Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than we think Jesus is. Of course, Jesus isn’t exactly hard on anyone, except the self-righteous who are too soft on themselves, and the religious tyrants who are too hard on others. Learning how to forgive yourself is an important lesson.
Peter was the bold disciple, ever ready to volunteer his words and actions: jumping from a boat to walk on a lake, racing to declare Jesus as the Messiah, and foolishly offering to build shelters for heavenly visitors who had no need of them.
Jesus seemed so patient with Peter’s impulsiveness. When Peter adamantly swore that he would never fall away from or deny the Lord, Jesus simply responded by predicting Peter’s triple denial before the roosters sounded the call for breakfast.1 “Time will tell, Peter.”
Peter probably saw his shame coming. As he witnessed Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and followed the posse of temple police to their makeshift jail in the high priest’s house, the danger to himself became increasingly real. He could hear his heart beating hard and feel his feet itching to run.
When the probing questions began, Peter impulsively defended himself. Surely a denial or two wouldn’t hurt. An hour’s reflection made no difference to Peter’s response to a third question. Fear got the better of him. As Peter denied Jesus, a cock crowed and all Peter’s emotions—fear for his own life, love for Jesus, disappointment at the turn of events, and a longing to stand up for Jesus—rushed out in a flood of shame. Peter crawled into a corner of Jerusalem to face himself.2 You see, Peter had some catching up to do. Jesus knew Peter’s downside better than Peter did; He had foreseen Peter’s path.
I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:32)
Three days later, when he had conclusive evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead, Peter joined in the celebrations. We have no idea how much remorse lingered in Peter’s heart during those weeks with the risen Jesus. Peter was right there enjoying it all—Scripture insights, more miracles, and barbecued fish by the lake. It was at the barbecue that Jesus took Peter to one side, spoke to him about love, told him to feed His sheep, and predicted Peter’s imprisonment and death.3
If you want to know how to forgive yourself, reflect on Peter’s journey. Peter had the double shame of denying Jesus while at the same time being ignorant of his capacity for cowardliness. In spite of Jesus’ warning, Peter had ploughed on in support of Jesus but with little of substance to sustain his loyalty. When the going got tough, Peter fell apart. Perhaps Peter had been able to forgive himself after the resurrection. Perhaps he had learned some humility. But sometimes even when we forgive ourselves, life is flat; the shame has gone but we don’t feel qualified to make a positive contribution.
When Jesus called Peter to care for His flock, it was a humbling honor for Peter. The Lord, who knew Peter’s capacity to fail better than Peter knew it himself, still made a point of delegating a special task to Peter. Jesus’ words probably sealed Peter’s healing. They gave him a vision beyond the removal of the shame of sin. Jesus saw Peter capable of something noble. He even saw him courageously facing prison and execution at the end of his life. Jesus had faith in Peter’s spiritual growth! If, in spite of all his failings, Jesus could treat Peter this way, then Peter should be able to forgive himself fully and grow into his calling. Success no longer depended on Peter but on Jesus.
Jesus has an assignment for us all. There is special kingdom work for every Christian no matter what his or her track record is. We need to face our downsides and receive Jesus’ forgiveness and reaffirmation. Then we are ready to rise to new service as Peter did, with a healthy memory of our capacity to fail and a realism about how much we need the anointing of God to succeed.