Fear is an extremely powerful motivator, but guilt also can cause us to do things which we really don’t want to do. Either of these can handcuff us and force us into a protective shell. The more we understand the heart of God revealed in the Bible, the less we can attribute either of these driving factors to our benevolent Father. The Christian gospel we trust simply isn’t about God motivating those He deeply loves with fear and guilt. He absolutely doesn’t need to do so. His love is abundantly powerful enough, even more powerful than these negative feelings.
As many times as we’ve read the passage commonly summarized as “Jesus Reinstates Peter”, we don’t seem to be able to get past Peter’s guilt trip. It’s difficult to deny that Peter was obviously suffering from guilt after having denied knowing Jesus on multiple occasions. Perhaps we can gain insight by looking at this famous dialog from the perspective of Jesus while asking, “Is laying a guilt trip on someone really consistent with the Jesus we have come to know and love?”
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly 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 truly 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 21:15-17).
Talking to his risen Lord, Peter appears to be so guilt-ridden that he pulls the classic ploy of deflecting blame which Adam piloted when first confronted by God in his rebellion, “‘The woman you put here with me, “blame her” (Gen 3:12). In a similar fashion, Peter objects in the verses which immediately follow as if to say to Jesus, “Hey what about John? Don’t just chastise me.”
While it is obvious Peter defends himself out of a guilty conscious, he is also saddened by the line of questioning Jesus used in verse 17. Yet, we don’t know that Jesus intended to hurt him with His words. On the contrary, it’s most likely that He did not.
Jesus was about to leave Peter for good, in a physical sense. They would not meet again until reunited in heaven. He needed Peter to firmly communicate a gospel of unconditional love to a nation of people who had been hammered by their leaders with God’s untouchable holiness, unbendable law and righteous indignation for over 3,000 years. What was the best way for Jesus to instill this message in Peter? We know Jesus would have chosen the perfect method, and guilt was not the answer.
Naturally, Peter was probably gut-wrenched wanting to prove to Jesus that he truly did love Him, but Jesus turned the focus away from his guilt and onto the task at hand. Of course, Peter was trying to justify himself, but Jesus was beyond that. Jesus knew that Peter was already justified, because of His atoning sacrifice, and there was nothing Peter could do, or not do, to change that. Peter’s sins, including the three times he denied Him, were already forgotten, (Isaiah 43:25). Jesus turned Peter outward toward the sacred mission to love and to feed His precious flock whom He recently purchased with an infinite price.
There wasn’t as much guilt involved here as may think, and it was much less than Peter apparently perceived. It was as if Jesus was responding with words similar to Peter’s, “You know that I love you, as well, or I wouldn’t have given you such an important mission to complete for Me.”
In the end, did it even matter how much Peter loved Jesus? Isn’t the fact that Jesus intensely loved Peter the most important thing? Jesus wanted Peter to understand this, and He demonstrated it publically in His death, but now more personally by giving him a huge responsibility to undertake for Him. Whatever emotions or efforts Peter could muster for Jesus would eventually be insufficient then, and in the future. All that mattered is that Jesus would continue to build His church, and as He promised even before Peter’s denials, Peter would now be playing a large role in that work (Matthew 16:18).
In essence, Jesus was saying to Peter, “Don’t worry about how much you love Me. Instead, you should consider how much I love you. Of course, you love Me, because I chose to love you. Now, in the same unconditional way I have loved you, in spite of your failures, love and feed the others I love, as well.”
When it was all said and done, it didn’t matter how much Peter truly loved Jesus. What was important was that Jesus loved Peter, and never stopped – no matter how many times he failed. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much we love Jesus either. It’s difficult to believe, but He doesn’t stop loving us no matter how we have offended Him, others or ourselves. He promises to use us for His glory whenever we stop looking inward at our faults long enough to answer the call to follow Him.
Peter probably didn’t feel this way at the time, but the hard questions from Jesus were actually words of encouragement. They become words of encouragement to us all. Many words from God are meant to encourage us in our frailty, if we can see through the avalanche of guilt and our fear of punishment which often hits us first.
God sometimes leads us where we don’t want to go just as He was about to do with Peter. Peter needed to know Jesus still loved him in order to bear his new responsibilities alone. We need to be sure of His love for us daily while possessing the confidence that it doesn’t ebb and flow like the ocean’s tide, as does our obedience to Him.
We must not lose site that our value is always immeasurable in His eyes because His gaze is only focused on the work on the cross. We must cling to the fact that our worth is priceless due to blood of Christ even when we sin. If we forget these things by allowing guilt to motivate us to follow Him, rather than forcing us to take full advantage of His mercy which is freely given, then we are only being moved by fear. We won’t consistently obey Him, nor will we find success in our struggle against sin. It’s His love which motivates us to obedience, rather than fear or guilt. The one closest to Jesus learned this truth, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). It’s in His perfect love He wants us to respond. Peter ultimately got it. We should too!