Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Faith and Courage

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Was the Lord’s prayer for Simon answered in the affirmative? I believe it was. From the events described by Luke later in the chapter you might not think so, but there is a difference between a failure of faith and a failure of courage, no? And certainly Jesus appears fully confident of Peter’s speedy restoration, not only with respect to his fellowship with the risen Lord, but with respect to his ongoing responsibility to shepherd others.

It is not “if you turn again”, but when. The Lord himself had seen to it.

(That holds true in Greek as well as English, by the way. The Lord used a particle most frequently translated once. There is nothing conditional about it.)

Processing Events in Real Time

Courage is a funny thing. It deserts us at the most inopportune times and shows up when we least expect it. What Peter didn’t realize is that no matter how confident you are that you are fully prepared for whatever might happen, you rarely know what you will do until the adrenalin hits. I have surprised myself, putting relationships on the line with a clear word of disagreement about some very volatile subjects. Equally, I have caved like a house of cards and not even recognized I was doing it until I had a few minutes to reflect on what had just happened.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just don’t process events as fast as they occur. To put it indelicately, I panic and sin so quickly that I don’t even see it coming until after the deed is done. So I totally identify with Peter in his series of fearful, self-preserving responses to confrontation at a time when his own life might well have been on the line. It was not until the rooster crowed that Peter had a moment to process what he had done. Then he remembered the Lord’s words. Then he went out and wept bitterly. Until then, he was just reacting.

Hard Enough

The word for courage in Hebrew is the same as the word for hardness, as in when a man hardens his heart. It is not unreasonable to restate God’s command to Joshua to be courageous as “Be hard.” “Steel yourself.” Failures of courage are common in scripture, though the frequent command to be courageous strongly suggests failure is not the inevitable outcome of Christian conflict. Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister”, not once but twice. It almost became a meme. His son Isaac did exactly the same thing. That must’ve been embarrassing.

I have read scholars who think these repeated failures of the same type so implausible they can only assume the writer(s) of Genesis got their facts mixed up and repeated an earlier story. Having had my own courage fail in the same way on multiple occasions, I find it totally believable.

Mind you, Abraham and Isaac were worse than Peter in some ways. In Peter’s case, he was confronted with a series of quickly moving events which, in his overconfidence, he had totally neglected to anticipate. That was a failure of prayer and preparation. He failed to steel himself. On the other hand, Abraham and Isaac chose to go to Egypt and Gerar, and had plenty of time to reflect how they might handle things on the way. In the one case, the text plainly tells us that “when he was about to enter Egypt” — long before any real threat arose — Abraham effectively planned his own failure of courage.

That happens too. The takeaway: if the situation you are going into is setting you up for failure, think twice about whether you should be there at all.

Free and Lavish

Either way, what do you do when your courage has failed so miserably and comprehensively that you wonder if you can ever be restored? I can only thank the Lord for a forgiveness so free and lavish that it may be extended seven times a day to the same person, and in all likelihood for the same sort of offense. I have yet to have that happen to me — needing forgiveness from the same person seven times in a day, or feeling the need to demand it — even once. Have you?

And actually, that is only what the Lord expects of us, knowing our frailties, our unreasonable capacity to bear grudges, and general moral ineptitude. We have good reason to imagine the Father’s forgiveness is orders of magnitude more extravagant than this.

Which is a good thing. We all need free, full and readily-available forgiveness. And when we recognize how much we need it, it makes it a whole lot easier to extend it.

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