dozen more scenarios from your own experience, your own reactions, your own struggle to do what you know in your heart is right, when your circumstances, and your emotions, and your self-interest, are pushing you in a different direction.
The good news is that this internal conflict is something that God understands, and that the New Testament authors understand. In today’s passage, Peter gives this instruction:
“14As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” -- 1 Peter 1:14-16
Simply put, Peter recognizes that holy behavior and obedience to God are not automatic, even for sincere Christians. They are something we have to choose. Paul also spoke to this, in his letter to the Galatians:
“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” -- Galatians 5:17
In other words, this conflict, this ongoing struggle between what the Holy Spirit tells us in our heart is right and what we sometimes want to do that we know is not right — this struggle will be with us, in one form or another, until Christ returns. That’s the bad news. Life is a struggle, not only with external forces that are opposed to what is good, but with our own internal desires that lead us astray.