“Simon, stay on your toes. Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me, like chaff from wheat. Simon, I’ve prayed for you in particular that you not give in or give out. When you have come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.” Peter said, “Master, I’m ready for anything with you. I’d go to jail for you. I’d die for you!”Jesus said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Peter, but before the rooster crows you will have three times denied that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34, The Message)
Some time ago, I was introduced to an insightful TED talk by Kathryn Schultz, entitled “On Being Wrong.” In the course of her talk, Schultz offers this quote by St. Augustine: “Fallor Ergo Sum,” meaning “I err, therefore I am.” I had never seen that quote before, but it reminded me of a key idea that is often overlooked in all our discussions of the Christian life, especially as it relates to pastoral work. Being wrong – failing – is part of being human! Forgetting we are human can be the source of so many troubles. We want to run from it, hide it, compensate for it any way we can; yet it remains a nagging truth: we are human beings. The surprising aspect is that our humanness is ok.
There are several things about this encounter between Peter and Jesus that cause me to pause and look a little deeper. If I understand how the conversation played out…
- Peter was about to be overwhelmed by the depths of what it meant to be human and sinful and wrong, yet Jesus was not surprised. The impending revelation of his humanity would threaten to sweep Peter away, to shipwreck his faith, and cause him to “give in or give out.” But Jesus anticipated the struggle that was about to take place in Peter’s life. It is the acknowledgment of our humanity in this story that often eludes me.
- It would be a lesson hard learned, through great failure and shame. Peter says what we all say: “It will never happen to me!”
- The beauty of what Jesus tells Peter is that He intends for this event to be an asset, not a liability. Certainly, Jesus did not tell Peter to go out and deny Him, just so that some good could come from it. What he did do was express the concurrent realities of our humanness and God’s grace. God’s grace runs rampant through this whole story – as it does throughout the Word.
- Jesus prayed for Peter and all the disciples (John 17), and His prayer would carry them through their time of testing. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t fail and somehow avoid the mess. Rather, Peter would survive the onslaught and come through learning that he was loved without strings.
- This experience would ultimately become the foundation of one of Peter’s greatest accomplishments – helping to restore his brothers. This was actually the first task that Jesus gave to Peter, and it came long before Peter became the beacon of gospel-preaching in the early days of the church.
Why are we still surprised that we bump up against our humanity? We don’t like it, don’t account for it and readily dismiss our limitations and finiteness. Our sense of living in a broken world remains a theological abstraction – except when it happens to someone else! However, there are no exceptions to this rule; we are all human. It is a lesson learned slowly and quietly by some; loudly and publicly by others.
Think of Satan’s purpose: “…to separate all of you from me….” And then think of those who have forgotten that they are human and end up burned out, forced out or fallen. A sense of unrelenting failure seeps into their bones. Doubt of any good coming to them or through them ever again clouds their minds. Close to half of pastors who are leave ministry in this condition never return. But that doesn’t have to be the final word.
The end result of Peter’s adventure into his own humanity was an opportunity to take what he experienced of the grace of God and make it available to his fellow disciples. “Strengthen your brothers.” “Turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.” Confirm – make firm again – those who are vacillating because they, like you, suddenly realize they are human and bent toward self-preservation. How was Peter to do this? I think there are at least a couple of things he might have done immediately:
- Having been deeply changed, he would have shared his own story of how God’s grace was never absent from his experience. It was, and is, as close as the Savior’s breath on our hearts as He prays for us.
- He would have told them that they didn’t need to be afraid of their brokenness, that grace refuses to be surprised by our humanity. It is a grace that was changing him from Peter, the “super” man, to Peter, the one who could identify with and offer hope and help to his brothers. He could firm up their faith in a God who loves them even when they run.
Like many others, I have lived this part of the story of Peter’s life. In fact, this passage forms the core of my personal mission statement. Having come through a time of severe testing, I want to be able to “confirm” or strengthen those who have seen their expectations of life in ministry shot down, crushed or dealt a lethal blow by their own hand. That is why I started this blog and why I am involved in a ministry of hope and restoration.
When Henry Nouwen was being ordained, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche Communities, prayed the following prayer over him:
May all your expectations be frustrated
May all your plans be thwarted
May all your desires be withered to nothingness
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
Could it be that the very things that make up so much of our humanity – our frustrated expectations, thwarted plans, and withered desires – are the very things God uses to restore hope and offer grace?