“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”
Remember that we are taking some time to examine human desire. And the very first thing to note is the very first thing necessary to any inquiry, which is the Apostolic call to attentiveness. Sobriety, vigilance, attentiveness, is required if we are to succeed at understanding, changing, and appropriating human desire for our good and for the good of the people the we love. No one has ever written a sermon or a book, or prefaced piece of advice by saying, “I have paid no attention what-so-ever to what I am about to say.” In fact, I cannot recall or imagine any culture of people at any time in history who have put a premium upon inattentiveness. Attentiveness is the universal imperative and it is not so much a virtue as it is a spontaneous response to human desire. I am attentive to what I desire. Sometimes, one desires to grasp and possess the object of one’s desire. Sometimes, frequently, one desires to know and understand the object of one’s desire. But underneath everything, the human desire of the Christian, that is a result of our participation in Christ’s humanity, is a longing, a yearning to love, to cherish, to value and to esteem what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. When Peter lays down the imperative to be attentive, to be sober and alert, he means for us to be attentive to our cherishing, desiring the good and in particular the good for the children of God who are in the world. Peter ends his first epistle with this warning: inattentiveness will impede, obstruct, curb, God’s finality for you personally and for your siblings in Christ. We can learn about human desire and the human will from Peter and his pastoral care for his people.
First I want to understand the context of Peter’s whole Epistle. He opens by addressing what he called the Diaspora of Christ’s Church in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia. He refers to them as “strangers” and “resident aliens.” Though we often spiritualize these terms, they likely refer, literally, to the legal status of Peter’s intended audience. There are good reasons to believe that Peter composed the epistle in Rome. Silvanus was the courier, and he appears also to have been Peter’s amanuensis, that is his secretary/scribe. He sailed from Rome, following a well-established trade route, stopping off at major population centers to deliver the Epistle to the Churches. It is reckoned, conservatively, that about 40,000 Christians were living in Asia Minor in the late 60s. By the turn of the century, when Ignatius of Antioch wrote his Letters and Clement wrote the Corinthians, the Christian population had grown to 80,000.
Now, there was a sobering situation that Peter is addressing. He refers to their “heaviness,” to “ fiery ordeals,” and to their common experience of sharing Christ’s sufferings. Some have thought that a Roman sponsored pogrom was underway. There is not a hint of that in the Epistle and in fact, Peter specifically instructs them to submit to the Emperor and governors who punish evil behavior. There were no Roman persecutions at that time.
But there are serious problems and they are all local. Locally realized, but universally spread over all of Asia. These are hometown troubles and conflicts rising from the differences between Christians and their unbelieving neighbors. Christians were not thought to be enemies of the state at this point, but they were objects of slander, suspicion, accusations, and hostility because they were so different from their neighbors. And all these localized hostilities are connected on a subterranean level. Peter says they have a common source in “the ruler of this age,” the cosmic slanderer who is behind all the enmity and abuse being heaped upon believers by unbelieving neighbors and what we would call community leaders. Peter says these societies that aim to absorb and neutralize the Church are devil-driven:
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; who resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.”
There is a campaign afoot, Peter is saying, to absorb the Church and behind it lurks the Devil himself. The same is the case today. The society, the culture around you, our institutions, our neighbors, people we love, our family, and even much of the church itself expects us to accommodate standards, values, and behaviors that are alien to the Gospel and the will of God. “Resist these pressures,” Peter declares! Remain “stedfast in the faith” and resist those who lean on you to assimilate. You are called to be the holy children of God, you are called to deification, to holy and exclusive solidarity within the Body of Christ formed by the pattern of Christ, not the patterns of this world. This is the way Peter puts it in Chapter 1:14:
“Do not allow yourselves to be molded by the craving of your former ignorance, but, in conformity with the Holy One who called you, you too be holy in all your conduct…”
The word that Peter uses here that we translate as “cravings” is the same word that may be translated in another context as simple desire, want, eagerness, impulse, or lust. In the next chapter Peter uses a form of the word when he writes, “desire the sincere milk of the Word.” The point that Peter is making is that desires mold and fashion the man or the woman and their community was well. Peter now identifies two solidarities, two fraternal communities made up of like-minded people, two communities opposed to one another as day is to night. There is a human solidarity with sin and that solidarity, that fraternal community, moves from darkness to darkness, it avoids light, it avoids insight, it deforms knowledge and distorts the human will and that gives birth to disordered desires. These desires are socially constructed, socially communicated and socially affirmed. Though it may appear for moment here or there to flourish, its destiny is decline and eventual destruction of the solidarity itself. Peter names some of the disordered desires that are on display in the institutions of our society, in our politics, in our schools, in popular culture, and right down to neighborhoods: compulsive ambition, selfish yearnings, uncontrolled passions, revenge, envy, and concupiscence. These disordered desires and many others mark the condition of the unbeliever and the condition of the solidarity, to which they are committed — that solidarity being what Peter calls, the World. Its destiny, which is absolutely unavoidable, is to break up and fall apart.
Do not be “molded by temporal cravings, by the desires of this world, a world whose destiny is to fall to pieces.” You are Children of God. All that is “former ignorance” for you. Don’t fall back into that way. You have been liberated from that ignorance and contamination through the love of Jesus. Peter is crystal clear that our break with this way of life must be conscious, intentional and definitive for ourselves individually and in our community. Christians end their allegiances, the desires, the hunger and lures that the human solidarity with sin esteems.
Just as this human solidarity with sin deforms knowledge and human desire and the whole human condition, there is also a Divine solidarity in grace which is the mystical Body of Christ, the Bride, Holy Mother Church. If acts of sin confirm one in sin, so Christian actions confirms us in Christ. If acts of sin deform us and deform an already deformed culture, acts of love, every kindness in the Name of Christ, every attempt to truly understand and affirm reality, every Mass, every prayer from the heart of the simplest Christian, clarifies and establishes the true, the good, and the beautiful to the building up of the Body of Christ and to the building up of all humanity and creation. Private rationalizations and private justifications for sin find support in the world and even public approval of disorder and corruption, but to the contrary, the ascent of our soul to God is not merely a private event, but a truly personal and yet alway a common affair, common prayer, common life in the Body of Christ which transforms every single feature of human life.
I read this passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions last week because it underlines the strategic importance of desire and in particular he underscored the wounds of the Fall with regard to our will, our volitional life:
“The enemy,” he wrote, “held fast my will, and had made of it a chain, and had bound me tight with it. For out of the disordered will comes disordered desire, and the service of disordered desire ended in habit, and habit, not resisted, became necessity. By these links, as it were forged together — a hard bondage held me in slavery.”
What we have added to our understanding this week is that Augustine’s descriptions of our willing and our desiring is not a private affair, but it another part of common prayer, our common life in the Body of Christ. The point that Peter is making is that desire mold and fashion the man or the woman and their community was well. Peter identifies two solidarities, two communities made up of like-minded people, two communities opposed to one another as day is to night. There is a human solidarity with sin and that solidarity, that fraternal community, moves from darkness to darkness, it avoids light, it avoids insight, it deforms knowledge and distorts the human will and that gives birth to disordered desires. And as I said, just as this human solidarity with sin deforms knowledge and human desire and the whole human condition, there is also a divine solidarity in grace which is the mystical Body of Christ, the Bride, Holy Mother Church. If acts of sin confirm one in sin, so then, Christian actions confirms us in Christ. If acts of sin deform us, deform our will and our desire, and they deform an already deformed culture — well then, acts of love, every kindness in the Name of Christ, every authentic to understand reality, every Mass, every prayer from the heart of the simplest Christian, clarifies our longings and desires, establishes the true, the good, and the beautiful to the building up of the Body of Christ and to the building up of all humanity and creation.