January 22, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from the end of Matthew chapter 26, verses 69-75.
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. One of the maids came over to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it in front of everyone, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about!” As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man!” A little later the bystanders came over and said to Peter, “Surely you too are one of them; even your speech gives you away.” At that he began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately a cock crowed. Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.
This passage always makes me very uncomfortable because it confronts me with an aspect of my nature that I don’t like to own, that I am ashamed of. It must be particularly important for us to consider, though, since all four gospels include the account.
Lying. It is ubiquitous and universal, a seeming constant in our human natures. Psychoanalyst Karl Menninger in Man Against Himself wrote that we lie because we fear being punished, a fear that arises in our childhood. every child desperately wants to be loved. Invariably, as children we are punished when we have done something wrong by having love withdrawn — real, threatened, or imagined. It spawns fear in us. So, we lie to defend ourselves against the loss of love.
Peter clearly lied because he feared for his life. He feared that he might be tortured and executed right alongside Jesus. Few can face down that fear and accept death, though we have the examples of the martyrs and other courageous people through history. But they stand out because they are so few.
I’m too familiar with this escalating series of lies. I’ve often responded to an accusation or question with, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” hoping that will end the discussion right there. But inside I feel the rising tension, the tightening of my jaw and chest, the heat of shame, and the fear of punishment. It doesn’t even matter how serious my transgression; my response is almost always the same. If questioned again, I become more adamant and louder in my denial. If pushed further, I have been known to swear and hotly deny the truth. It’s sickening to even think about now.
The point, though, is that Peter was so ashamed and remorseful that he wept bitterly. He was sorry beyond words and surely asked God for forgiveness even though he may not have believed that he could be forgiven. Fortunately, we know the end of the story when Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee and asked Peter if he loved him. He gave Peter the grace to forgive himself and to atone by professing his love for Jesus, not once but three times.
I think God knows that it is our human frailty, our fear of being punished that leads us to lie, even to deny him. Most of us can’t help lying from time to time to protect ourselves from punishment for the sins we have committed against one another. At least I know that’s true for me. He sent us his Son so that we could know that He forgives us for our sins if we are sorry for them and strive not to repeat them.
It is really hard for me to forgive those who have hurt me. Some I turn my back to completely and erase them from my life. For the others still in my life it takes a lot of hard work, prayer, and time for me to forgive. When I am the one who has hurt another, particularly someone I love, I have to work to rebuild trust; I have to earn it back. It can be agonizingly slow and fitful. I have to be determined and patient. But I have learned that first I have to forgive myself and I have to believe that God forgives me as well. That’s where it starts, with my being able to accept that God forgives me when I tell him I’m sorry and ask for forgiveness. When I am whole with Him, then I can turn to work on repairing my relationship with the one I love.
For me the greatest love is the love that is shown in forgiveness because that is a reflection of God. God working in another so that I can experience His love. I need His forgiveness and I need forgiveness when I have hurt another. I need it because I want to be loved as I have from birth. It’s probably the greatest need any of us have. The day I can finally accept and thoroughly believe that God loves me will be a day of liberation. For then it may mean that I will never have to lie again. I will never have to fear that I will lose His love, that I will be punished. That’s why all four gospel writers recorded this story for us; they recognized how essential it is to our faith and to our happiness.
P.S. I will be out of town for a few days and may not be able to write.