Each Wednesday throughout the forty days of Lent, we’re sharing devotional excerpts from new (or soon-forthcoming) books. This morning’s reading comes from Addison Hodges Hart’s Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Becoming Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World.
We hope you will be challenged and uplifted by this selection — and by each of our Lenten Midweek Readings.
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“Ἀγαπητοί, παρακαλῶ ὡς παροίκους καὶ παρεπιδήμους ἀπέχεσθαι τῶν σαρκικῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν αἵτινες στρατεύονται κατὰ τῆς ψυχῆς . . .”
“Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul . . .”
“Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.”
1 Peter 2:11 (Greek original; KJV; RSV)
[This single sentence] provides the moral premise of this book. It is taken from a first-century epistle, one of two ascribed to the apostle Peter, addressed to “strangers” or “exiles” (parepidemois) who lived in regions which today belong to Turkey, but were at the time provinces of the Roman Empire (1 Pet. 1:1). I have presented the text in three versions, including the Greek original; but if I were to render it into English myself, my version would read, “Beloved, I exhort you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly passions, which war against your life.”
Now, most English translations render the word I would translate as “life” (psyche) as “soul.” I like the word “soul,” and use it when I refer to a personal life vibrant with intellect, subtlety, and sensibility. But I also think the word carries some acquired philosophical and theological baggage that’s misleading. The “soul” is often thought of as an immaterial element that indwells and propels our bodies — the familiar “ghost in the machine.” We sometimes forget that the Greek word psyche simply means “life,” and it is inextricably associated with all things bodily. It doesn’t refer only to human life; it might just as well refer to the life of a cricket or a buffalo or a melon or any other living thing. Literally, the word has to do with breathing, which even vegetation must do after its kind. So psyche in our text above means concrete, daily, earthly human life — not a “substance” as such, not a thing that is not our bodies, or doesn’t include our bodies, or indwells our bodies like a genie corked inside a bottle until the day it’s released. No; psyche means our whole being, including our bodies and their senses.
Whenever I walk up the mountain trail near my home in Norway, as I did this morning, breathing in the clean winter air, looking through the trees out over the fjord toward the mountains and the glacier beyond, listening to the sounds of birds, and invariably throwing sticks for my dog to chase — it is my “soul” that is doing all these physical and sensual things. When I return home and eat breakfast, when I kiss my wife Good Morning, when I burn my tongue with the hot coffee — it is my “soul” that eats and kisses and gets a burned tongue. However, a more sensible and pragmatic way of putting all this is to say that these things are part of life. If I put it like that, I can bring the meaning down to earth where it belongs.
I want to begin, then, by affirming simply that living life is its own meaning. Some Christians may balk at that statement; but if we should pause and reflect for a moment, we would have to say that “life” is placed right at the heart of Christian faith. “Eternal life” may be life magnified and extended and vaster than what we presently experience; but even “eternal life” for us begins right here with the simple existence we possess now. I will go a step further and say that our own personal lives are the most precious possessions we have. If we think that that’s a selfish attitude, we should recall the supreme importance Jesus placed on these lives of ours. After telling us that we should “lose” our life (psyche) for his sake — that is to say, be willing to give him our all — he then told us in effect that each one of us should place immense value on those same individual lives: “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?” (Mark 8:36-37). In other words, each of us should regard and treat our life as infinitely precious — greater even than possession of “the whole world.” We are not to sell our selves cheaply. If we should ever sacrifice the life we have, we had better be sure it’s for the right reasons.
The question we can then ask ourselves is whether or not we’re living our lives well or poorly. Our text in 1 Peter tells us straightforwardly that “fleshly passions” are in actual fact what make our lives difficult. “Fleshly” might be understood as meaning a predominant focus on our selves, regardless of whether or not they inconvenience or harm or objectify others — “selfish” in the most self-serving, “me”-centered, self-“pleasuring” sense. The Greek word for “passions,” of course, covers a lot of ground in the New Testament wherever it appears, and it frequently means “wrong desires” (misdirected sexual lust is only one among the many wrong desires we house within ourselves). Without a doubt, “fleshly passions” refers to those inner dispositions that lead us into acts of greed, theft, mendacity, violence, coarseness, callousness, hatred, hubris, anger, and misdirected sexual lust. These come from within and poison our invaluable lives (cf. Mark 7:20-23).
But, having once acknowledged that our passions spring from within us, often to our detriment, we need to turn our attention to the terms with which the epistle addresses its readers: “I exhort you,” it reads, “as strangers and pilgrims.” If the phrase “fleshly passions” turns us inward to see what’s tugging at us from inside, the phrase “strangers and pilgrims” reminds us that outside ourselves we also have forces that tug at us constantly and make unwarranted demands on our attention.
What do these words, then, imply?
The word “strangers” means that the epistle’s readers are expected to view themselves as aliens — “resident aliens,” as others have noted. “Resident aliens” live in one country but are citizens of another. For instance, I reside in Norway, although I am an American citizen. In Norway, then, I am a resident alien, a stranger in their midst.
The Greek word translated as “pilgrims” has sometimes been translated as “exiles.” Either way, it means those who are passing to or from a place. I prefer the word “pilgrims” as a translation of the Greek parepidemois because it suggests that the readers should see themselves as those passing through one region to reach another. Along these lines, I am reminded of one of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (an unquestionably early Christian gospel, it should be noted, which can be read in a far less “unorthodox” way than it is often presented). In one brief, blunt line, Jesus austerely says to his followers, “Become passers-by” (logion 42). It’s an obscure command. There is no elaboration of it in the text; but I think I can guess its meaning well enough. It seems likely that it is an authentic saying of Jesus. But, even if it is not, it has perennial meaning. It reminds us that we are pilgrims and that we are just passing through. And it is as applicable for us today as for those early disciples of Jesus.