(Note from Kathleen: in my blog about the Prescott Granite Mountain Firefighters I gave the wrong date for the deaths of the firefighters, the date was June 30 at 4:30 pm MST).
Will you also go away?
It is a wonderful thing to believe that God loves us. We live and thrive on this truth, and it pleases Him that we believe this truth—it is the essential foundation for everything else we believe. His presence is a sweet protective covering over us and we curl up in His love. We can never love anyone else unless we get it that He loves us.
But what happens when suddenly a change of circumstances hits and we no longer feel protected—in fact, we feel just the opposite—we feel abandoned and alone, adrift in a sea of unknown, unchartered territory? Suddenly, where we had once felt safe and trusted in everything He had promised, His presence seems to have vanished. An awful aching loneliness sets in.
Most who have followed Jesus closely through difficult situations experiences this at some point and I suppose more has been written about this than anything else by those who have been through it. Job experienced it. Abraham experienced it. Moses experienced it. David experienced it. I could go on—all of the true disciples of Christ in the Bible experienced it. Books have been written about these men and women. God was near, then He was absent. God made promises and then He allowed them all to fall to the ground, seemingly unanswered. Oswald Chambers described such times as Jesus walking on ahead—an unfamiliar friend. Where is the sweetness of His presence? Why does He seem so remote now that I have learned to love and trust Him?
I relate most to Peter. He was in the innermost circle of the disciples. Jesus allowed Peter to get as close as any man had ever been—allowed into the inner heart of His Lord, given a peek into how Jesus related to the Father, how He related to fallen humanity. He saw it first hand, up close and personal for three solid years. Peter loved Jesus with all of the human love one could have. It was Peter who declared that He would not walk away from Jesus in John 6: 66-69:
From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
He meant this; he believed in Jesus. When so many others went away, Peter stayed—he remained faithful. Why then, after remaining faithful, being in the innermost circle of the followers of Jesus, did Jesus, at the end of it all, say to Peter, “Peter, you will also go away, you will also betray Me. I already know this because I know things in your heart that you are not even aware of, and your love brings me such joy, but it is still based on your experience of My presence. I am going where you cannot follow and you are going to deny Me—you are going to walk away. You will not understand this now, but later you will.”
Jesus is always after something deeper, trying to explain the deep truths to the disciples and they don’t get it yet. They don’t see the big picture—they only see their small lives and how Jesus can meet their needs here and now. I am intrigued by how Jesus lived as a simple man, but spoke as One who understood the beginning from the end and taught as though everyone understood what He was talking about. They didn’t understand. Peter did love Jesus, but this love that Jesus spoke of—it was another kind of love, it was an eternal, “all in” kind of love. This love had nothing to do with answered prayer or about the felt presence of God; it was a sort of faith that Peter could only understand after the resurrection—After he had denied that he even knew Jesus. How shocking that must have been to Peter—to have walked away so easily after all he had been through with Jesus. One minute professing undying love— “I will lay down my life for Your sake!” —the next minute cursing out loud, “I don’t know the man!”
At that moment, Jesus seemed unknowable—walking ahead—an unfamiliar friend. He was being beaten and tortured and finally hung on the cross—He didn’t even defend Himself. Peter wasn’t there for his friend after all. He was hiding away, watching from a distance, feeling betrayed and abandoned by the One he loved—but also betraying the One he loved—all in one fell swoop. Maybe walking so close to this God/Man was not all it was cracked up to be. Maybe it was all for nothing—none of the things promised came to pass—prayers weren’t answered. Peter faced blank discouragement. What was it all for? What was the meaning of it all? How could it have gone so wrong? Where will I go? He alone had the words of eternal life—what will happen to me now? Who will look after me?
We cannot ignore the fact that Jesus knew all along that Peter was going to betray Him and He had built that failure into the process of Peter’s story. Jesus was modeling the kind of love that He was going to pour into Peter—Peter was ready to die for Jesus, but he didn’t understand that Jesus had to die for him. He didn’t understand that just before he made the bold declaration that he would die for Jesus, he had been arguing with the other disciples about who was going to sit at Jesus’ right hand on the throne when Jesus took control of Israel again. It was his “little” world view of things. It was his pride and that pride is what had to die on that cross with Jesus.
That was the big picture. Peter’s little world view had to die. He would learn where he was going to fit into the big story Jesus was writing and it was going to include a lot of humblings, not sitting on a throne. This experience is the big picture—not that Peter walked close to Jesus and was faithful to Him for three years—the big picture was that after failing Jesus, denying Him, walking away from Him, realizing that he was guilty of thinking he was better than someone else because he had stayed faithful and deserved a better seat at the table, he had to see that he was capable of the same thing that all of us are capable of—walking away, because that would give him compassion and love for others who were failing and falling and floundering in their faith. Peter’s failure was built in to the process.
How big is that picture? Peter’s story took place over 2000 years ago and today, in my little life, his story impacts me, changes me, keeps me hanging on, because no matter what happens—no matter whether I feel the presence of God just now or whether He seems to be walking on ahead, an unfamiliar friend, no matter whether my prayers are answered, no matter what everyone else is doing—I am learning that He is working it all into His bigger plan, and His plan is huge—so much bigger than my little world. And He is not wasting my pain.
There are a whole lot of lessons in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, but that is my take away. After the resurrection Jesus appears to all of the disciples on the beach and an odd encounter ensues. Jesus fixes His gaze on Peter and drills him with the question “Peter, do you love Me?” Peter is no longer making bold declarations of undying love—no, this time he says, “Lord, I like you a lot.” His pride has been broken and he is humbled. He has seen what Jesus saw all along—he saw the pride in his heart. Now Jesus gives him his life commission—“Feed my sheep.” And Peter can feed the sheep, because now he knows what his own heart is capable of and he trembles at the thought. He won’t point his finger at the sheep and condemn them for their failures—he will shepherd the sheep with care and compassion. He does indeed go on to be strength to others and has done so for over two thousand years. Our testimony is rarely a testimony of “Look at how God answered all my prayers,” but rather, “Look at what He has done in me—in my heart—through the things I have suffered. That is the big picture:
All of our pain has redemptive value in God’s economy. He never wastes any of it. It is always redemptive not only for us, but for the rest of His sheep.