Telling the truth can be really hard, especially when we have to tell it to ourselves. Getting curious and digging into truths about our leadership or relationships can be very uncomfortable, to say the least.
How hard is it to own:
- The gap between who you think you are and what you actually do?
- The space between the best version of yourself and who you are when fear drives your actions?
- The tension between your ego and your wounded inner self?
Take for example, the accounts we have of Peter in the New Testament. Peter could, I imagine, speak clearly about this. He had a story to dig into. His was the story of declaring his loyalty and unfettered devotion to Jesus and his decision made in utter fear to save himself.
Peter did go on to tell the story—the story of Jesus’ redeeming, saving love— but before he could tell that story, before he could be the rock of faith that Jesus would build his church upon, before speaking boldly before the Sanhedrin and saying, “. . . we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Act 4:20), before those bold words said to the very people who set the crucifixion and thus Peter’s denial into motion, there had to be a reckoning with his story—with his actions.
There had to be the integration of all parts of what he was and is. Peter, like all of us, had a version of himself that he perhaps found easiest to love. When we integrate all the parts of ourselves, we welcome all the parts of our stories:
- the parts that we are proud of
- the parts we are ashamed of
- the parts we learned about ourselves that scare us to our very core
- the parts of us that can be interpreted in the worst possible way
- the parts of us we will never wrap in love because we will never own those moments
You have these moments. I have them too. Perhaps:
- the moment you overheard your mom tell your 4th grade teacher that you just weren’t that smart
- the moment your boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with you …through a text message
- the moment the church council president said, “There are some things we need to talk about regarding your performance.”
- the moment you recorded your 64th worship service over Zoom and just felt like you couldn’t do this anymore
- the moment you went to your high school class reunion…and you sensed you weren’t as connected to these people as you thought
- the moment who you thought you were was shattered
This too is the moment Peter needs to reckon with. Peter needs to dig into the moment when the person he thought he was shattered. It seems Peter, like lots of us, avoids and denies the gap of pain. He returns to fishing after the crucifixion and after the Risen Lord has appeared to the disciples. He returns to what is known and comfortable—to the thing that ordered the rhythm of his life before Jesus called him to leave his nets. Now he takes them up again.
The connection that Peter denied Jesus three times and Jesus asks Peter thrice if he loves Jesus is not easy to miss with a close reading of the passion story and the post-resurrection texts. Yet while this seems neat and tidy, it can leave the whole emotional landscape this conversation took place in out of one’s field of view.
Why did Jesus ask him three times? To give theologians 2000 years later some fun mind candy? Was he grilling Peter? Making him squirm? Holding his feet to the fire? Making sure he was really repentant? Without stage directions, adverbs, and adjectives there are so many ways one can understand the tone, the intent of Jesus’ third time asking, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:17) and the response this third repetition draws out of Peter. We don’t know how Jesus said it but we know that Peter felt hurt.
I feel hurt when someone:
- intentionally wounds me
- speaks harshly to me
- suddenly snaps at me
When I emotionally connect Peter with the above understanding, then it seems plausible Jesus didn’t need to grill Peter; it reminds me too much of being interrogated for coming home late from a date in high school, just on a much much more significant level. I remember feeling shame for being late up the driveway—so if I felt shame when I was questioned, why won’t I understand Peter also feeling ashamed when Jesus asked the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Yet, knowing from Brené Brown’s research that shame never leads to positive outcomes and it makes us want to hide, there is something else going on here that I believe has much more to do with Peter integrating the denial than having a neat three-for-three cause and effect.
Peter couldn’t be in denial if he was to be the leader Jesus called him to be.
Peter couldn’t deny the worst part of his life and be a whole person; walking into this pain with his community of faith was the work—the hard work that Jesus was making sure Peter did. I wonder if Peter felt hurt like how I feel hurt when someone speaks a truth to me or about me that I’d rather not acknowledge. When that happens, I know I’m being invited to let the scales fall from my eyes. If Thomas could doubt and receive what he needed, Peter could deny and be made a whole, forgiven, resurrected saint and sinner. Following Jesus means being honest with Jesus.
Instead of Jesus grilling Peter with a stern, disapproving look, now I believe, Jesus would have hung in there with Peter over and over and over until Peter did feel the hurt. I believe Jesus would have asked Peter 27 times, 50 times, 95 times—as many times as it took—over and over the question that would break any shell of denial, pretending, or avoidance so that the pain could be walked through and integrated. Jesus already knew that Peter loved him, but could Peter trust himself to believe that he did?
The pain must have its day. The denial couldn’t stand between Peter and Jesus. Between Peter and the other disciples. Between Peter and himself. The denial couldn’t be the unspoken hijacker of every good next step Peter might take. The pain must have its day.
And this time, it came with breakfast on the beach.
Jesus wasn’t hurting Peter; Jesus was healing Peter.
Jesus wasn’t testing Peter; Jesus was loving him into a new life.
Jesus wasn’t grilling Peter; Jesus was attending to Peter’s pain.
Jesus wasn’t looking at him with disapproval, instead it is like Jesus cupped his face, put his hands on Peter’s cheeks, drew him in close and let him cry, heave, and fall apart. Peter had worked so hard to hold it all together. Now he gets to fall apart. Maybe he got to crumble into the arms of Jesus.
Maybe you feel like you are working so hard right now to hold it all together. Maybe you are tired of pretending all is fine in leadership or of carrying a very heavy load alone. You aren’t alone. There is hope and there are skills you can learn. One of those skills is increasing self-awareness, which makes us more courageous. In the loving gaze of Jesus, this is what Peter did. We can do it too.
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