Failure. It's a hard topic to address as Christians. Surely, if we love God and do our best to obey Him, failure is something we're pretty unlikely to come into contact with? And naturally, the best leaders are the ones who fail the least? Well, the curious thing about the Bible is that time and time again, we see the big heroes fail. Moses was a murderer, Elijah ran away from a lot of his problems, Jonah...yeah. And one of the greatest kings in all of the Bible, King David, racked up an astounding number of sins throughout his reign.
Before we go any further, I am going to make one thing very clear. God does not condone sin. His nature does not tolerate it, and it is not what He wants for us.
But what is often overlooked in these cases is the incredible ability of God to turn what looks like an utter disaster into a success that no one could have predicted. And no one demonstrates this better than the Apostle Peter.
The Curious Case of the Apostle Peter
Peter, or Simon as he is also referred to, is one of the most famous apostles. He was singled out as a close friend of Jesus, was present for most of Jesus' miraculous works and had the privilege of being the first ever leader of the Church after Jesus ascended. He wrote several epistles and was eventually martyred for his faith. He is also my favourite apostle (are we allowed favourites? I have them anyway) for the very simple reason that he is so relatable. As far as colourful characters go in the Bible, Peter is someone I could well imagine meeting in real life, because he is so completely human.
Want to know what I mean? Take a closer look at his presence in several gospel stories:
Mark 8 v 32: "Then Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke Him". Let's get this one straight. Jesus has just revealed an astounding prophecy about what will happen to Him. Then Peter tells Him off for being such a downer. How, after months of travelling and witnessing miracles, has Peter managed to miss the crucial thing that Jesus is getting at?
Matthew 14 v 30: "But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, Lord, save me!" Again, Peter has just seen the astonishing power of Jesus. They are walking together on the waves. But somehow the threatening weather gets in the way, and despite the evidence of Jesus' control over the elements, Peter allows his fear to sink him.
Luke 22 v 49:"When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear" Here we see Peter opt to use physical violence to try and resolve a situation that has gone far beyond his control. Not only is this against the teachings of Jesus, it also gets them into much bigger trouble as assaulting the servant of the high priest was a serious offence. He risks the lives of himself and his companions on a rash act.
Luke 22 v 61: "And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times. So Peter went out and wept bitterly" Perhaps the most serious betrayal of all, hours after Peter boasts that he will never deny Jesus, he denies that he ever knew Jesus and pretends to be a total stranger. This is probably the lowest point of Peter's life, having just betrayed his best friend.
I don't write these things to offer judgement on Peter. We are all sinners, and what is clear about the case of Peter is that you can see the motives behind each decision. He was trying to do the right thing in most cases, whether that was protecting Jesus, keeping everyone cheerful or simply acting in a self-preservative way. But in each case, he messed up and it could have been the end for him as a disciple and as a part of God's mission.
But each time, something curious happened.
Jesus could have thrown him out of the group, and He absolutely could have disowned Peter as Peter had disowned Him. But Jesus didn't. He turned back to Peter, and He trusted him again. Jesus gave Peter authority to carry out His mission both before and after His death and resurrection. As the greatest judge of character in the world, Jesus knew Peter's faults and shortcomings. He was able to predict that Peter would deny Him, and Peter did. He invited Peter to walk on the water with Him, despite knowing Peter's fears. Was He gullible?
Well, no. The model of Jesus and Peter is one of the best examples of Christian discipleship that we have. No matter how many times Peter fell, and fell hard, Jesus lifted him up again. Sometimes literally - when Peter fell into the waves, Jesus lifted him out by the hand to walk with Him. When Jesus had risen, He asked Peter to lead the Church:
"When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 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 v 15-17
This is one of the most personal exchanges between God and man in the whole Bible. Jesus redeems Peter from his mistakes, and gives him a huge responsibility: taking care of Jesus' family when He has ascended. The importance of this cannot be understated - Peter now has the responsibility that Jesus had when He was on Earth, to lead, teach and care for his flock. The man who was one of the biggest failures of the gospel has become one of its greatest success stories. After Jesus ascended, Peter went on to save thousands of people, heal the sick and lead the church as it grew dramatically across the region.
What Can We Learn?
There is something for all of us to take away from the story of Peter. For those of us who have made mistakes, take heart from his example. He fell down, many times, and he fell hard. But every time he fell down, God reached out and picked him up. Peter repented, and God responded. We should not glory in our mistakes, but we can trust that we can learn from them and God can use them for His glory. No mistake is too big for God to fix, and no one is beyond God's redemption.
There is also much to be learnt from the example of Jesus' actions here. Jesus, as the ultimate leader, knows his disciples' shortcomings. But He doesn't write them off based on their actions; rather, He sees their potential. He saw the potential in Peter the uneducated and mouthy fisherman to become Peter, one of the greatest leaders in the Bible. Rather than casting him off the first, second or even tenth time Peter messed up, Jesus continued to work in Peter to bring about a dramatic change. For Christian leaders, there is a challenge here. Are there people that we root out early because we don't think they'll amount to much? Are there people we've written off as no-hopers? Because that isn't good enough for God.
I don't mean that you should give anyone a chance to do anything. Jesus doesn't make Peter a leader until Peter has been thoroughly broken and realised how low he has sunk, and how much he needs God. At that moment, all of his gifts and all of his hopes were totally at the command of God. Which made him the perfect leader. Don't throw people in before they are ready, but release them into leadership when their heart is in the right place with God. When God is involved, skills tend to arrive when they are needed - see the case of the illiterate Peter preaching one of the best sermons on record in Acts 2.
A Final Comparison
I would like to end on a slightly sadder note. As Peter is perhaps the most famous disciple, so Judas Iscariot is undoubtedly the most infamous. If you were to seek a failure in the gospels, he stands out as the person who fell the furthest in betraying Jesus to the Romans and High Priests. But when held up next to Peter, one thing is very clear: repentance is the only weapon we have against failure.
Judas committed a terrible sin in betraying Jesus. But all sin is equally bad in God's eyes, placing him on a level pegging with every other person in the world who has sinned (ie everyone except Jesus). Judas is consumed by his guilt, and kills himself. We don't know if there was an alternative for him, but based on the fact that God is all loving and forgives any who truly repent, I imagine that if Judas truly repented, he would have been forgiven. If the sinner on the cross next to Jesus could repent, and if David and Moses could commit murder and be forgiven, if Peter could betray Jesus and be forgiven, I imagine Judas could too.
But he doesn't repent. He is consumed by his shame and his guilt. Where Peter repents, Judas allows guilt and shame to overwhelm him. It's an easy thing to do - they are present in all of us, especially when we have sinned. But I daresay there would have been a place for him, and a redemption akin to Peter's if Judas had repented.
Don't be a Judas. Don't let your mistakes control your life. Choose to be a Peter. When you mess up, fess up and try again. Every time we fall, Jesus holds out a hand to help us up again. This doesn't mean that there are no consequences, but it means that as long as we follow Jesus, there will always be a second chance.
Give God your failures and He will turn the world upside down.
Hannah is one of the student workers at the Belfrey. She'll be OK once she's had some tea.