The Pain and Pleasure of Having Pretensions Exposed
I suppose we all struggle with self-awareness. There is an image that we want to project to the world – a way that we want to be perceived – and there is an image that we think we are projecting, but the image that we actually do project may be quite different. Sometimes we think we are less than we are – we think we are overweight or ugly or dumb or any number of things that we actually are not – but all too often we think we are more than we are. This is often especially obvious in little children. I recall watching a Little League baseball game some years ago in which a little boy – probably nine or ten years old – was out in left field and there was a batter at the plate. But this little boy wasn’t paying any attention to the batter. He was out there pretending to make running, diving catches. Then he would scramble back to his feet and pretend to throw the ball in to home plate, and of course follow with a wild cheer, having thrown the phantom runner out. He was a Major League star in his own mind.
It’s probably accurate to say that most of us don’t really outgrow this sort of self-deception (more properly regarded as imaginative play in little children), although hopefully we are able in some measure to tame it or at least become more successful in hiding it. That’s what adults are supposed to do. But it will be obvious to any honest thinker that merely learning to keep our self-deceptions from being exposed is no great moral victory. On the contrary, it is actually far better to have them called out, to be unmasked, to be forced to deal with the reality of who we are, painful as that may sometimes be.
Consider the case of the Apostle Peter. Here’s what Peter says to Jesus in Luke 22:33. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” We would undoubtedly be justified in thinking that Peter believed every word of that. But was it true? Jesus’ reply to Peter likely brings us up short, to say nothing of what it must have done to Peter. “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” We don’t know how Peter received those words. But we do know how the story goes. After Jesus was arrested, Peter followed at a distance, ending up in a courtyard where he sat warming himself by the fire. Three times he was accused of the crime of having been with Jesus, and three times he denied it. And “immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.” Then, in one of the most poignant moments in all of Scripture, Jesus turned and looked at Peter. And his self-deceiving boast, along with the Lord’s prophetic reply – true self-realization, we might call it – exploded in his mind, “and he went out and wept bitterly.”
It’s striking that all four of the Gospels tell this story. They tell it not as “real-time” reporting, but rather well after the fact, after Peter had become the great leader in the early days of the Church (see the early chapters of Acts). This is such a strange thing to do, to tell this story of the unmasking of Peter’s pretensions – to expose his great shame publicly, for all to see. Unless, that is, there is something immensely good and important and instructive and redemptive in it all. And indeed there is. The simple truth is that this sort of unmasking is utterly essential in the coming of any sinner to Jesus. If we are to come, we must be unmasked like this. Our pretensions and self-deceptions about our own goodness must be exposed – painfully so, because there is no other way. We naturally fear this. We fear it because of our pride. We fear it because we believe that if the truth were known, we would be cast out, rejected, not drawn in. How could God accept such a coward, such a traitor, such a sinner as Peter? How can he accept me?
But that is just the point of it all. It is not at all that Peter is accepted because he goes to death with Jesus. That is precisely what no sinner can ever do. He is not accepted because of his goodness, his worthiness, his unbending loyalty. Those things are simply not his to give. He does not have them. Rather, he is accepted because of Christ’s goodness, Christ’s worthiness, Christ’s death for sinners. This is the gospel.
The terminus of this story in the Gospels appears on their very last page – John 21 – where the risen Jesus three times asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter, utterly humbled, responds, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Peter now has been drawn in in a way he never could have experienced before, freed from the crushing burden of self-righteousness, freed by the power of divine forgiveness. We too must yield to the unmasking work of Christ. This is the way to know the joy, the pleasure, of real freedom. There is no other.