Love in Three Questions
I'm the type of person that rehearses past scenes in my mind. I don't mean to be, nor do I really know why I do this, but it is something that I am most certainly guilty of. What do I mean? Think of conversations with friends, loved ones, co-workers, etc. from your past. Now, replay them while trying your best to figure out what happened during them or as a result of them, and then try to analyze why. Try to think through all of the ways that they could have gone differently, better even. Imagine yourself refraining from saying the wrong thing (something I have a rare talent for--not the refraining part, but the saying-the-wrong-thing part, unfortunately), or being wittier, more clever, more patient, more direct, less direct, or simply more clear. Think through these instances in meticulous detail and then imagine how your subtle improvements might have altered the outcomes and then picture how different your life would be if they had gone how you now imagine them rather than how they actually went.
That might sound crazy. That might be crazy. I don't do this all the time, but there are occasions that my mind is left to wander back to pivotal, life-defining moments. For those of you that are fond of "The Godfather" movies, Michael Corleone definitely has this same tendency, especially by the third installment. (Sorry, I also have a tendency to digress). There is another historical figure that I imagine as having this trait as well; Jesus's most famous disciple, Peter. For some reason I picture him as someone who obsesses over past failures. Over the years, I have developed a picture of him as someone who isolates himself, always sitting alone and sulking over his many failures. I think this would be especially true as his mind would drift back to his shortcomings with Jesus.
I picture him just after the crucifixion asking himself a series of "what ifs." What if I hadn't looked away from Jesus to the waves and fallen in the water? What if I'd stayed awake to pray with Jesus in the Garden? What if I had identified Judas Iscariot sooner? What if I had confronted him when it mattered? Maybe if I had been stronger, wiser or more alert, my friend, my Lord, would still be alive. I'm not saying this is gospel. Peter may not have done any of this, but what I've just described is the picture of him that lives in my imagination.
With that in mind, I can't help but think of how excruciating the days that followed Jesus's death must have been. I would be willing to bet that Peter tortured himself about one particular event: the night he denied Jesus three times. I'd guess that he would ask himself how he could have been so weak or so afraid even after everything he had been a part of during Jesus's ministry. I can visualize him staring off into space, unable to focus his attention on anyone or anything else. I know myself well enough to know how deeply those denials would have crippled me. I bet he was drowning in a sea of unworthiness and unhealthy soul-searching thinking only of how he could have been, and should have been, better. I can almost feel his misery.
And then, he was out on a boat with empty nets and a heavy heart when a man called to him from shore with a strange suggestion, "Cast your nets on the other side." After following the instructions and catching more fish than the nets could hold, Peter knew that the request could have only come from one place: Jesus. He was alive! He was there in the flesh! He couldn't wait on a boat to get him to shore; he was so excited that he jumped in the water and swam and struggled to get to him. As I read the account in John 21, my own heart leaps. I want to always be as eager to be with Jesus as Peter was in that moment. I get emotional when I think of his overwhelming joy. All of that misery and self-loathing and meticulous reconstruction of past mistakes was suddenly gone because the Prince of Peace was there! How incredible that moment must have been. It's a lesson to me: forget about the past mistakes that cannot be changed. Passionately pursue Jesus and find the future that he has put before me.
And then, once Peter is finally to him, Jesus shows him more mercy than any of us deserve. In John 21, starting in verse 15, he asks his friend three questions that are so touching when you realize Jesus's motive for asking them. "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" In verse 16, he asks, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" and then in verse 17, he asks, "Do you love me?" Each time Peter answered incredulously by basically saying, "Of course. You know I love you."
So why did Jesus ask this three times? I've heard many theories on this, but it came to me so clearly the last time I read it. Peter's own humanity would never have let him live down the night of the three denials. Jesus knew that, too. By asking this question three times and forcing Peter to answer three times, he was giving him the opportunity to atone for the denials. This was unbelievable grace and mercy. Think of the symbolism. Jesus was basically saying, Peter, you've denied me three times, sure. And now you've made amends by accepting me three times as well. GET OVER IT! I have important things for you to do now, so never think on those denials again.
And that's how our Savior loves. He is patient and kind and keeps no record of wrong. More than that, he tries his best to keep us from keeping record of our own wrongs. There is so much power and love in those three simple questions. It's the very way we need to strive to love each other, to free each other from obsessing over our past mistakes. It's the love of Christ given freely to each of us. It is nearly impossible to emulate except with his help...And it's the kind of love that will change the world!