Peter, The Courageous Coward
AUGUST 25, 2022
Peter’s waffling tendencies seem like the stuff of psych case studies. But really, his issues are a two-sides-of-the-same-coin kind of problem rooted in fear.
SELF-ASSURED OR FEARFUL?
Are you a self-assured risk taker? Or are you passive and fearful? These seem like opposing traits. But according to the Gospels, Peter was all of these things—sometimes all within a single day.
Peter’s waffling tendencies seem like the stuff of psych case studies. But really, his issues are a two-sides-of-the-same-coin kind of problem rooted in fear. One day Peter is puffing his chest out as he vows to march to his death defending Jesus. Was Peter looking for the boss’s approval? Maybe he had to prove to the disciples that he was no poser and so he really sold out for Jesus. Whatever the case, on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, Peter swore to a teenaged girl that he never even knew Jesus.
Nice work, Peter. So much for the cause.
Judge Peter if you like. But honesty will tell you, you’re one of the two: self-assured and prideful, or fearful and cowardly. The good news is Jesus gives grace to people on both sides of the fence. Even better news, he gives grace to those who are on the pendulum swing like Peter.
FEARLESS ONE MINUTE, FREAKING OUT THE NEXT
Peter was one interesting dude. He was a fisherman by trade so you can guess he was an opinionated tough-guy. Once, he took Jesus to task—Jesus—for all that talk about suffering and the cross. He was a scrapper, too, which he proved when he cut off the servant’s ear the night of Jesus’ betrayal. Another night, when Jesus was out on a midnight stroll atop a windy sea, Peter leapt out of the boat onto the water to meet him only to immediately look around and freak himself out. And when Peter pridefully tried to reject Jesus’ foot-washing, after Jesus rebukes him, Peter then had the audacity to ask for a bath.
He’s a real go-getter, that Peter. A fighter, who steps out in faith and rises to the top rungs of leadership.
Seems like the kind of guy to hire as lead pastor, right? Jesus didn’t buy it for a second. In fact, Jesus tells Peter he wasn’t as fearless as he thought he was. Jesus says, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus knew it was only a matter of time before Peter’s knees were knocking. A couple days before, Peter was bragging about his commitment to Jesus, that he’d go the distance and even die if he had to. Fast-forward a few days and he’s afraid of a teenaged girl recognizing him as Jesus’ friend. Was Peter afraid of being harmed by a mob if he were spotted? Was he ashamed that he’d been identified as a player on the losing team? We don’t know for sure, but Peter went from a self-assured fighter to a fearful coward in a matter of hours and all it took was the disapproval of a teenaged girl.
REPENTANT AND RESTORED
Fortunately, Peter is given the gift of repentance, and is restored to Jesus. But rather than merely get Peter back to zero with the expectation that he’ll try harder at true spirituality next time, Jesus promises the lavish, empowering work of the Spirit. After Jesus’ ascension, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fills and empowers the disciples for ministry. After that, the church grew from a handful of 120 timid believers to thousands in a single day. Guess who stepped up and preached the first sermon? Peter.
Finally, Peter actualizes his potential! He goes from coward to fearless leader! We knew he could do it! He only had to believe in himself! I can see it on the cover of Discipleship Weekly now: “Peter: From Coward to Lead Pastor.” And he pastored happily ever after! Cue up “Eye of the Tiger” and let the triumphant fist-pumping begin!
Actually, Peter botched it again when he fearfully de-friends Gentile Christians when the Jews came to brunch. Peter was more concerned with being in good graces with the religious in-crowd than in being faithful to the mission of Jesus and authentically befriending people with lesser spiritual resumes. The Apostle Paul sets Peter straight, and, by God’s grace and over time, Peter did become a courageous man. When sentenced to death as a martyr, history records that Peter claimed to not be worthy of being crucified like Jesus and requests to be crucified upside down.
THE STRENGTH FOUND IN FAILURE
What do we learn from the life of Peter? That winners never quit? That when the going gets tough the tough get going?
No, we learn that like Peter, we will fail. And then we fail again. But God, in his over the top graciousness towards sinners, reconciles enemies. To be a witness of the resurrection and to receive the Spirit is to be empowered for courageous ministry. But old habits die hard as we overcompensate out of fear of God’s rejection or blowing it as ambassador’s of the gospel.
So rather than making excuses for pride or cowardice, do like Jesus instructed Peter and tell your embarrassing story to your brothers and sisters. It might seem counterintuitive, but in doing so, they’ll actually be encouraged. Because we all know our hearts are full of pride or cowardice, one or the other. Like Peter, over and over, we drop the ball, big time. But when we are faithless, God is faithful.
Whether you deny Jesus in what you do or don’t do, he forgives and restores you as he did Peter.
In pride and cowardice, you’ve got nothing to prove. You don’t need to be tough, strong or smart. You just need forgiveness and the presence of the Spirit.
And all of it is freely given to prideful, weak sinners like you and me.
Get Matt’s book, Getting Jesus Wrong, here