As you know, the word witness corresponds to the Greek word “martyr” in the New Testament. And, there are occasions in the New Testament when martyrdom is the meaning even though other words are used. The passage from 1 Peter is a good example.
The meaning is clear. We participate in the life of God and receive this one and only life that is life, by dying to death portraying itself as life. Jesus made it clear on some many occasions that when we die in this way, we live. We know life because we know “Christ and Him crucified.”
It needs to be understood that such dying is not simply the relinquishing of evil intention or actions. It is the pursuit of virtuous intentions and actions. This includes, obviously, active identification/participation in the lives of others through such things as the famous “seven works of mercy”:
- To feed the hungry
- To give drink to the thirsty
- To clothe the naked
- To shelter the homeless
- To visit the sick
- To visit the imprisoned
- To bury the dead
But let’s not limit it to seven. How about just being a non-judgmental listening ear? How about watching the kids of a mom who needs to spend some time caring for herself? How about making progress on that “honey do” list without being nagged? How about hoping against all of the signs that someone will never change and continuing to invest ourselves in their life in appropriate ways? Or how about letting go of saving people, in the name of Christ Jesus, and joining Christ Jesus in His saving of them? How about …?
It needs to be added that our appropriate suffering in the flesh – martyrdom – is not self-chosen. It is not doing “what seems right in our own mind.” It begins and ends with the revelation of the Holy Spirit and the confirmation of the Body of Christ. The action results from appropriate adjustments and grace of the same Holy Spirit and support of the same Body of Christ. All of this is what makes such an authentic obedience possible.
These are the deeds of a martyr. This is also what it means to be “suffering in the flesh.” These are the deeds of Christ Jesus.
Let’s remember that the 1 Peter, in which this passage about “suffering in the flesh” appears is also the one in which the apostle proclaims us to be “partakers of the divine nature.”
Here is a wonderful “Dynamis” reflection on the matter. (By the way, I recommend reading this grace-filled daily reflection. “Dynamis” has blessed me for almost 20 years! It owe a great degree of my understanding of the Holy Tradition to this wonderful publication.)
Here also is a reflection by St. Thomas Aquinas on the matter at hand…
Suffering in the Flesh: 1 Peter 4:1-11, especially vss. 1-2: “He who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”
Earlier in this same epistle, Saint Peter declares that Christ suffered death “in the flesh” purposely, in order “to bring us to God” (vs. 3:18). Now, when he tells us to “arm [ourselves] also with the same mind” (vs. 4:1), he is urging us to embrace an intention similar to the Lord’s.
We should not read the expression “suffered in the flesh” as applicable only to martyrs and confessors, for a vital truth would then be lost. Suffering is common to everyone and takes many forms: persecution, injury, disease, financial reverses, rejection. While Saint Peter’s primary concern throughout his first epistle is with physical persecution, he is well aware that suffering in the flesh extends beyond the afflictions imposed on those who died for Christ.
This suffering may also come to one who has indulged in sinful living, but now withdraws for Christ’s sake and ceases to “run . . . in the same flood of dissipation” (vs. 4). As we would expect, the Apostle advises us against living “in the flesh for the lusts of men” (vs. 2). We should avoid “lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (vs. 3), determined to avoid all such indulgence.
But social isolation may follow when we choose to stop living “in . . . dissipation” (vs. 4). According to The Orthodox Study Bible, Saint Peter is talking about the vices then prevalent in Asia Minor, “where excessive drinking, along with unspeakable practices, took place in connection with the worship of various deities.” Let us bear in mind that these vices are well known today, even though they are no longer part of the worship of any deities!
As a fledgling disciple, Saint Peter learned the captivating power of a sinful mind. Christ tells us that “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mk 7:21-23).
Among the Fathers of the Church, Saint John Climacus commends the pain of struggling for chastity and purity, especially since we have a vital hope of ceasing from sin (1 Pt 4:1-2). “Purity means that we put on the angelic nature. Purity is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart. Purity is a supernatural denial of nature. . . . He is pure . . . [who] expels fleshly love with divine love, and . . . has extinguished the fire of passion by the fire of heaven” (Ladder of Divine Ascent, 15.1-3, 7, p. 104).
Keep in mind that Saint John does not limit the virtue of chastity to sexual purity, but rather asserts that “chastity is the name which is common to all the virtues.” In our struggle to gain purity, God helps us take certain steps that are necessarily accompanied by pain. We observe our passions, repent sincerely, and confess thoroughly; we undertake fasting, abandon self-reliance, and strive for unceasing prayer.
“Let no one thoroughly trained in purity attribute its attainment to himself, for it is impossible for anyone to conquer his own nature,” Saint John cautions. “When nature is defeated, it should be recognized that this is due to the presence of Him who is above nature.” Indeed, we never endure such sufferings apart from God, but rather in the presence of His love.
I am caught in the depths of sins. O Savior, draw me out of passion, and save me! – Orthros for Sunday of the Prodigal Son
The Cross exemplifies every virtue
Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.
It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.
If you seek the example of love: Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends. Such a man was Christ on the cross. And if he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.
If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ’s patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.
If you seek an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.
If you seek an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.
If you seek an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.
Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honours, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. From a conference by Saint Thomas Aquinas