Failure Need Not Be Final

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Pastor, St. Louis, Missouri

Failures guide. Blunders cry out information. —William Stafford

Crowing roosters never left the region. Each morning the rest of his life, Peter awoke from his sleep to a squawking alarm.

Paul would experience his own devilish messenger sent to thorn-taunt him. But unlike Paul’s tormentor, Peter’s barn-stoop condemners had flesh and blood. The winged creatures didn’t know that their most instinctive way to help the world could ritually sabotage a once-guilty man.

Like many of us, the apostle Peter was acquainted with failures and their relentless reminders. How did Peter come to believe this grace-truth that failure isn’t final, that a failed Christian isn’t a finished Christian?

Learning His Love Again

This question knocks at my door each night as I speak reminding words amid forehead kisses to my 3-year-old.

“You are a loved boy,” I say.

“Yes!” he says with assurance. “I am a loved boy!”

I marvel at his confident acceptance of my love. And yet, why do I marvel? If the little one said to me, “No, Daddy, I am not loved,” my heart would enlarge to defend him from that wretched lie. If he were to feel it too proud to agree that he is loved by me, my heart would enlarge to dissuade him from this thieving view of humility that steals God-given joy from us both.

Why, then, in the presence of my heavenly Father’s love, do I find it so difficult to say, “Yes! I am a loved person.” I think Peter understands.

Failure pokes the tender ribs of memory. Makes us wince. Too many storm-sinking, “you’ll never wash my feet” miscalculations in our faith. Too many “though everyone else forsakes you, I never will” debacles of our pride. Too many “you’ll never go to the cross,” “get behind me, Satan” moments to count. Too many Gethsemane-sword, blood-cut misapplications of zeal. Too many “I tell you I don’t know the man” betrayals and fears. And sometimes the fault isn’t ours but the bruise still swells (Mark 10:35–41).

How then did failed Peter learn that he was a loved man writing to a beloved people (1 Peter 2:11; 4:12)? John tells part of the answer. While Peter huddled near home, throwing his grief like a net into the sea, Jesus “revealed himself in this way” (John 21:1).

How Jesus Reveals Himself

Jesus is like a host who comes in the aftermath of failure with a “This Is Your Life” approach. By the end, Jesus will thread Peter’s life together by saying, “When you were young” and “when you are old” (John 21:18). But here at the beginning, in this way, what Jesus wants Peter to see is Jesus. “Jesus revealed himself again . . . and he revealed himself” (John 21:1). John says it twice in one verse.

“Unknown is enough when on the margins of the world with Jesus.”

What Peter most needs within the bog of his failure isn’t to strain forward to seize the narrative, or to protect his image, or to preserve the brand of the original disciples, or to get back his old platform. Unknown is enough when on the margins of the world with Jesus. This delightful sufficiency signals the first lesson Peter, and any of us who’ve failed, must relearn.

He remembers how you began with him.

This sea of Jesus’s revealing is full of memory for Peter. The smell of boats and fish. The presence of home feels safer here, far from the bitter weeping of Jerusalem.

Where did you grow up? Where in this world do you feel most at home? What might it mean for you that, when you think of those places amid failure, Jesus intends you not to escape them but to remember them again, and this time to see more of him there than you did before?

But wait. Jesus then enacts a bizarre startlement.

Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. (John 21:3)

Haven’t we lived this scene already (Luke 5:1–11)? Yet this is no déjà vu experience. The one who holds all things together orders providence right where the waves lap over the sand-squished toes of Peter and the others, right where they stand.

Do you remember when you and Jesus first met? Why might Jesus bring you that flashlight memory amid the power outage of your failure?

He remembers the scenes of your life with him.

Slowly, Peter recognizes that Jesus is the one behind these ways, and he “threw himself into the sea” (John 21:7). With John’s word choice, we can barely forget an earlier Peter, the boat, a water-walk (Matthew 14:22–36). Do you remember acts of faith that caused you to step out toward Jesus, when you were in over your head and he rescued you?

Then Jesus breaks bread with fish (John 21:9). How could Peter and the others look at Jesus breaking bread without remembering the earlier wonders (John 6:1–14; Luke 24:35)? Do you remember such moments of startling wonder, years ago, with Jesus?

The charcoal fire burns more certain. It waits for Peter as he high-knee splashes toward Jesus (John 21:9). The Greek word for charcoal fire occurs in only one other place (John 18:18), when Peter denied Jesus by that charcoal fire.

Someone else lit the original charcoal fire of betrayal when Jesus and Peter met anguished eyes (Luke 22:61). But this fire, Jesus prepared. Jesus’s and Peter’s eyes must meet again.

What if, after these grace-reminders of our beginnings and life memories with Jesus, the only way to go forward is to face Jesus again by the charcoal fire? Tempted to recover without this step, what we most want is the denial or removal of the rooster and the charcoal blaze. But what if what we most need is the grace-learned strength to see more of Jesus than we do of them, like one who learns to regard the moon more than the shadows lurking beneath its glow?

What if Jesus reveals himself in this way?

He remembers your name.

Now Jesus does something so subtle we often overlook it. Jesus calls Peter by his birth name. “Simon, son of John” (John 21:15).

This must have startled Peter. How long had it been since Peter heard “Simon, son of John” on Jesus’s lips? Two or three years?

I’m “Zack, son of Vern and Jan.” What’s your name — the name you had when you were a child and helpless in the world? What is your experience with your family, for better and worse?

Why do we in our failures need to come to terms with our pre-ministry name and see it in relation to Jesus again?

Love is his question for you.

With your life remembered and your name spoken, now comes the one question three times (John 21:15–17).

Not, “Peter, do you believe me? Will you go all out for the gospel for me?” Not, “Peter, will you leverage a platform for me? Or promise never to fail me again?” Not, “Peter, will you get to work, take back the ministry you once had, and prove your detractors wrong?” But, “Peter, do you love me?”

In this way, Jesus reveals himself.

Do you notice the hurt, tethered to love, that Jesus lets us feel (John 21:17)? After all, disordered love was the untended leak that ultimately sank our boat.

There is no “feed my sheep” without first coming to terms with where you are from, how you and Jesus met, the wonder and the needed rescues of his being with you, what your name is, the charcoal-fire sins, and the condition of love in your soul. Search committees, media opportunists, and relatives may not approach you in this way. But Jesus does.

Do you find Jesus more lovely and preferable to anything else you need or want? Peter says yes and means it.

A new call can’t save us.

Yet, a fly buzzes around Peter’s head and distracts him. As it turns out, restoring Peter from failure doesn’t remove Peter’s ability to fail (see also Galatians 2:11–14).

“But what about John?” Peter asks (John 21:20–23). Peter is like a dog easily unhinged into chase by a squirrel. Though in the loving presence of your Master, is there someone you regularly snap your collar to chase?

“If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” Jesus says (John 21:22).

“As it turns out, restoring Peter from failure doesn’t remove Peter’s ability to fail.”

At that, Jesus takes Peter back to basics. “Follow me” (John 21:22). Jesus said this to Peter years prior, but the grace-need Peter had then hasn’t subsided.

Even forgiven people can repeat what breaks them. Roosters are rarely one-morning creatures. So, Jesus repeats his call with pointed exclamation. “You follow me!”

How did failed Peter learn that he was a loved person writing to a beloved people?

In this way.

Redeemed Voices of the Failed

Humble yourselves. . . . Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him . . . (1 Peter 5:6, 8–9)

Words like these aren’t spoken from new-shoe theologians, barely worn God-talkers who walk with no scuff and teach with no gravel scrapes on their soles. Peter speaks as one thrashed firsthand by the roaring, clawed devil.

Unlike some who’ve failed, Peter owned what he did. He bitter-wept for the cuss he became and caused. We need such redeemed voices of the failed. These broken sages know of Jesus by creed, yes, but also by cries.

So, when an ant colony of condemnation breaks open into a torrent of flash-flood crawlers creeping all over you, you can holler and jump, flick and cuss, run and scratch, but only Jesus knows the way to relieve you.

When you’ve mud-stepped into the muck, you are never minefield abandoned. Stop where you are. Let go of trying to tell us it’s not that bad. There is One among the mines who knows how to guide you home, wash you clean, make you safe.

How can the failed like Peter overcome the condemning crow?

In this way.

serves as lead pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves, Missouri. He and his wife, Jessica, are cofounders of Sage Christianity. Zack’s books include Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Struggle with Depression and The Imperfect Pastor.