In my first professional examination in dental school I flunked three of my four final papers. And I flunked the big ones — anatomy, biochemistry and physiology. I remember the long train journey home to Penang knowing my dad would be waiting for me at the train station. I was always scared of his temper and thought he would be ballistic at my failure.
At the station, dad was clearly burdened, and I have since learnt firsthand the burdens of parenthood. But he didn’t explode at me. He helped carry my bags and mumbled something about the fact that if I really couldn’t cut it in dental school, he and mum would try to find the funds to send me to Canada to restart my tertiary education. (We were not rich.) I had an uncle in Toronto and he would help.
My parents gave me the chance to start over. And so did the university. I sat for my supplementary examinations and although I could only obtain the mandated pass for those exams my Profs told me that I had done well. I went on to finish my dental training. I had failed but because I had been given the chance to start over I was able to move on in my life’s journey.
My encounter with dad at the railway station doesn’t even come close to Peter’s encounter with Jesus in John 21:15-19. Here was a Peter who had sworn that he would rather die than betray Jesus (John 13:31-38) and then had gone on to betray Jesus three times. If he had betrayed Jesus just once we could have argued in mitigation that he had a bad day. But three times in a row reveals a serious flaw in character.
Peter was sincere and enthusiastic. But his view of his own heart was flawed. Like many of us he thought he was stronger and better than he really was. And as long as he held onto those illusions Jesus could not use him.
Jesus knew all along, the true status of Peter’s heart. He knew that the shameful failures would come. Yet He must have also seen beyond the failures to this moment — when a Peter stripped of illusion would be ready to be restored, reinstated and commissioned.
It is interesting that when Jesus encounters Peter post-failure, He calls him “Simon” (v.15). Simon was Peter’s name, a name that was associated with his life before he met Jesus (John 1:42). It’s almost as though Jesus is saying, “let’s start over.” “Let’s take it from the top.” Here is grace demonstrated and defined.
Jesus would have had every right to have dismissed Peter. Here was no “rock.” Peter was “tau-fu” (bean curd), soft and weak. He was quicksand. How could he serve as a leader in God’s flock? Only after he learnt that his adequacy must be of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:5). And that was a lesson that could only be learnt through failure.
It is ironic of course that most of us spend our lives chasing successes, however that is defined at the various stages of our lives. Indeed we should be good stewards of our lives and seek to maximize our potential for God’s glory and purposes. God takes no pleasure in our failures. And a holy God is totally opposed to sin.
Yet God is also committed to our growth in Christlikeness and that is a process that demands that we grow in accurate self-knowledge. It requires that we understand that we are really much worse then our defensive mechanisms allow us to believe. This is a process that wars on self-illusion and for that, nothing beats egg in your face.
There is no cheap grace. Peter had to confront the horror of his failure. Jesus’ three questions echoed Peter’s three denials. And surely the sight and smell of the charcoal fire on the beach would have reminded Peter of another fire, one that burnt on the cold night that he betrayed his Lord (John 18:18). Peter’s restoration was a painful exercise (John 21:17). There is no true restoration without confession, repentance, and restitution where necessary.
But God is a God of grace who condescends to use our failures for His loving purposes of shaping us to be what we should be. Failure is a key divine pedagogical tool, one necessitated by the hardness of our hearts. And God will do whatever it takes. He loves us that much.
As you start a new year you may not be feeling too hot about yourself. You may feel that you have fumbled and failed big time. Your heart is cold as you are confronted by a new and more accurate assessment of yourself. If that is your situation, I want to say “congratulations!” Now maybe God is finally able to mould and shape you to be the person you were meant to be.
Come to Jesus. He is waiting with the warmth of His love. The meeting will probably be painful. But the end result will be joy and the deepening of your relationship with Him. And you will receive fresh instructions for your life.
The third time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ He said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’ (John 21:17 TNIV)