Love that Restores
When we do something that hurts another, one of two things happens within us: Either our conscience bothers us or our conscience dies.
If our soul has not died, if our conscience is troubled by the wrong we have done, the guilt we feel goes in one of two directions: Either in the direction of unhealthy guilt or in the direction of heathy guilt.
Unhealthy guilt goes beyond convicting us of the wrong we have done. It fills us with shame and despair and self-loathing. It drives us to hide, to run away, to give up.
Healthy guilt faces the truth of what we have done and prompts us to set things right and to do better next time.
The devil is in the business of unhealthy guilt. He delights in filling us with shame, despair and self-loathing. It pleases him when he succeeds in getting us to hide or run away or give up.
Jesus, on the other hand, is in the business of healthy guilt. He is delighted when we face the truth about the wrong we have done and turn in the right direction.
To deny knowing a friend—three times—in their darkest moment is a deep disloyalty to and injustice to one’s friend. That’s what Peter did to Jesus.
After that, a battle began to take place in Peter between unhealthy guilt and healthy guilt. The unhealthy guilt stirred up within Peter a sense of shame and despair and self-loathing. Thinking himself no longer worthy to be a disciple—thinking himself to be incapable of being a credible witness on behalf of the one whom he denied—Peter runs away. He returns to his fishing. The devil must have been delighted with that!
But Jesus enters into the battle—and I love the way Jesus fights for Peter. Jesus fights for Peter without shaming Peter for going back to his fishing. He fights for Peter with a blessing, with a meal, with perseverance, with restoration, and with affirmation.
While Peter is fishing unsuccessfully, Jesus tells him to put the nets down on the right side of the boat. Suddenly, the nets fill with fish! Though Jesus wants Peter to leave his fishing, Jesus does not force Peter into a change of careers by putting a hole in his boat. Instead, Jesus pours out blessings on Peter.
Then they sit down to a meal together. Even after disowning Jesus, Jesus does not require Peter to do something first to re-earn the company of Jesus. Jesus simply sits down with Peter, gently and graciously meeting the needs of a hungry and estranged friend. This is all a part of Jesus’ strategy of moving Peter from unhealthy guilt to healthy guilt. It begins with loving and valuing Peter right where he is.
It’s what Jesus does with us, too. He comes to us. He meets us where we are. He loves and cares for us before we do anything to earn or re-earn his favor.
After the meal, Jesus tackles the elephant in the room: the wall of unaddressed sin and unhealthy guilt that stands in the way between Jesus and Peter. Jesus asks Peter—three times—“Do you love me?”
Some have argued that Jesus asked the question three times to match the number of times Peter denied knowing Jesus, as though Peter must make up for each sinful denial with a matching declaration of love for Jesus. But such reasoning goes against all of Biblical teaching on grace and forgiveness. According to Scripture, we are not forgiven because of penance we do to earn God’s forgiveness, but because of what Jesus did on the cross for us.
Part of the reason Jesus asks Peter three times has to do with the progression of the way the question is asked. First Jesus asks whether Peter loves him “more than these,” using the highest word for love in the Greek language. Next Jesus leaves off the comparison while still using the highest word for love. Finally, Jesus moves from agapao to phileo, a lighter word for love, more akin to “brotherly love.”
But I believe the more significant reason Jesus asks Peter three times is because he gently perseveres until he gets Peter to give more than a trite answer to a critical question. At first, Peter answers off the top. His answer does not penetrate deeply into his heart. But after gently, graciously and persistently pressing on with his questions, Jesus gets past the veneer to the deep, hurting places in Peter’s soul. The words Peter uses to answer the question are the same, “You know that I love you,” but now they come from the heart—the deep, aching part of Peter’s heart. That’s what Jesus wanted all along. That’s why he persevered with the questions. He pressed on to get to the deep and genuine place in Peter’s heart.
That is what God does with us as well, and that is the blessing of an aching conscience. An aching conscience is God’s way of getting us to the place where our hearts break over the wrong we have done. This is the beginning of repentance; it is the beginning of a changed life.
All the way through, Jesus kept reaffirming his call to Peter, for that was part of his battle plan against unhealthy guilt. The aim of healthy guilt is to move us from despair to restoration, and from giving up to re-engagement in the work of God.
As a result of Peter’s healthy guilt and restoration, Peter becomes a better person. He becomes a more humble person, more aware of his own weaknesses, more reliant on Christ to help him through each day, and better equipped to shepherd God’s people lovingly.