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"If Only...": A Denial, A Letdown, and A Long Walk on the Beach

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I would best describe my process of reading the Bible as imaginative. I like to imagine myself in the actual scene that I’m reading about trying to feel how the events that are unfolding would affect me, especially when I'm reading the Gospels.

I try to put myself on the shore with Peter, James, and John as they are amazed at the haul of fish just pulled in during the time of day when you’re not supposed to catch fish. I often wonder about the tension created in the Pharisees' home when the prostitute comes in “uninvited” and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. I’m especially intrigued by the story found in Luke 22:61 when Jesus makes eye contact with Peter in the midst of all of the commotion surrounding them as he denies for the third time that he knows Him

For me, the thought of spending eternity with Jesus has always been at the forefront of my thinking. So I’m sure you can imagine my daily discomfort during my early years of my ministry when I felt like a failure to Jesus. Maybe that’s why the scene with Peter sticks out to me so much. Just think about it for a moment... Peter has just boldly declared a few hours earlier that he is willing to die for Jesus. I’m sure he meant it with every fiber of his being.

In fact, Peter is the one who drew his sword and cut off the high priest servant’s ear. It took a lot of moxie to muster up enough courage to follow through with his confident commitment to Jesus. He must have sensed the adrenaline flowing as he boldly followed through. However, his rush of adrenaline immediately collides with embarrassment as Jesus scolds him right in front of the enemy. Peter has to be thinking, Seriously?! I don’t get it. I’m following through on what I said I would do.

Peter must have been dumbfounded as he watched Jesus being arrested and taken away. In a flash, he went from attempting to do something for Jesus that was met with intense correction from Jesus. Peter had to be wondering what would have happened if only he could have done what he intended to do as Jesus was brought off into the darkness.

I Just Knew He Would Come Through For Me

There is another story of someone who had a similar experience that I reference in my book Stalled. The setting is around the death of Lazarus found in John 11. This story is built around the relationship that existed between Jesus and Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It seems obvious that Jesus had a special friendship with the siblings. You may remember how Martha was always busy serving while Mary chose to sit at His feet and learn from Him. I personally believe that Jesus and Mary were probably close friends.

The closeness of their friendship reveals why I believe Mary couldn’t find the inward strength to go and meet Jesus as Martha did when He finally shows up some four days after Lazarus has been buried. I’m sure Mary was so confident that Jesus would alter His schedule in order to come heal Lazarus upon hearing the news of his sickness. However, to her dismay, He delays coming to them. Reading John 11:32, when she finally goes to meet Him, “Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, "Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died." (MSG)

Those four days between Lazarus dying and Jesus’ appearing must have been filled with a lot of “if only's” for Mary. After all, Jesus was her friend. Her family had even supported His ministry and given Him a place to stay when He was in town. It certainly wasn’t too much to expect that Jesus would come heal Lazarus. They had seen and heard of Him healing many, many others throughout His ministry. Healing Lazarus was a foregone conclusion.

I can’t think of a more difficult season in my life than when I had time on my hands to contemplate the “if only’s.” It can be excruciating! The “if only’s” can be based on self-reflection where I feel like I’ve failed in a commitment to the Lord. Or, at times, the “if only’s” come as I can’t understand why He didn’t come through like I was sure He said He would. 

As I dive deeper into the effects of the “if only” experiences of life, there is usually a recurring theme: I’m not good enough. It doesn’t matter if the feeling of failure is from something that I personally couldn’t achieve. Or if I somehow feel that my failure comes from the inability to experience His favor by accomplishing the goal. The effect is still the same: “I’m not good enough.”

Let’s Go For a Walk On the Beach

As we conclude this article, let’s take a deeper look at the conversation that Peter has with Jesus as they walk on the beach together in John 21. Remember that the last time they had any physical interaction took place as Jesus was being tried in the courtyard and Peter was denying Him. I’ll bet Peter must have thought, 'I’m doomed,' when he and John went to the empty tomb to discover Jesus had been raised from the dead. I doubt anyone has felt more like a failure than Peter did immediately after the resurrection. This is why I believe he went back to fishing. He just wanted to get back in touch with who he was before he failed Jesus.

You may remember that Peter’s first encounter with Jesus had to do with a miraculous catch of fish at the wrong time of day. Therefore, it actually makes sense that Jesus would reconnect with Him in the same manner after the resurrection. As Peter and John recognize that it was Jesus on the shore, Peter puts on some clothes and dives into the sea to go receive his pending fate for denying Jesus. (I wonder if he put on the extra clothing hoping he might drown and not have to face Jesus!) 

At first, things are going smoothly as Jesus has built a fire to cook some of the fish. Peter probably just tried to eat continuously in order to avoid eye contact and conversation with Jesus. However, once the meal is finished, Jesus looks at Peter and invites him to go on a little walk on the beach. If it were me, I’d probably throw up the breakfast that I just ate out of sheer terror of what’s about to happen next.

Yet the anticipated intense scolding he’s expecting actually is more of a casual stroll. Let’s pick up the story here in John 21:15-17: 

After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Master, you know I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." He then asked a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Master, you know I love you." Jesus said, "Shepherd my sheep." Then he said it a third time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, "Do you love me?" so he answered, "Master, you know everything there is to know. You've got to know that I love you." 

At first appearance in reading about their interaction, it appears that Jesus is kind of “pouring salt into the wound” of Peter’s failure because He asks him the same question three times in a row reminding him of his three denials. But that’s actually not the case at all. So much of the beauty of this walk on the beach is missed when we read of their conversation in the English language. 

In the Greek language, the words that Jesus and Peter use to describe “love” have different meanings. Jesus uses the word “agape” which means unconditional, or complete devotion, when addressing Peter with the first two questions. However, Peter responds to Jesus with the word “phileo” which means friendship, or affection for someone, with his answer to Jesus. 

Wow! Can you imagine the tension that Peter is feeling? Here he is, walking with Jesus in person for the first time after denying him, and then Jesus asks him if he loves him unconditionally? You know Peter, kind of like you declared a few weeks ago when you said you’d die for me? Not once, but twice Jesus asks the same question.

At this point, Peter has to admit that the best he can offer is to say that he loves Jesus as a friend.

It is actually creating tension in me as I write about this encounter! I’ve finally been willing to have some similar conversations with Jesus too. As I was in the process of writing Stalled, there were days that I had to just stop and tell the Lord that I felt a lot like Peter throughout my life. It was like He was asking me to commit to living at a level that seemed unattainable while all I could offer was a level less than what I thought He required. Therefore, I spent most of my life trying to avoid any “long walks on the beach with Him.”

Here is why it says, “Then he said it a third time: 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, 'Do you love me?'" Peter was upset because Jesus changed His word for love during the third question to “phileo” which Peter had used to answer the previous two questions. In other words, Jesus came down to Peter’s level of commitment and it exposed him.

Don’t misunderstand, Jesus isn’t trying to embarrass Peter. He is actually helping Peter to understand who he is and where he is at this season of his life. And by this interaction, Jesus is letting Peter know that He knows exactly where Peter is coming from and that He’s good with it. 

In verse 18, Jesus goes on to tell Peter that he will get there! Peter actually eventually fulfills his earlier commitment to die for Jesus later in life. But it took the earlier bold declaration, and subsequent failure, to help him to see who he really was. The walk on the beach was such a great reminder that the Lord knows the beginning from the end for each of us.

Whether you have experienced the pain of personal failure or experienced feeling like Jesus hasn’t come through for you, He wants to turn your “if only’s” into a powerful connection point in your life and ministry. Maybe it would be good to remind yourself today that Philippians 1:6 says, “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.” (MSG)

True freedom came for me when I was willing to confront my “if only’s” and give them completely over to Jesus. I’m finally OK with who I am and where I am in my life. My hope is that you will give Him your “if only’s” too.


Want to dig deeper into this idea and others crucial to the Stalled message? Grab your copy of Stalled: Hope and Help for Pastors Who Thought They'd Be There By Now today.

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Dale Sellers

Dale is the Executive Director here at 95Network and the author of Stalled: Hope and Help for Pastors Who Thought They'd Be There By Now. He has been in ministry for 40 years and is dedicated to helping small and mid-size churches get healthy. Dale has served in nearly every role of church leadership (except Worship Pastor), and has had a wide variety of coaching and consulting experience. He and his wife Gina have been married almost 40 years and live in Greenville, SC.

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