For Good Friday, I have combed back through some of my favorite essays in the Lenten Reading collection, Bread and Wine.
Several weeks ago, I underlined almost every paragraph of this particular one by Henry Drummond about Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. When I returned to it this morning, it touched me again so I chose it to share in this space today, both in the hopes that it will be meaningful to others and because I know I will need it again. And again.
by Henry Drummond
The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter…and Peter went outside and wept bitterly. Luke 22:61-62
Every person at some time in his life has fallen. Many have fallen many times; few, a few times. And who of us can fail to shudder at the tale of Peter’s guilt?
We are well aware of how the plot thickens round him. When we read the story for ourselves we feel an almost unconscious sympathy with Peter, as if his story has happened in our own lives. And we know, as we follow the dreary stages of his fall, these same well-worn steps have been traced ever since then by every human foot. Anyone who possesses an inner history can surely understand how Peter could have slept in the garden, when he should have watched and prayed. Who of us would dare to look down upon the faithlessness that made him follow Christ far off, instead of keeping at his Master’s side? For we know too well what it means to get out of step with Christ. Wouldn’t we, like the worldly company who warmed themselves by the fire and to our shame, be quick to question Peter?
Those of us who know the heart’s deceit would surely find it difficult to judge this man – this man who had lived so long in the inner circle of fellowship with Christ, whose eyes were used to seeing miracles, who witnessed the glory of the transfiguration; this man whose ears were yet full of the most solemn words the world had ever heard, whose heart was warm still with Communion-table thoughts. We understand how he could have turned his back upon his Lord, and, almost ere the sacramental wine was dry upon his lips, curse him to his face. Such things, alas, are not strange to those of us who know the appalling tragedy of sin.
True contrition occurs when God turns and looks upon us. Human sorrow is us turning and looking upon ourselves. True, there is nothing wrong in turning and looking at oneself – only there is a danger. We can miss the most authentic experience of life in the imitation. For genuine repentance consists of feeling deeply our human helplessness, of knowing how God comes to us when we are completely broken.
But there is something in Peter’s life that is much greater than his sin. It is his repentance. We all too easily relate to Peter in his sin, but few of us grasp the wonder of his repentance. Sinful Peter is one man, and repentant Peter is another; and many of us who kept his company along these worn steps to sin have left him to trace the tear-washed path of repentance alone. But the real lesson in Peter’s life is one of repentance. His fall is a lesson in sin that requires no teacher, but his repentance is a great lesson in salvation. And it is this great lesson that contains the only true spiritual meaning to those who have personally made Peter’s discovery – that they have betrayed our God.
What then can we learn from Peter’s turning around? First, it was not Peter who turned. It was the Lord who turned and looked at Peter. When the cock crew, that might have kept Peter from falling further. But he was just in the very act of sin. And when a person is in the thick of his sin his last thought is to throw down his arms and repent. So Peter never thought of turning, but the Lord turned. And when Peter would rather have looked anywhere else than at the Lord, the Lord looked at Peter. This scarce-noticed fact is the only sermon needed to anyone who sins – that the Lord turns first.
For this reason it is important to distinguish between two kinds of sorrow for sin. The one has to do with feeling sorry over some wrong or sin we have committed. This feeling seems to provide a sort of guarantee that we are not disposed to do the same wrong again, and that our better self is still alive enough to enter its protest against the sin our lower self has done. And we count this feeling of reproach, which treads so closely on the act, as a sort of compensation or atonement for the wrong.
In this kind of sorrow, however, there is no real repentance, no true sorrow for sin. It is merely wounded self-love. It is a sorrow over weakness, over the fact that when we were put to the test we found to our chagrin that we had failed. But this chagrin is what we are apt to mistake for repentance. This is nothing but wounded pride – sorrow that we did not do better, that we were not so good as we and others thought. It is just as if Peter turned and looked upon Peter. And when Peter turns and looks upon Peter, he sees what a poor, weak creature Peter is. And if God had not looked upon Peter he might have wept well-nigh as bitterly, not because he had sinned against his God, but because he, the great apostle, had done a weak thing – he was weak as other men.
All this amounts to little more than vexation and annoyance with ourselves, that, after all our good resolutions and attempts at reformation, we have broken down again. This kind of sorrow bears no lasting fruit, and is certainly far removed from the publican’s prayer of repentance in the temple. “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!” Stricken before his God, this publican had little thought of the self-respect he had lost. He certainly felt it no indignity to take the culprit’s place.
All this is to say that there is a vast difference between divine and human sorrow. True contrition occurs when God turns and looks upon us. Human sorrow is us turning and looking upon ourselves. True, there is nothing wrong in turning and looking at oneself – only there is a danger. We can miss the most authentic experience of life in the imitation. For genuine repentance consists of feeling deeply our human helplessness, of knowing how God comes to us when we are completely broken.
In the end, it is God looking into the sinner’s face that matters. Knowing first hand the difference between human and divine sorrow is of utmost importance. It is the distinction Luke brings out in the prodigal son’s life, between coming to himself and coming to his father. “He came to himself,” and then “he came to his father.” So we are always coming to ourselves. We are always finding out, like the prodigal, the miserable bargains we have made. But this is not the crucial thing. Only when we come to our Father in response to his waiting look can we be freed and forgiven.
Peter turned around, but note well that it was the result of a mere glance. The Lord did not thunder and lightning at Peter to make him hear his voice. A look, and that was all. But it rent Peter’s heart as lightning could not, and melted into his soul. God did not drive the chariot of his omnipotence up to Peter and command him to repent. God did not threaten. He did not even speak to him. That one look laid a spell upon his soul.
We misunderstand God altogether if we think he deals coarsely with our souls. If we consider what has really influenced our lives, we will find that it lies in a few silent voices that have preached to us, the winds which have passed across our soul so gently that we scarce could tell when they were come or gone. Even in the midst of the battle, when coarser weapons fail, let us not forget the lesson of Elijah: “A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
When God speaks he speaks so loudly that all the voices of the world seem dumb. And yet when God speaks he speaks so softly that no one hears the whisper but yourself. Today, perhaps, the Lord is turning and looking at you. Right where you are, your spirit is far away just now, dealing with some sin, some unbearable weight; and God is teaching you the lesson himself – the bitterest, yet the sweetest lesson of your life, in heartfelt repentance. Stay right where you are. Don’t return into the hustle and bustle of life until the Lord has also turned and looked on you again, as he looked at the thief upon the cross, and until you have beheld the “glory of the love of God in the face of Jesus.”
Henry Drummond was born in Scotland in 1851. He is most known for writing The Greatest Thing in the World, a meditation he wrote in 1874 on 1 Corinthians 13. This essay comes from an address by Drummond entitled The Ideal Life.