When I was running track in high school the coach would send the distance runners out on the back roads around school to get in some long runs. On one occasion I decided to wear my track spikes for such a run. I thought that it might give me better traction on the dirt roads. As usual, I struggled to keep up with the rest of the guys. I labored up a hill and as I crested my spikes caught in the gravel. I was thrust forward and tumbled down the hill. Because I was at the end of the line I don’t think any of the other guys saw me. At least no one stopped. As I picked myself up off the ground I found that my arms and legs were scraped up from the gravel. I limped back to the locker room, showered, dressed and walked home. I was discouraged and defeated.
In some ways I have relived that experience many times throughout my life. It has not come in the form of a physical tumble; instead it has come in the form of a spiritual or emotional tumble. I have struggled to catch up to where I think I should be only to stumble and fall behind again. There have been many times that I wanted to turn around and go home.
In Romans 7:15 Paul shared some of his struggle as he ran the spiritual race. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” There is debate over how this verse should be interpreted, but I can identify with it. I want to be compassionate, but I come across as critical. I want to be available, but I come across as aloof. I try to be focused on Christ, but I get distracted by the world.
Peter understood what it feels like to take a major spiritual tumble. Before Jesus was arrested Peter boasted about how he would stand with Jesus no matter what happened. Jesus warned him to be careful, but Peter was confident he could face whatever was coming. When the heat was on, Peter tumbled. He denied Jesus, not once but three times. After the resurrection Jesus met with the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus invited Peter to take a walk and the following conversation ensued.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)
Peter was mired in personal disappointment. He was discouraged that he had failed Jesus so badly. He desperately wanted to make things right, but he didn’t know how. In the midst of Peter’s disappointment, Jesus came to him.
When we have stumbled in life, we assume that Jesus will keep his distance. We feel like we have to do something to make it up to Jesus; we feel like we have to make the first move. In reality, it is Jesus who comes to us. Jesus loves us so much that he does not want us to stay in our discouragement. We can expect him to initiate the conversation.
Jesus gave Peter the chance to reaffirm their relationship. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved Jesus. I don’t think Jesus was being cruel. I think Jesus was breaking down Peter’s resistance to accepting Jesus’ forgiveness. Jesus challenged Peter to get up and move on. Peter was very tempted to quit. In fact, that was why he was at the sea. He was going back to fishing. Jesus called him back to his commitment to serve Christ.
When we fall spiritually we are tempted to give up and go back to our old routines of life. Jesus comes to us and calls us back to Himself. The work is not over. The need is still great. There still is a place of meaningful service for us in the Kingdom.
The day after my fall I woke up stiff and sore, but that afternoon I was back at practice. I knew that one fall doesn’t end a track season. I have fallen many times since. Each time Jesus has come, picked me up and challenged me with these words, “Dave, do you love me? Get back in the race.”