The Reverend Willy Jenkins Jr. grew up in Mississippi under the hardship of Jim Crow. He worked for the ethnic integration of public schools and, because of this, was a target of violence. One day, some white teenagers cruised through the Jenkinses’ neighborhood, firebombing homes. They came to the Jenkins home to confront the pastor.
And then they unexpectedly ran out of gas.
The Jenkins boys looked at the car full of stranded white teens. They looked to their dad, ready to fight. Rev. Jenkins picked up a glass bottle and busted it. It seemed like the tense situation was about to become violent.
But then Rev. Jenkins did something that surprised both his sons and the white teenagers. He walked over to his car and used the broken top of the bottle to make a funnel. He siphoned some gas from his own car and filled the empty tank of those boys who had come to hurt him.
His act of grace caused them to leave in shame, changed by the experience.
This is what Peter is referring to when he tells wives to keep doing good and responding like Christ, even when they are in the home of an unkind, even unsaved man. The unsaved husbands “may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1 ESV).
You’re not going to change his heart by manipulating him, berating him, or wearing him down. His best shot at being changed is seeing the evidence of a Christ-like Spirit in you—your steadfast, courageous display of humility and grace.
Now, to be clear: Responding in grace doesn’t mean you remain in an abusive situation. Peter isn’t telling abused spouses to put up with abuse or keep children in abusive situations. If you don’t feel safe in your home, tell someone you trust. You can get help. (For more information, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline webpage or call (800) 799−7233.)
We must not use Scripture in a sloppy way to encourage others to continue being abused. But let’s not miss Peter’s counter-cultural lesson here: Grace changes people far more quickly than retribution. Grace changes the heart.
Whatever situation you find yourself in, you can continue doing good and trusting God. The world tells us that the most natural response to another’s sin is to pay them back. It may be natural, and it may feel good in the moment—but it’s not the way of Christ.
No one else’s sin justifies your sin. When your husband or your wife (or your friend or your coworker) is wronging you, you can always keep obeying God and trusting him.
Does God then promise to change the other person? No, not necessarily. But he does promise to come to your aid, just like he did Christ: “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry. … The LORD will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned” (Psalm 34:15, 22 NIV).
Choosing grace over retribution is the way of Christ, and it’s how he changed us. He came to earth, not to condemn but to save (John 3:17). When you turn from sin and receive his offer of grace, you are united to him. Because of this offer of mercy, we can extend grace to others so that God can change their hearts like he has changed our own.