Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept. Mark 14:72 (NIV)
One of the most difficult things for believers to do is to recover from spiritual failure. Instead of asking for forgiveness, repenting, and then moving forward, followers of Christ are tempted to simply give up and continue in their pattern of sin. What believers need to do instead is to exercise more “personal compassion”. Personal compassion is the practice of forgiving ourselves and acknowledging our “humanity.” In a society where human error is deemed inexcusable, personal compassion moves beyond the actual mistake and begins to mitigate the negative emotions that follow them—this includes regret, shame, and guilt. Once that occurs, the believer can be restored and continue their faith walk. Our text found in the Gospel of Mark, shares a familiar recounting of Peter’s spiritual failure prior to the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 14:66-72).
Peter finds himself in a precarious position as he observes from a distance the trial of Jesus after being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Interestingly, none of the other disciples were mentioned in this denial account—only Peter. Peter was part of Christ’s inner circle with James and John. He had experienced special moments with Christ—the transfiguration and walking on water—and was privy to key revelations about Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the promised Messiah. After the feeding of the 5,000, it was Peter who proclaimed that Jesus was the true source of eternal life (John 6:69). It was because of Peter’s confession of faith that he would become the “foundational rock” (petra) on which the universal Church would be built (Matt. 16:18-19) versus a “piece of the building” (petros). So what happened to Peter in the courtyard that caused him to disassociate himself from Jesus?
It is easy to be critical of Peter because of our “unsympathetic bentness” from decades of Bible classes, Sunday school lessons, and Good Friday sermons. But instead of condemnation, try-on a more compassionate approach. Imagine what Peter felt that night? What emotions did he experience in that courtyard? Anger, fear, and confusion were probably racing through his mind. Jesus had been arrested and now people around him were questioning, “Weren’t you with that Nazarene Jesus?” The young girl challenged him, “This is one of them.” They gathered around Peter, “You’re one of them because you talk like a Galilean!” (Mark 14:67-70) Peter had never been in a situation like this so how did he respond? “I know not…I am not…I don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he made his final denial, the cock crowed and he remembered the words of Jesus, “You shall deny me.” What was Peter’s reaction? He collapsed in tears. His emotions vacillated between regret, shame, and guilt. Peter responded in the only way he knew how—in his humanity. How would you have responded?
If we are honest, we will admit that like Peter, we might experience “spiritual failure”. While we may not be in a palace courtyard, we may experience spiritual failure in the corporate boardroom, when we “support” policies or practices that are outside Christian conduct. We might deny Christ when we “quietly accept” ideas put forth that are contrary to God’s will and Jesus’ teachings, i.e., all religions lead to heaven. We may even “curse” others when we fail to stand firm in our profession of faith and instead follow what’s “politically correct.” God has warned us (much like the crowing cock) that we too may be tempted to “deny” our Lord. Our identification with Christ’s comes with consequences. We must remember who we are and whose we are. Expect to be challenged! (John 15:18)
So what is the invitation God is offering us in this account of Peter’s denial? First, this narrative invites us to understand our humanity with its frailties and weaknesses. We should acknowledge the potential for spiritual failure (1 Cor. 10:12) knowing that God uses our failures to strengthen and shape us (James 1:2-4). Second, it is critical that we recognize the source of our strength is the Lord—His Word (Ps. 19:11) and His indwelling Holy Spirit (Ep. 3:16). Peter made the mistake of depending on his own personal commitment (Mark 14:29) rather than Jesus’ words to him (Luke 22:31-32; Mark 14:30). Lastly, and most importantly, we must exercise personal compassion if and when we fail. Peter’s denial of Jesus was the beginning not the end of his becoming the promised “Rock.” Jesus restored Peter after the Resurrection (John 21:15-19) and greatly used Him at Pentecost (Acts 2) and beyond. God alone is both able and willing to restore us after our spiritual failures. Let the Lover of your soul restore it (Ps. 23:5).
SELAH: Read the account of Peter’s denial in Luke 22:54-62. Imagine yourself to be Peter and write down the emotions you might feel. Then ask God to reveal the places where you might be spiritually vulnerable and how to avoid it.