Peter was grieved because Jesus said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

John 21:17

In asking Peter three times if he loves him, Jesus brings to the fore in this encounter with Peter the three-fold denial of Peter. Peter, who had with great confidence and bravado declared that “even if I have to die with you, I shall never betray you” (Matt. 26:35), had done exactly that when he felt his life was on the line. In his repeated questioning of Peter, Jesus is leading him beyond his failure and shame to that place in his heart where he can honestly and transparently assert: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” So it is with us. We must confront and transcend our own shame before we can begin to touch and to recognize our true capacity for love.
Shame is among the most powerful of human affects and the most constitutive of our character and personality. Because we are inherently social, we need to feel connected and bonded with those around us. As infants, our very survival depends on it. Throughout our lives, however, our identities as largely socially constructed are also highly dependent on our being received and accepted by the society and culture that surrounds us. To be “discovered” by others in those places that cause shame in us is to wish that we would cease to be seen, that we would cease to exist. If we have no place that is given to us by those around us, we feel as if it were better that we “had never been born” (Matt.26:24).
We are social animals, and, as such, shame is a core barometer of our well being. To be shamed is to lose all of our ground, from the social point of view. And yet, that leaves the question, is there another more solid ground than that which “the others” give us, and is that where Jesus is leading Peter?
Yesterday a friend and I were having a conversation about the old practice of public penance, whereby, in order to be forgiven of one’s sins, one needed not only to atone privately but to acknowledge one’s sinfulness in public. This seems somewhat barbaric to our contemporary consciousness, although paradoxically we seem even more obsessed than times past with the private failings and sins of others. Yet, and this is not meant as a justification for the practice, might not the public manifestation of our sinfulness, the falling away of any pretense of self-righteousness, demand of us a touching of a ground of existence that is far more solid than appearances? Once “they” all know who I really am, I must come to know my authentic and original ground, or else perish.
Shame is a difficult but most necessary affect. It assures that we protect what is deepest in us from public judgment and ridicule. It is a potent reminder that what is most truly ourselves is not for publication and distribution, that it is highly vulnerable and needs to be protected. Yet, shame often becomes deformative in our lives because we mistake the more surface and socially approved aspects of our character for our actual identity. The younger Peter was clearly a force to be reckoned with and came to believe his own reputation: “Even if I have to die with you, I shall never betray you.” Yet, when the moment came he was afraid. To know the place in himself where he truly loved, Peter had to be led by Jesus back into and through that fear that was more himself than was the bravado. From that truer place he could say to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” To honestly declare that love, however, Peter had to know his own humanity. “Yes, I love, but I can also betray. I can, as I did, deny you. You know all of who I am and of what I am capable and not capable, yet in it all, you know that I love you.”
To work in the helping professions is to become the object of the transference of others. As a counselor, teacher, medical professional, spiritual director one is constituted by the hope and need of others as all good and all powerful (or the reverse, of course). Yet, should the relationship last long enough, one will come to fail or let down the other in some way. There is great risk in loving and caring for others, because we can only love and care in the face of our own limitations and sinfulness. It is imperative for the caretaker, as for the friend or spouse, that one not “believe” the transference of the other. Many of the violations and disasters that befall these relationships of unequal power are the result of a lack of true self-knowledge on the part of the caregiver. I engage the life of another, I love another, as the broken, sinful, undeveloped human being that I am. This does not make the love untrue but precisely the opposite.
In the the gospel encounter between Jesus and Peter, we see that by the honesty and humility that Jesus asks of us, we can come to know what and whom we love and how we truly are able to love, in the limited, frail, but inspiredly unique way that is hours. We must first, however, shed ourselves of all the “character armor” we have developed that leads us to present ourselves to the world as the lover we are not. We must, as Brother Ryken described, be “put in our place.” Strangely enough, that place may first feel shameful to us, for it is what we have spent most of our life hiding. Yet, it is the only place that the Lord recognizes and knows us, and so the only place from where we can truly love him.

Have you felt the hurt of the Lord to the uncovered quick, the place where the real sensitiveness of your life is lodged? The devil never hurts there, neither sin nor human affection hurts there, nothing goes through to that place but the word of God. “Peter was grieved because Jesus said unto him the third time. . .” He was awakening to the fact that in the real true center of his personal life he was devoted to Jesus, and he began to see what the patient questioning meant. There was not the slightest strand of delusion left in Peter’s mind, he never could be deluded again. There was no room for passionate utterance, no room for exhilaration or sentiment. It was a revelation to him to realize how much he did love the Lord, and with amazement he said—“Lord, Thou knowest all things.” Peter began to see how much he did love Jesus; but he did not say—“Look at this or that to confirm it.” Peter was beginning to discover to himself how much he did love the Lord, that there was no one in heaven above or upon earth beneath beside Jesus Christ; but he did not know it until the probing, hurting questions of the Lord came. the Lord’s questions always reveal me to myself.

The patient directness and skill of Jesus Christ with Peter! Our Lord never asks questions until the right time. Rarely, but probably at least once. He will get us into a corner where He will hurt us with HIs undeviating questions, and we will realize that we do love Him far more deeply than any profession can ever show.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, March 2

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