October 15, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
St. Luke’s UMC
October 15, 2023
We wrap up today our series on forgiveness talking about a topic that inevitably comes up when discussing forgiveness, “How do I forgive myself?” I heard this question the first week talking with someone between services. He said, “I get it when it comes to forgiving people who hurt me. It’s not always easy, but I believe it’s important and I feel like a better human being when I do. But my problem with forgiveness is the guilt I have for things I have done. I believe God forgives me, but how do I forgive myself?”
Within just a few days of that conversation I received this email from another member. The writer referenced the statement I shared by Eva Kor, “Forgiving is not forgetting,” then went onto say: “I have found it most difficult to forgive myself for past deeds. I have tried very hard to forgive others and am succeeding, but the struggle of forgiving myself is a heavy chore. Yet, when I realize that the Lord has forgiven me, it sure seems I should be able to also. I am working on it.”
The need to feel forgiven is indeed a heavy chore, especially if we have been shaped by a religious culture that emphasizes the importance of guilt and shame in the process of forgiveness. How many Christians come into churches every week loaded down by guilt because they have been led to believe that you can’t be forgiven until you have first felt sorry enough for the wrong things you’ve done? The trouble is, how much is enough?
This is what plagued the leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther, when he was a monk. He felt he could never do enough to be forgiven. He would spend hours in confession. He tried to be the perfect monk, the perfect Christian, making sure he did every penance required. But one day the light of grace broke through as he realized he had turned his own forgiveness into something he could merit when in fact it was the merits of grace that provided his forgiveness. All of his obsessive behavior had really been about his attempt to forgive himself.
This is what led some to disregard religion altogether. Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytical work believed that the guilt and shame that plagues so many is just the fabrication of religious systems imposed on people. Remove the influence of those systems and the soul would be set free. (Keller, Forgive p122)
But a recent study done on the German population, now at its lowest level of religious engagement in its history, showed that a quarter of the population feels intensely strong feelings of guilt that contributes to high levels of depression. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33295786/#:~:text=Prevalence%20of%20current%20guilt%20feelings,but%20significantly%20associated%20with%20depression.
So religion may add to the problem of guilt, but the removal of religion doesn’t seem to be the cure either. Religious or not, people are eager to know how they can find forgiveness.
That’s what makes today’s story about the Apostle Peter perhaps the most appealing one we have about his life. Jesus taught a large crowd at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and some other fisherman were close by washing their nets. So Jesus steps into Peter’s boat and asks to push out a little way from the shore so everyone could see and hear him.
When reading this story alone it is easy to think this is the first time Peter met Jesus and it seems strange Jesus would feel comfortable getting in his boat if he didn’t know him. But in fact he did. Jesus has already been a guest in Peter’s home. Peter had heard Jes teach in the synagogue. And he observed Jesus perform a miracle by miraculously healing his mother-in-law. So Jesus is no stranger to Peter. He is probably someone Peter has come to admire.
But what happened this day went beyond admiration to fear. When Jesus finished teaching he looked at Simon Peter and told him to throw his net on the other side of the boat for a catch. Now Peter had just finished washing his nets. He had been out all night and caught nothing. Now Jesus is asking him to do something that will require the same work all over again.
But remember, Peter has come to admire Jesus, so he says, “Because you say so, I’ll let down the nets.” (v.5)
And here is where the story gets interesting. Peter catches such a large haul of fish, the nets start to break. A nearby boat comes to help, but both boats get so loaded down they begin to sink. Seeing all this, Peter turns to Jesus and doesn’t say something like, “Surely, you are the Son of God!” Like he will later on. He doesn’t praise him, like he will later on. Instead he says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (v.8) What are we to make of such a remark?
This is Renaissance painter Raphael’s depiction of this story. I like how it captures other fisherman scurrying to get all the fish they can. But Peter, in the midst of all this activity, is suddenly concerned about something else. He gets a deeper picture of just who Jesus is, and it frightens him. He is bowing before Jesus saying, “Get away from me. I’m not worthy of you.”
In a sermon titled “Taking Jesus Seriously,” Harry Emerson Fosdick said many people admire Jesus. They admire his teaching, his compassion, even his courage. But when Peter experiences this latest miracle by Jesus, he knows he is in front of someone who deserves more than admiration. This Jesus is not of this world. He is no ordinary person. His power and authority is too great. And such recognition makes Peter shrink. All he can feel is his own unworthiness, and that, says Fosdick, is taking Jesus seriously.
There was a long held belief that one could not stand in the presence of God and live. God is holy. Therefore Moses was frightened before God on Mt. Sinai. Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Peter’s response makes sense. Realizing just who is in front of him, he says, “Get away! I am a sinful person.”
Perhaps Peter is more accessible to the majority of us in this story than he ever was climbing out of a boat to walk on water, or drawing a sword to fight soldier who came to arrest Jesus. This Peter is one we can identify with, because we understand being in the presence of God and feeling unworthy and wanting to say, “Get away from me, for I am a sinful person!”
But Jesus, of course, never leaves people the way he finds them. He doesn’t leave Peter wallowing in his sin but brings him to a new understanding of the mercy of God and the goodness of his own life. So if you have ever struggled with guilt and the feeling of your unworthiness, let’s look closer at this story to see exactly what Jesus did for Simon Peter.
First, notice that Jesus’ power is displayed at Peter’s point of failure. A miracle occurred because Peter came up empty handed after fishing all night. Now let’s say for the sake of argument that Peter had been mildly successful that night and caught an average load of fish. When Jesus asked him to lower his nets again, it would have been easy for him to say, “No, I’m good. I’m satisfied. No need.” But you see it is at our point of need that we become willing to obey.
The greatest opposition to the power of the Gospel is not people bent on doing evil. It is those who say, “No, I’m satisfied. No need.” But when we recognize our failure, when we are very aware of our sinfulness, we become the most inviting to Jesus. Just a few verses after this story in Luke 5 Jesus would say, “Healthy people don't need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn't come to invite good people to turn to God. I came to invite sinners.” (Luke 5: 31-32CEV)
Mother Teresa said, “The purpose of guilt is to bring us to the Lord. After that it has no purpose.” The next time your conscience is wracked with a sense of guilt and shame, try praying this prayer: “Lord, I thank you for these feelings because they cause me to turn to you and you are the only one who knows the real truth about me.”
But then notice something else in this story. Peter obeys Jesus though he doubts the benefits of it. When Jesus tells him to let down the nets, he explains why he thinks it won’t matter, but then says, “at your word, I’ll obey.” His obedience, his trust, is not dependent on his feeling of faithfulness.
The same applies when it comes to forgiveness. Sometimes people will say, “I believe God forgives, I just don’t feel forgiven. How do I forgive myself?” And the short answer is, you can’t. And you probably shouldn’t! Because if we aren’t careful forgiving ourselves will just become excusing ourselves.
Lewis Smedes in his book, The Art of Forgiving, questions the morality of self-forgiveness. “What right do I have to hurt someone and then conveniently forgive myself for doing him wrong?” He goes on, “If a drunk driver ran over one of my grandchildren and told me a few days later that he had forgiven himself for what he did, I think I would wring his neck…let’s face it, forgiving ourselves is a questionable operation. We are all too prone to excuse ourselves anyway, and forgiving ourselves could be a cheap trick to avoid responsibility.” (pp95-96)
But living with perpetual guilt and beating ourselves up over and over again for the same sin is not God’s intention either. And this brings us back to Peter throwing out his net. He did so in obedience even though he didn’t feel the benefit of doing so. Accepting our own forgiveness from God is not always something that brings a feeling of release. There may be times when this is so, and that is a wonderful thing, but the human conscience is a fickle. It sneaks back up on us and tries to convince us that we are no better than we were, that we really haven’t been forgiven, otherwise our memories would be cleansed of the awful things we regret.
And before you know it, what we really seek is a feeling more than an assurance. We want the feeling of release, of peace, of freshness that we really are good, as if our feeling forgiven is what makes the cross true. But the truth of the cross is greater than our feelings. This is what it means in 1 John where it says, “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (3:19-20 NIV)
John Newton, the former slave ship captain who converted to Christ and became an Anglican minister and also wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, once corresponded with a young man who was constantly depressed with a sense of being sinful and unworthy. Newton wrote to warn him about excessive groveling:
You express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer, which is certainly wrong…
Satan…sometimes offers to teach us humility, but though I wish to be humble, I desire not to learn in his school. His premises (about our sinfulness) are perhaps true…but then he draws admirable conclusions from them, and would teach us, that therefore we ought to question either the power, or the willingness, or the faithfulness of Christ.
Indeed, though our (self-incriminations) are good so far as they show a dislike of sin, yet when we come to examine them closely, there is often so much self-will, self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience mingled with them, that they are little better than the worst evils we complain of.” (Keller, Forgive p148)
When we go on and on about our inability to forgive ourselves, at some point it not only questions the efficacy of Christ’s power to forgive, it becomes a very attack on it.
But, there is one more piece to this story of Peter and Jesus, and it is a piece that is critical to understanding not only Jesus’ power to forgive us but his reason in doing so. Jesus seems more concerned about our purpose for living than just our peace of mind.
Notice Jesus never tells Peter he’s forgiven. That omission stands out since Peter named his own sinfulness as the obstacle between him and Jesus. But instead of saying to Peter, “You’re forgiven,” Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, from now on you’ll be catching people.” (v.10)
Jesus gave him a job to do! Jesus wasn’t just concerned with giving Peter a clean conscience so he could go on living life with a freer spirit. Jesus has a mission for Peter just like he has a mission for each of us. And the greatest confirmation of our forgiveness is that in spite of our background check, Christ still finds us worth hiring.
As biblical scholar Eduard Schweizer says, “sin is overcome though service.” That doesn’t mean we earn God’s approval, but we experience the approval we have as we serve. This is the way we feel forgiven. Grace is experienced, as Schweizer says, in response to Jesus saying, “Try once more.” For the truly contrite, Jesus is ready with another try.
This, of course, is what happened to Peter again after Jesus’ resurrection. He is so fraught with guilt after denying Jesus three times he returns to Galilee to fish. The story is told in the Gospel of John. The stories sound almost identical. Peter and his colleagues have fished all night and caught nothing. Jesus tells them to throw the nets again. They bring in an incredible haul of fish.
Now Peter recognizes that his must be Jesus. Jesus has cooked some fish on a charcoal fire. When was the last time Peter stood by a charcoal fire? When he denied Jesus in the temple courtyard. In other words Jesus meets him in his failure. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” It feels like Jesus is pounding the guilt hammer. But he’s not. It’s clear that as Peter owns his failure there is Jesus ready to say, “Feed my sheep!”
I have a job for you to do. It’s one of the greatest restoration/forgiveness stories in the Gospels yet Jesus never says, “You are forgiven.” His forgiveness is announced by his saying, “I still have a job for you to do.”
There is a story about a promising young junior executive for IBM who was involved in a risky venture for the company and lost ten million dollars. He was called into the office of founder and CEO, Tom Watson Jr. The fearful young executive was nervous and blurted out, “I guess you called me in to demand my resignation. Here it is, I resign!”
Watson said, “You must be joking! I just invested 10 million dollars in your education. I can’t afford your resignation.”
I imagine Jesus said something like that to Peter. “I can’t afford your resignation, I’ve just invested my blood, sweat and tears in you. I need your service.”
This is why Christ forgives, so that He can love others through us. That is what Christ most wants to do. Love through us. Our service must always include love.
But if we are trapped trying to earn God’s love, then we aren’t free to love…