2 Peter 1:5-21

1. The tension between participating in the divine nature and living in the corruption caused by evil desires.

Desire is a never ending battle, isn’t it? There will never be an Armistice Day or Veteran’s Day in our struggle with desire. The war will never be over. We will win some battles but the war will last our whole life. We are all veterans of the war struggling with sin. We live in a constant tension between the new life that is growing and the old life that hangs on and never quite lets go. And desire is such a graphic word in Scripture.

Genesis 4:7: “Sin is crouching and desires to have you.”
James 1:14: “The seduction story of desire.”
1 Peter 5:8: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Except he does not always roar, does he? He quietly stalks us. Sin does not overwhelm us. It corrupts us and then we crumble. It eats away at the foundations of our life.
2 Peter 2:18: “The lustful desires of sinful human nature.”

Paul lived with the same tensions. Romans 7 is our story as well. “Who will deliver us from this body of sin?” Who will resolve this tension?

2. We need more than “thou shalt not desire” to overcome it. We need a new nature. But even then that new nature does not fix everything for us.

Rules and the fear of punishment work to control desire but they do not eliminate it. They keep us from acting on it but they don’t change our nature. In fact, more often than not, it is just the opposite. Rules produce resistance and the search for loopholes. Rules produce more rules. I read something this week that said the Federal Register of government regulations now numbers 175,000 pages and it grows every year. Moreover, there are more than 277,000 people employed by the government just in the regulatory agencies.

There are things in our lives that are so strong – for whatever reason – that we never get past the necessity of rules and the fear of punishment to control them…and that’s okay. If the fear of humiliation or failure or exposure works to keep us from giving in to particular sins that plague us then that is better than giving in. We should be thankful for those rules and guardrails. It’s not ideal…but it’s better than giving in.

James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” We are not angels and we need governing in particular areas of our lives.

However, desire still has ways of working around even our most hard and fast rules, doesn’t it? Again, I don’t think sin overwhelms as much as it deceives and corrupts. We let down our guard. In fact, that is exactly how the people closest to General David Petraeus describe his relationship with Paula Broadwell. He made exceptions to his normal discipline and isolated himself from those assigned to protect him. He is one of the most disciplined men in public life and against all the odds desire “seized” him and he was snared in a net he could not control or predict.

Washington Post article: “Petraeus — already the most acclaimed U.S. military commander in recent decades — had until then been extraordinarily careful in managing his public image, allowing limited access to a handful of journalists, former aides say. Yet, when it came to Broadwell, he seemed eager to throw his own rulebook out the window.”

The general appeared to have developed a special bond with his enthusiastic but untested biographer, aides say, and Broadwell appeared willing to take full advantage of her special access.

“I found her relationship with him to be disconcerting,” said a former aide to Petraeus, one of several who insisted on anonymity in order to speak candidly about his former boss. “Those who worked for him never tried to leverage our relationship with him. It seemed to a lot of us that she didn’t have that filter.”

“She was relentlessly pro-Petraeus,” said a longtime Afghan policy expert who met Broadwell in Kabul. “There was no room for a conversation of shortcomings of the Petraeus theology. She wasn’t a reporter. She struck me as an acolyte.”

3. What do we need more than rules – even more than simple faith? Peter is not saying we need more than grace for salvation but we need to add to faith to escape the corruption of evil desire and to live a productive life.

The first is goodness and it is the foundation of everything that follows. By goodness Peter means what we call virtue – or morals. Edmund Burke puts it this way, “Moral standards are more important than laws.” Without virtue we are forced to depend on repressive laws or unrestrained self-interest. It is what Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable.” There must be some common understanding of what good behavior is. Without that the fabric of a society unravels.

Lord Moulton sketches out what he calls the “three great domains of Human Action.” They include the domain of positive law, where our actions are prescribed by laws which must be obeyed. The second domain is of free choice, which includes all those actions to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom. But between these two there is a third large and important domain, which Moulton calls “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” This is “the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself.” The true test of a nation, its proof of greatness, is “the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.”

Os Guinness in “A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future”:

Freedom requires virtue. Virtue requires faith. Faith requires freedom. And like the recycling triangle, it goes around ad infinitum.

The word virtue for the framers was a one-word summary of all the ethical things you need: honesty, loyalty, patriotism, and especially character. Freedom requires virtue. The framers are absolutely solid that the character of any leader is crucial. Today that idea is completely gone. Take the Clinton impeachment: as the writers of The New York Times put it, the President could have the morals of an alley cat. What mattered was competence, not character. That’s a fundamental change. I think the framers were both realistic and right. Freedom requires virtue.

Second, virtue requires faith of some sort. The framers clearly granted freedom of conscience to atheists along with believers of all sorts. But they were far less sanguine, particularly John Adams, about the possibility of a republic of atheists, because atheism doesn’t have the inspiration for virtue. It doesn’t have the content to tell you what virtue is, and it doesn’t have the sanctions, such as hell, if people are not virtuous.
But the third part is the most radical. Faith of any sort requires freedom, and that was the First Amendment and the way that the First Amendment makes all faith entirely voluntary.

So, in a sense, this whole list builds on the assumption of some basic virtues. Knowledge without virtue is pride. Self-control without virtue is legalism. Perseverance, godliness, kindness and even love become distorted without some definition of what is virtuous.

4. But how can we “make every effort” and still recognize as Paul says, “there is no good thing in us”? Won’t we be frustrated and just be pushing a large rock up a hill only to have it roll back down?

Yes, if we are pushing but that is not what Peter is describing, I don’t think. Think of it this way. It is the difference between a boat with a motor on the back that is being pushed and self-propelled and a boat with a hook on the front that is being pulled. Our responsibility is not to push harder but to clear out all the obstacles in front of us and around us that hinder our being pulled. Removing every impediment is different from trying to make ourselves holy on our own.

That may be why he describes a life that is full of obstacles as “unproductive and ineffective.” Those words mean sluggish, inactive, bogged down. Those lives have stopped clearing away the impediments to being towed and have become entangled in obstacles in the stream. They are not going anywhere.

5. “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things you will never fall…”

That verse could keep you up at night and has been the source of all kinds of misinterpretation. How do we make our election sure? Isn’t that something of a contradiction? If it is by grace alone we are saved and our calling is permanent, what can we do to not lose it? I don’t think that is what Peter means here. Instead, I think he is saying this, “Your character confirms your calling. You do not earn your election but your productive and growing life is a natural outcome and confirmation of your calling. If there is no growth and no movement toward maturity then you have reason to doubt your standing in grace.” Our doing these things does not determine our election but these things confirm it.

But Peter says “do these things” as well as “possess these things”. It’s both, isn’t it? Sometimes we have to do things before we can possess them. We cannot just pick them off the shelf or add them to our lives immediately. Think of it as muscle memory. We do something or practice something long enough and then we possess it. It is almost unconscious. It is wired into us. We possess it. I love the quote from C.S. Lewis about loving our neighbor: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

This is muscle memory.

We should always be aware of the risk of falling. Maybe not in every area of our lives. I don’t struggle with murder or stealing or observing the Sabbath but there are areas of my life where the likelihood of falling is constant. Paul said to the Corinthians, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” Paul himself lived with the ever present fear of what his falling and being disqualified would do to the church. The temptations never go away completely.

The desire does not die. And the more visible you are the more damage you do when you fall.

New York Times: “Few imagined that such a dazzling career would have so tawdry and so sudden a collapse. Mr. Petraeus, a slender fitness fanatic, is known as a brainy ascetic. He and his wife, Holly, whose father was the superintendent at West Point when Mr. Petraeus graduated in 1974, and their two grown children had long been viewed by military families as an inspiration, a model for making a marriage work despite the separation and hardship of long deployments overseas.”

6. Finally, I love how Peter describes his legacy. He does not describe any great accomplishment or achievement. Instead, he says, “I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.” Not only add these things, do these things or possess these things but to remember these things. In some ways, that is a great summation of the role of a teacher or what Peter calls an overseer of the flock. Your legacy is invisible except in the lives of people.

A teacher is a reminder as much as anything. There are not a thousand different themes in Scripture, really. Just a few big ones…and it is the role of the teacher to remind people.

I like what Samuel Johnson said, “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” Most of us know what is right but we need reminding. It’s not the same as nagging.

One of my frustrations is inadequate signage for airports. They begin with little pictures of planes ten miles away and every mile or so you see another one. But, somehow, a couple of miles away from the airport they assume you know where you are and they stop posting the sign until it is too late and you have missed the exit.

That’s how it is with us. We need reminding for the whole journey. I think someone stopped reminding David Petraeus about the consequences of dropping his guard. I think he forgot that the lion does not always roar but stalks silently. I think people assume they don’t need reminding but we need it and we need it all the way home.