For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.
1Peter 2:19; excerpt from 1 Peter 2:19-25, lectionary epistle for May 3, 2020
I have come again to the text seeking a word that will feed. My first thought on seeing this week’s reading is, ‘Well, crap.’ I feel let down by the lectionary commendation of ‘unjust’ suffering, the suffering the righteous endure but do not deserve, distinct from any proper punishment for wrongdoing. ‘If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval,’ the text reads. This text has been used abusively in the past — it comes just after an instruction for slaves to obey their masters — and when I read it I recoil, as if the words have struck an unhealed bruise. I could spend this week in another reading. This discipline I’ve chosen is as artificial as the lectionary itself. It feels like a cheat, though, to just throw this text aside. Set myself to it. Maybe there is in it a word for this time, a word for me. Certainly, there’s suffering enough in this time. Read it again, weighing every phrase.
‘Being aware of God.’ The hook catches my heart, tightens the cord between me and the words until the line is taut and tugs the text just slightly slant. Read at this angle, the word does not recommend but assumes suffering. The point of the passage is not to seek and embrace suffering but — through it all — to seek and embrace God, to reframe the experience of suffering not as a barrier to God but as a possible means of connection. The passage is an exhortation of how to bear suffering: ‘being aware of God,’ who suffered in Christ, whose example and experience of suffering as redemptive and freeing means that we needn’t suffer in isolation (no matter how physically distant) but ‘being aware of God.’
I read the text again before bed, go to sleep pondering this possibility. I dream in cycles, rise towards wakefulness, to the phrase ‘being aware of God’ then sink again into dreaming sleep, surfacing again to the words ‘being aware of God,’ as if that phrase was the tether that kept drawing me up. Was I aware of God? I was aware of the idea of being aware. Is that itself the point? Even so, a lingering unease. The text speaks of ‘credit’ — as if right suffering accrues points on a heavenly ledger, earns God’s ‘approval.’ But what when one cannot be aware even of being aware? What when one cannot even recite the phrase? What credit then? How can the account be balanced, but by grace?
Grace is present in the passage — literally: ‘grace’ — charis — is the third word in the Greek. I’ve pulled out my Greek testament, and that word, at least, I know at sight. My wondering quickens. Grace, charis, is the bracketing concept: ‘for this is grace,’ 2:19 begins — not ‘credit,’ not divine regard earned but ‘grace’ experienced; and 2:20 ends: ‘if doing good and suffering, you endure, this is grace with God.’ At this point, I’m reading the testament with the lexicon, checking every word; my mind alert, my heart urgent. ‘For this is grace’ the text reads, ‘if through the consciousness of God endures …’ The Greek behind the NRSV’s ‘being aware of God’ is this: the consciousness or mindfulness of God.
So: what is the ‘consciousness of God’? Is it my consciousness of God or God’s consciousness of me? I don’t see any grammatical cue that dictates a reading. I check several translations and they all suggest that it’s my (or ‘your’) awareness of God at issue in the phrase, not the other way round, that my mindfulness (‘being aware’) colors my experience. That fits with the overall flow, the fact that Peter is addressing a plural ‘you’ that is suffering, a ‘you’ that needs to be reminded to endure in the hope — the expectation — of Christ. I know my Greek is poor; I should defer to the translations which represent the considered judgment of committees of experts. But this other possibility will not let me go. I am caught by the reading’s promise that grace is not primarily our consciousness of God but God’s consciousness of us; that God holds us in God’s loving thought even when we are caught and carapaced, trapped in the amber of our own suffering; that when we cannot be conscious of God, still God remains conscious of us. Grace raises us again and again towards waking. We come up from the deep of sleep towards the surface of awareness, re-minded and re-minding ourselves towards consciousness of God.
‘Being aware of God.’ It is through the consciousness of God that I have consciousness of God. Mind calls to mind. Love summons love. Reaching to hold, I realize I am already held.