ARE YOU FEELING COMFORTABLE?
Is it wrong to suggest that being a follower of Jesus is not about feeling “good” about yourself?
Imagine having an experience of God–an encounter with God’s unconditional love and grace that is so powerful it doesn’t leave you feeling happy, but leaves you in tears.
Peter, in this story, has such an encounter.
One day as Jesus was preaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee,great crowds pressed in on him to listen to the word of God. He noticed two empty boats at the water’s edge, for the fishermen had left them and were washing their nets. Stepping into one of the boats, Jesus asked Simon, its owner, to push it out into the water. So he sat in the boat and taught the crowds from there.When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him. 10His partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were also amazed.Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus.
I’m not going to spend the time exploring this particular story in too much depth here–I’ve already done that elsewhere (see the chapter “Love Expressed through Learning” in Love: Expressed).
As a short summary of this passage, suffice it to say that God achieves something that Peter’s best efforts and skills as a fisherman could never pull-off. Ergo, Grace.
And yet, instead of being happy about this gift of fish and celebrating the best catch of his career, Peter falls to his knees, crying and feeling horrible about himself whilst begging Jesus to leave him alone.
Saying “Bog-off” is hardly a thank-you!
Indeed, it’s a very strange way to respond.
God’s grace moves across the waters of Peter’s life like a storm and appears to leave Peter feeling like flotsam and jetsam on the shore of himself.
Experiencing grace did this to him?
Maybe it should always have this sort of affect?
I certainly known occasions when I’ve experienced it this way. Moments that have found me, head in hands, crying, telling God that he’s wasting his time with me–trying to push God away.
It’s not that I don’t feel loved by God in these moments. The opposite is true, if I take the time to explore my feeling; I feel overwhelmed by his love, but also deeply aware of how undeserving I am of it.
I don’t feel “good” about myself at all.
The wind of God’s Spirit blows, and my self-esteem–which has always been pretty shaky and prone to progressive collapse–gets swept away in the gale, leaving me caught up within the eye of a storm that reveals a love stronger and outside of my control.
Or, as the David Crowder Band poetically expresses it:
He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
Real unconditional love will always shock us with the reality of who we are, whilst in the same moment revealing to us the reality of the one who loves us.
Like Peter, this revelation leaves me strangely broken. Loved, but broken.
THE ILL-MADE KNIGHT
In order to understand what I’m getting at here, and to help us grasp Peter’s perspective in this story, another famous tale comes to mind.
It’s the fictional story of Camelot’s famous knight, Lancelot, in T.H. White’s epic Arthurian story The Once and Future King.
A Hungarian noble, called Sir Urre, has come to Camelot seeking the removal of a curse that has afflicted him with continual bleeding from wounds that will never heal. Sir Urre has been carried far and wide in his search for someone to do the miraculous and remove the curse. To perform the miracle, it is believed, a pure and righteous knight is required to lay hands on the afflicted. And Sir Urre, having heard the tales of Lancelot’s purity, fame and character, is certain that he is the man for the job.
Sir Urre asks the King for the help of his most famous Knight, and Arthur consents–he vouches for Lancelot’s reputation–and summons Lancelot to court. Of course, word soon spreads around that a miracle is going to take place, and a huge crowd gathers to watch the spectacular unfold. Why shouldn’t it happen? It’s a dead certainty in the imaginations of the spectators; Sir Urre is Ill and in need of a miracle, Lancelot is pure and the perfect vessel for its delivery.
Except, Lancelot knows the truth that is hidden from all but one other person in realm; He’s not pure. For years now, he and Queen Guenever (to use White’s spelling) have been having an illicit affair. Ever since being a child, Lancelot’s greatest longing was to perform a miracle for God, but he is more than aware that he has forfeited this by pursuing a relationship with his best friend’s wife. He cannot do this.
On the day of the miracle, Lancelot has to be coaxed out of hiding. And as he approaches the dying Sir Urre, in the middle of an exited crowd, he does so in shame and uncertainty. T.H White writes:
He Walked down the curious ranks, ugly as ever, self-concious, ashamed, a veteran going to be broken…
When Lancelot was kneeling in front of Urre, he said to King Arthur: “Need I do this, after everybody has failed?”
“Of course you must do it. I command you”
“If you command me, I must. But it would be presumptuous to try–after everybody. Could I be let off?”
“You are taking it the wrong way,” said the King. “Of course it is not presumptuous for you to try. If you can’t do it, nobody can.”
Sir Urre, who was weak by now, raised himself on an elbow. “Please,” he said. “I came for you to do it”.
Lancelot had tears in his eyes.
“Oh, Sir Urre,” he said, “if only I could help you, how willingly I would. But you don’t understand, you don’t understand.”
“For God’s sake,” said Sir Urre.
Lancelot looked into the East, where he thought God lived, and said something in his mind. It was more or less like this: “I don’t want glory, but please can you save our honesty? And if you will heal this knight for the knights sake, please do.” Then he asked Sir Urre to show him his head.
Moments later, a mutter starts to trickle through the crowd. Followed by yells, and shouts and cheering. Soon the whole crowd erupts into celebration, as the Sir Urre stands–healed!
But in the midst of the celebration, lost within the crowd of people moving and dancing and singing. Lancelot,
‘…was kneeling by himself. This lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle. “And ever,” says Malory, “Sir Lancelot wept, as he had been a child that had been beaten” ‘.
Lancelot is in a mess.
Grace did this.
God’s done something through him that he didn’t earn, and he shouldn’t have got. He experiences a God of Grace where he’s always thought of God as someone who must be pleased. And like Peter, this miracle doesn’t make him feel great about himself–or excuse the way he has behaved–this experience of God breaks Lancelot. Grace humbles him.
Lancelot has lived thinking and dreaming that he could do a miracle for God; That something of his own greatness would allow others to see God’s greatness.
But the opposite is true.
Actually, sometimes chasing our own greatness gets in the way.
If God only works when we are at our best, then after a while we’ll think it’s about us. Scarily, others will think it’s about us, too!
You may not agree with that last comment. And it’s OK if you don’t. But consider it for a minute; consider how much of our world is stuck in a perpetual game of imitation. Consider the amount of self-help and the self-therapy books that are sold each year. Consider the mindset that seeks to discover the secrets to another’s success. And this isn’t just a secular thing, within certain church streams and movements it’s also rampant; as we attend conferences in seeking how to replicate the “move of God” that has occurred somewhere else; we long for leaders and ministers to divulge in their prayer patterns and devotional times and sermon prep skills, and then we go away trying to implement them within our own personal contexts. We copy, all because we think it’s about what someone else has done; that they’ve discovered some special formula.
We’re mistaken to think that the move of God is about the greatness of people. It’s all grace. All of it!
Even if you have gifts of Healing, or Miracles, or Tongues – none of this is an endorsement of your personal greatness. They are Charismata–gifts of grace; undeserved.
So the next time someone tries and sells you the secret to successful ministry, don’t buy it! Because there is no secret–it’s grace. The next time someone tries to claim some kind of position or “spiritual authority” over you because God, they feel, has endorsed who they are through some miraculous event, don’t listen to them! It’s grace, and the bibles full of stories of God doing amazing things through some not-so-great people.
Let’s go back to Peter.
Peter is not at his best in this story. He failed to catch anything during the night. He’s tired. He’s grumpy. He’s not in the mood to fish. And yet, God steps in and Peter gets the catch of his career–while he’s at his worst!
Imagine Peter dragging this loaded net to shore with the help of his business partners James and John. Imagine the look on the faces of the other local fisherman as they witness this–“what’s his secret?“. “Hey, Peter, How did you do that?“, “Which part of the lake did you go to?“,”What kind of bait and technique did you use?“…
Even Jeremy Wade would be knocking on Peter’s door for advice (In case you don’t know, He’s the bloke from River Monsters —How can you not know that? 😉 )
People would want Peter to write a book on this–maybe even do a tour, or a Blog, or a put out a series on Vine entitled Twelve Steps to the Perfect Catch. But Peter can’t respond, because there is no secret recipe. All Peter can do is point to the carpenter from Nazareth and say, “He did it”.
Peter cannot claim the glory for this catch. Just like Lancelot cannot tell the secret to producing a miracle.
In both cases, the miracle’s that they were allowed to be involved at all.
Knowing that they were both at there worst when these things take place is what ultimately breaks them.
It’s not about any of us being at our best. God works best in our weakness, and maybe our desire to “feel good about ourselves” all the time–in this context–gets in the way of God doing something that displays who he is. All God desires from us, to quote a famous Psalm, is a broken and a humble heart.
Now don’t misunderstand me; I am not saying, “do terrible things because that makes God look good”.
I’m saying we need to stop thinking this is about us at all. Grace needs to breaks us, like it does Lancelot and Peter; it should break our egos, our self-righteousness, our self-importance and our own ideas of our glory.
Some Christians don’t like the idea of Grace, they think it will help people make excuses and live however they feel like. But that’s not true. If we really grasp this grace, we’re suddenly given a view of God that is much bigger and more beautiful than we could have imagined. A view of God that makes us see how undeserving we really are and how extraordinary he is–this perspective will always lead us to being humbled and broken.
Broken and weeping like Lancelot
Broken and weeping like Peter
When grace breaks into our lives and devastates our preconceptions, like it does in this story with Peter, it’s only then that we are truly at our best to follow Jesus.
You see, we can never really follow Jesus while we’re pursuing our own glory and fame. Grace has got to break us if it’s to free us from ourselves.
As the English poet, Tennyson, says,
“The shell must break before the bird can fly”
And sometimes, my ego needs to be cracked.
So yes, sometimes I cry when I think about God’s love. Sometimes, in worship, I don’t feel “good” about myself.
I stand shell-shocked and fractured and broken.
Grace does this.
irreducible to mere sentiment and pity.
Unconditional Love has revealed itself to me.
And when it does, even though I stand naked and weak and exposed before it, I feel secure and held by something that doesn’t find it’s source in my own self-worth.
He loves us.
Oh, how he love us.
That’s the real miracle.
The header image is entitled “Tear on my Eye” by Yuki-Yuri1312, at Deviantart.com
Tristan Sherwin is the Author of Love: Expressed – Available now.