Those who know me personally, or may even be astute readers of this blog, will be aware that I am a person with a great deal of anxious concern about life. This is not only true about my personal life but also about the larger goings on of a world that is deeply divided in just about every way possible . As a person who is quite anxious, a son of Martha if you will , passages like the one I will be discussing today are useful not only to remind myself to be less anxious for myself, seeing as my anxiety tends to bring me nothing but trouble, but to recognize that I live in a world and in a context with a lot of anxious people, some of whom are at least as anxious about me as I am about them. It is a shame that all of this mutual concern about the same people and the same situations cannot lead to closer friendship instead of interactions fraught with fear and discomfort.
It is intriguing and revealing that Peter, in writing about this subject of anxiety, places it in a particular context. This context includes caution to the elders of the Church of God to rule by setting a good example and not lording it over others, and also in the context of warning about how Satan likes to devour the unwary. Questions of submission and anxiety and authority are often connected in my own mind , and it is striking that they are so connected here in the Bible as well, suggesting that Peter too understood that for believers, dealing with authority is not always a straightforward matter, even if we are called to respect and honor those in offices of authority, whether as parents or church leaders or agents of civil government. That this can often be a difficult task does not make it any less necessary to being a godly person.
1 Peter 5:5-7 reads: “Likewise, you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility; for “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” There is a fair amount of complexity in this short passage, so let us do our best to understand what these particular verses are saying and how they can help us feel less anxious about ourselves and our world, and how we can do better at respecting each other and living in humility.
First, let us understand what this passage is saying. First, while it begins with an exhortation to younger people (however one defines that), it quickly moves from that onto an exhortation into mutual submission. It is generally the habit of the Bible to discuss submission to those who would have the toughest time with it. Young people are not always the most respectful of authority, both because authority figures are generally flawed (as all humans are) and because they think themselves capable of deciding for themselves before and beyond the capabilities that they are granted by their parents and other authorities. This tends to lead, quite predictably, to trouble between parents and children over such important life matters as plans for one’s life with regards to education or suitable romantic partners. Likewise, such issues of submission are also an important matter in the household codes that fill books like Ephesians and Colossians where wives are told to submit to their husbands and slaves (roughly analogous to our contemporary employees) are told to submit to their masters (or employers, as the case may be). None of this makes it easier for them to submit either in the Roman world or our rather disrespectful contemporary world. The fact that we are told to submit so often suggests that it is difficult for us to manage, which is not at all difficult to understand.
Yet mutual submission, not merely domination by one side over another (whether we are talking about parents over children, husbands over wives, or bosses over employees) is vital in setting a godly example and in leading to long-term peace and harmony in our societal institutions. After all, offices and power do not exist for the pleasure of those who hold such offices. Rather, such offices, as they are conceived by God in His Word, are opportunities for service to others and responsibilities to work for the best interests of those whom one governs. Furthermore, these offices in general are designed to be temporarily held, so that while we first begin by being governed by others, we grow in character and discipline and skill and then in turn govern others and train them to become leaders themselves. The general expectation of scriptures is that the passage of time and the increasing of responsibilities will provide opportunities for people to teach what they have been taught, and for them to govern and rule as they have been governed in this present age and in the world to come. Our success in being able to submit to authority without being poisoned by pride or ambition or bitterness over the way that authorities have treated us allows us to be godly servant leaders ourselves when the time comes for us to govern others, setting a good example that can spread within our households, our congregations, our companies, and our communities.
Let us note that after discussing the issue of mutual submission, Peter clinches his point by quoting Proverbs 3:34 about God giving grace to the humble but resisting the proud. Here problems with submission are directly related to issues of pride and humility. It is also striking that the portion of Proverbs that is referred to comes at the end of a section of advice for the young. This verse is translated differently directly than in its quotation by Peter, saying, “Surely He scorns the scornful but gives grace to the humble,” an example of the antithetical parallelism that is so common in Hebrew poetry, contrasting the way that God reacts to those who are proud and arrogant and hostile to others with those who are gracious and humble. Indeed, this particular verse, both as it is originally written and as it is quoted by Peter, appear to be related to a principle of karmic justice that God will treat us the way that we treat others. This can either be an encouragement, if we treat others with love and respect, or it can be a warning of judgment if we treat others viciously.
In this light, Peter continues with his larger subject of seeking to encourage patience and endurance in his audience by telling his readers to humble themselves under God’s hand, knowing that those who are humbled now will be exalted. This is common biblical advice (see, for example, Matthew 23:12 for but one example), even if it is not particularly easy to follow. Here, as in dealing with the issue of mutual submission, being humble in the face of unpleasant trials and difficulties allows one the opportunity to develop righteous character through longsuffering that makes someone better when they are exalted to positions of authority. In the Bible, no one who is called to be a leader manages to do so without being humbled in some sort of wilderness experience. Joseph was an intelligent and talented 17-year old but spent 13 years as a slave because of his brother’s jealousy and in prison for a sin he steadfastly refused not to commit until as a humble and mature and gracious 30 year old he was made the vizir over all of Egypt. Moses had some intuitive sense that he had been called to deliver Egypt as a 40 year old who sought to defend his brethren against the cruel injustice of slavery, but he spent the next forty years defending vulnerable young women and being a nomadic herder in Midian  before God called him to lead Israel out of slavery, at which point he was a humble man amenable to good counsel from God and from others (like his father-in-law, in Exodus 18, concerning questions of authority and judgment).
What Peter is urging upon his readers is that believers trust that God will exalt them in due time. It is difficult for some of us to trust others, or God, in such matters. In the midst of lengthy struggles, it is hard to trust that God will fulfill our deepest longings when the time and situation are right, and it is far too easy for us to become entangled in the wrong sort of situations in our despair and in our impatience. Sometimes, because of the experiences we have, it takes a longer time for us to learn trust and for us to gain the character we need in order to live the lives that God has planned for us. Trust is generally first built in the home, and as we build confidence in our fathers and mothers to be good, even if not perfect, so then we transfer that trust in the rest of our lives, subject of course to reversals when that trust is misplaced. For those who were not able to learn trust early and easily, it it a vastly more harrowing matter .
It is therefore altogether fitting and appropriate that Peter should close this particular passage with an expression of the goodwill that God has for us. We are called on to trust in God’s care for us, and in the fact that He is so vastly better at dealing with our cares and anxieties than we are with his vastly greater knowledge, power, and patience. We are but vapor and fog that all too quickly fade away, and are not blessed with the sort of farsighted view that God has, and we are very prone to letting our nearsightedness get us in the worst kind of trouble with the slightest provocation. And yet knowing this does not make it easier to trust that God will make everything alright in the end, whether we are dealing with our personal lives or the larger concerns of our anxious and care-filled world.
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