In mid-2016, the New York Times had an article about then-President Obama that caught my eye. The president would stay up late, often into the early hours of the next morning. He read briefings, watched sports, etc. During those late nights, the Times reported, Mr. Obama allowed himself the same snack — seven almonds. The response was a mixture of praise, confusion and irritation. Some praised the president’s discipline and restraint, while others mocked such behavior as robotic, excessive, anal retentive, etc. I found myself squarely in the former camp. I thought it was admirable that a man who could literally ask for anything he wanted, at any time, was willing (and able!) to maintain such restraint.
Most people, faced with the same choice, would find it difficult to resist indulging. A high-stress job, combined with a staff ready to accommodate your every request? I’m pretty sure that by the end of his first term in office, President Hoey would make President Taft look positively svelte. I mean, can you imagine what it would be like to have a man with little to no self-control in that position? I should point out that a few weeks later, Mr. Obama clarified the Times’ reporting — he did not have exactly seven almonds each night. Sometimes he allowed himself a few more.
Restraint and discipline are not exactly virtues for which America is known. But as the apostle Peter wrote, “self-controlled and sober-minded” are appropriate descriptors for those who seek to follow Christ. Why? Because, as Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:1-2, identifying with the physical sufferings of Christ must transform the way we understand our relationship with our own desires and appetites. Peter says in verse two that such suffering produces people who live “no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” (ESV) To have the same mind as Christ, to be conformed to his will, is to see life as an opportunity to serve God, not our own appetites.
In 4:3-4, Peter reminds his readers that their lives used to consist in “doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties and lawless idolatry.” Now, things are different. Christians don’t live for their own appetites. But Peter warns his readers that their friends and family will be “surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery.” Eventually, they will “malign you.” Probably most of us have had this experience soon after we began to follow Christ. Our friends were suspicious of the “new” us. They didn’t get it — did we think we were better than them or something? At first they were confused. Soon, some of them even became angry.
The pattern Peter describes is evident in the history of the early church. If you read some of the earliest reports on Christianity from local magistrates, what you see isn’t a desire to persecute the new sect. Often in Acts, when Paul arrives in a new city he is invited to explain this new faith. He’s a curiosity, not a threat. We have records and letters from officials who aren’t quite sure how to proceed. They ask for guidance from their superiors — if they arrest a Christian, do they punish them? Free them? What punishment is appropriate? The initial reaction to Christianity from the Roman world wasn’t anger, but confusion. Christians believed things that didn’t quite make sense and they lived in ways that seemed unnecessarily restrictive. Why do these people live this way? As Peter wrote, at first, the ancient world responded to Christianity with surprise.
Often, ignorance, curiosity and confusion led to outlandish rumors about the Christians. Christians were accused of being atheists, because they denied all the gods but theirs and even he was invisible. Christians were said to be cannibals, since their chief ritual involved consuming the body and blood of their Master. Christians are perverted and incestuous, said another rumor. After all, they were known to call each other “brother” and “sister” and to greet each other with “holy kisses.” The Christian “love feasts” were, obviously, orgies.
There were many such rumors. Some arose out of simple misunderstanding and speculation, but others were clearly designed to malign this new faith and its followers. I have a favorite rumor, which went like this: Early Christians, some said, ate babies. When I first came across this rumor, I had to read it a few times. I understood the cannibal/Eucharist misunderstanding, but why babies?
Many cultures in the ancient world, including Greece and Rome, practiced something called “exposure.” If a child was born and the parents did not want it, it was not uncommon for the child to be abandoned outside of the city on the side of a road and left to die. Babies were abandoned because they were sick or deformed, or because the parents were too poor to take care of them. Often babies were exposed because they were girls or because the parents simply did not want them. Often, the children died from the elements or from animals. Many children, however, met an arguably worse fate and were sold into sexual slavery.
But after a while, people noticed that Christians were also picking up these abandoned children and taking them home. No one could figure out why they did this, hence the rumor. Christians, people said, had a secret initiation ritual wherein catechists would be handed a knife and told to cut open a loaf of bread. When they did so, they discovered a baby baked inside. The group would then consume the bread and child, fulfilling their Master’s command to consume his “body and blood.” Obviously, Christians took exposed children home with them to provide sacrifices for this ritual.
Did you catch that? To the ancient world, this bizarre explanation was more plausible than Christians rescuing exposed babies to save their lives and raise them. It made more sense to people that Christians would eat babies than that they would love them. That was how radical the early church’s love was. The Roman world had no way of explaining such actions — the love of these Christians was totally beyond their vocabulary, beyond their comprehension. People ignored exposed children or sold them into slavery — no one rescued them. It made no sense!
When we orient ourselves to Christ, when we submit our desires and appetites to him, when we allow his suffering to transform us, the outside world will look at us with the same bewilderment. In many ways, our culture today is similar to the one surrounding the early Christians. Just as then, people have a hard time understanding why anyone would resist their desires or try to control their appetites; and so, in their confusion, they misinterpret our restraint and abstentions, just as the Romans did 2,000 years ago. We may never find ourselves accused of eating babies, but if at least a few crazy rumors don’t get thrown our way, maybe we’re doing it wrong.
Jack Hoey III is the minister of research and theology at Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, where he lives with his family; he may be reached at email@example.com.