Perishability and value

I’ve been studying 1 Peter lately, and I keep noticing the words perishable and imperishable. We have an imperishable inheritance (1:4), we are born again of imperishable seed (1:23) which is the word of God, and a gentle and quiet spirit has an imperishable quality (3:4).

But gold is considered perishable (1:7), as is silver (1:18). At first I didn’t think much about that, other than to notice that it is just one more example of the way spiritual values are the opposite of worldly values. But when I started thinking about, I had trouble coming up with a sense in which gold or silver is perishable. Objects made of these metals can be melted down, but the metals themselves retain their value.

When I mentioned this to someone at Bible study last week, she pointed out that gold can be stolen. That fact is one reason that we want to invest our lives in setting aside “treasure in heaven” that can’t be stolen, but stolen gold doesn’t lose its value. It’s just someone else who gets to make use of its value.

So I’ve been thinking more about the word perishable. When I was growing up, I heard it most often in the context of putting away groceries. My mother was adamant about getting the “perishables” put away the minute we walked in the door. I couldn’t hang up my coat (or throw it on my bed or whatever I used to do with it) or go to the bathroom or anything else, until the perishables had been put in the refrigerator or freezer.

In that case, it was the perishables that were most valuable. Meat and dairy products were expensive, even if we normally bought the cheapest varieties. I’m not sure fresh fruits were more expensive than canned, but my mother considered them considerably healthier and therefore more valuable. (She never kept them out on the counter, except bananas. I don’t know if most fruits keep better in the refrigerator, but having grown up eating cold fruit I have never gotten to like the taste of them at room temperature.)

The non-perishables, of course, were not imperishable – they just had a much longer shelf life. Dry cereals eventually get stale, and even canned goods can go bad if they sit around long enough. (When our parents went into a nursing home and my sister and I worked on cleaning out their house, we found canned goods that looked like they might have been there since we were young.)

As I thought about it more, it occurred to me that something’s value depends a lot on the purpose one has for it. Fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, and dairy are valuable for cooking meals in the next few days. If we had to stockpile food for an extended emergency situation, fresh foods would be no value at all, and we’d want canned or dried. If we had to travel and take food with us, we’d likely want freeze-dried. (This week a co-worker gave me a sample of some freeze-dried fruits she bought for low-calorie snacks at work. I decided that unless portability were an issue, I’d much prefer regular dried fruits.)

Even gold can lose its value in certain circumstances. Ezekiel 7 and Revelation 6 both speak of a time of famine when bread will be so scarce that it will be more valuable than gold. (As the well-known song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” by Larry Norman puts it, “a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold.) What you want or need most in a given situation is what is most valuable.

If we see things clearly, then, according to Peter, we will see our inheritance in Christ as being far more valuable than gold and silver. Gold and silver cannot buy the things that we want and need most. No amount of money can buy forgiveness or change our characters.

One problem in many evangelical churches is that they have tended to focus on salvation as a transaction that took place in the past. The price was paid, we have forgiveness, and we have become new people in Christ. Sure, we need to continually become more Christlike, but the “value-added” part is done. Nothing we do can make us more (or less) acceptable to God since Christ did all the work, so it’s easy to lose sight of the value of those imperishable things on a day-to-day basis. They’re preserved for us in heaven, and like canned goods on the shelf, they’ll still be there regardless of what I do today.

That’s not the viewpoint Peter has. People under threat of imminent persecution, as the readers of his letter were, know that everything they have, in earthly terms, could be taken from them in a moment. If we think about it, we know the same is true for us – people die every day from accidents and undiagnosed physical ailments. But except when it happens to someone we know, it’s easy not to think about that.

One other thought that came to mind about perishability is that it’s related to having life. Fresh fruits and vegetables were, until they were picked, attached to a living plant. Fresh meat and fish were, until recently part of an animal that was walking or swimming around. Once they are separated from that source of life, they become very perishable.

Non-food items are much less perishable because they’re made up of non-living things. Paper was once part of a living tree but it has been processed so much that it’s hard to recognize the connection. Plastic is made from oil, which was made from living things, but it’s even farther removed from those organic origins.

Living things are perishable in a different way, because their natural life cycles always end in death, even if accident or disease don’t kill them first. Only God has the source of life within Himself, so that He cannot die. And when we are “born again” by His (imperishable) word, then we are connected to that unending source of life.

In our consumer society, we are used to associating value with scarcity. Something that is abundant is usually relatively inexpensive. Something that comes in very limited quantities is likely to be more expensive. God gives abundantly – perhaps this is part of why we often undervalue his gifts to us.

Things that are perishable are by their nature limited. We value the fleeting years of our lives because they are fleeting. Peter, on the other hand, sees their transitory nature as evidence of their lower worth compared with our inheritance with God.

I suppose for people suffering persecution, there is much less temptation to want to extend this life, when an end to it means an entrance into glory. But even they apparently needed to be reminded about what really mattered, considering Peter’s repeated contrasts between the perishable and imperishable.

And it’s a good thing for me that they needed those reminders, because I seem to need them even more.

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