Moral Earthquakes & Secret Faults: Going down - Part 8

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Proverbs 16:18

Luke 22

In any natural disaster, the greatest heartbreaks and the greatest joys focus on the way people respond to the crisis. Feats of heroism, selflessness and courage abound in times of need. Simultaneously, the exploitive greed and avarice of men seem to come to the fore in the most tragic of circumstances. The Bay Area earthquake in 1989 highlighted both. Rescuers risked their lives for others hour after hour, day after day in the aftermath of the disaster. At the same time, looters were pillaging the remains of victims’ homes, shops and businesses.

While many neighbors shared selflessly, others proved to be appallingly callous. One landlord reportedly continued to charge rent on his Marin apartments even though no one could live in the damaged building. A restaurant owner was charging $15 for a sandwich the night of the quake. Some people broke into damaged stores and stole as much as they could carry away. These people all saw a chance to profit from the disaster.

It should not surprise us that the same kind of dynamic is at work in the spiritual life. Following a moral earthquake, we are liable to see both the best and the worst in man. We are also likely to see the best and the worst in the church.

All of us know that Christians experience problems relating to one another. Christians have arguments and disagreements with each other. But beyond that, Christians sin against one another continually. We harm one another with our thoughts, words and deeds. Although there is no escaping the fact that we will always continue to sin, two major differences should exist between us and unbelievers. The first is that our standards for conduct — what is right and wrong — are higher because they are God’s standards. The other important difference is that God has given us a way of mending and healing those wrongs perpetrated against each other.

A different pattern

God has devised a process through which reconciliation takes place, allowing us a second chance with one another. He has also prescribed the manner in which we are to act when involved in a dispute with a Christian brother or sister. The reconciliation occurs privately between the concerned parties. Gossip, slander and bitter words — common to disputes in worldly situations — are simply inappropriate, and even disgraceful, when Christians are mending their relationships. Indeed, the typical patterns of worldly avarice are explicitly prohibited from the process.

It is not all right for Christians to drag their problems with each other through the world’s arena. God has given us a program in the Word of God of how to deal with these things, and it is not to bring them to the world.

It is not all right for a pastor — or even for a lay leader — to divorce, for instance. It is not an option for the believer. Now to be sure, a lot of second marriages are better than the first ones were, but none are as good as the first ones could have been. We have a job in this world — where more than half the marriages now end in divorce — to build a wall as high and as thick as we can and to keep young people from falling off the cliff. We must let them know what the Bible teaches, and at the same time, keep an ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff, full of gas, to bandage up and to bind up the lives of those who have fallen. Then we help them see that there is a land of beginning again. This kind of program of reconciliation requires a good deal of balance.

This truth is evident all throughout the dramatic story of Simon Peter. Always brash and bold, Jesus warned him that “Satan has asked for you, that he might sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail” (Luke 22:31–32).

That must have seemed to be a needless prayer to the apostle. Peter responded saying, “I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). He was absolutely confident in his faith, his reliability and his constancy. Jesus knew better. He said, “The rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know me” (Luke 22:34).

I suppose it is unfortunate that despite all the wonderful things Peter did during his career, when his name is mentioned, the first thing we all think of is this one incident which shows him in his worst light. Then again, perhaps it is because of his dramatic failure that this story gives a vivid warning to all of us of the danger of denying our Lord. It clearly reminds us that no one is immune to the possibility of a calamitous spiritual downfall.

Ask a dozen Christians who their favorite apostle is, and the majority of them will probably say Simon Peter. Perhaps the reason is that he is so intensely human. He’s just like we are: impulsive, impetuous and impossible. When he made mistakes, he made big ones. When he spoke unwisely, he spoke very unwisely.

Clearly, Simon Peter did not expect to deny the Lord. In spite of Christ’s clear warning, turning his back on the Lord Jesus Christ was the farthermost thing from Peter’s mind. But then, none of us deliberately intend to indulge in a spiritual downfall. None of us actually plan to fall into temptation and sin. Like Peter, we’re more inclined to expect that we’ll remain forever stalwart. So, we’re always a bit shocked when the inevitable happens and we do fall.

It is a very precarious spiritual position to place ourselves in — to assume that we will never fall. It is a dangerous thing to be where Simon Peter was — actually boasting to the Lord, “I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.” Between that statement of spiritual machismo and his subsequent denial of Christ, Peter obviously underwent a transformation. But again, he certainly did not set out to change. Yet his fall was not sudden or unpredictable. No, his fall was slow, almost an imperceptible alteration within him.

On the slopes

Almost everyone has heard the term “slippery slope.” That phrase refers to some sort of process that occurs so smoothly — many times unwarily — that whoever is on that slope cannot perceive it or does not know how to get off of it. A good example of this is the way an adulterous affair begins.

Most people do not wake up one morning and think, “You know, I think I’m going to begin an affair today.” Instead, it begins with a gradual distancing that occurs between a husband and wife — many times in response to some other situations or circumstances occurring in their respective lives. At some point though, the distance becomes so great that they believe it cannot ever be effectively bridged again. True heart separation occurs, and eventually an affair results. This spiritual fall is gradual. It is a process. It takes place in stages, one leading to another in a sort of chain reaction. Once on that slippery slope, we drift ever downward, unable to arrest our inertia. Eventually, our speed carries us farther than we ever thought possible.

Peter’s fall was no different. He mistakenly stepped onto that slippery slope. Without realizing it immediately, he followed its downward course. As we look at Peter’s life, we can discern at least seven steps in his life that led him toward his denial.

1. Pride

The first step was pride. Jesus said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I prayed for you, that your faith should not fail” (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus warned Peter in the gentlest and most compassionate manner imaginable. So, what was Peter’s response? He said, “Lord, I am ready to go with You.” It doesn’t matter where. If it’s prison, I’ll be with you. I can handle it — whatever it might be.

Step one on the spiritual downgrade is thus an overweening confidence in the flesh. It is a dangerous thing to be so sure of ourselves, yet it is almost as if we are intent on training people to flaunt confidence in the flesh by redoubling our efforts to teach self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-actualization.

Moral earthquakes don’t just happen. But then, they aren’t really plotted and planned either. There isn’t a preacher or layperson who has stumbled who really intended to do so. A great fall comes along in life when we forget that we need to rely on the daily bread of grace and we begin to rest in the confidence of the flesh. It is all too often fatal when a Christian begins to boast about what he is going to do or not going to do.

The same thing happened to Peter when he stepped out to walk on the water. He was doing fine — until he took his eyes off the Lord and put them on the waves. At that point, he sunk. The fact is, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. 28:26).

2. Prayerlessness

What happens when we exude confidence in the flesh? The answer is that we take the next step on the spiritual downgrade. We resolve ourselves to prayerlessness. Notice the pattern in the life of the disciples: “When He came to the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation’” (Luke 22:40).

Well, is that what they did? Not hardly: “When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, he found them sleeping from sorrow” (Luke 22:45).

Prayerlessness. Pride and self-confidence naturally lead to prayerlessness. They go together, like steak and potatoes, corned beef and cabbage, or peanut butter and jelly. Pride and prayerlessness. One who thinks he can stand alone has no sense of the need for a life of prayer. After all, what need is there to pray if we think ourselves strong enough to resist temptation.

For most of us, prayer is an admission of weakness and insufficiency. We know that we can’t do what God alone can do. We throw ourselves at His mercy because we realize that our own efforts are woefully inadequate. We pray because we need, and only God can supply the answers to that need.

Sadly though, because Simon Peter was anything but weak and insufficient and because he was unwilling to confess his dire need of God’s good and providential work in his life, he abandoned prayer. It was not particularly important to him. He would rather sleep instead. So he did.

Peter’s downfall was thus directly related to his prayerlessness.

3. Presumption

The third step along the spiritual downgrade is presumption: “While He was still speaking [in the garden of Gethsemane], behold, a multitude; and he who was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said to him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they said to Him, ‘Lord, shall we strike with a sword?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear” (Luke 22:47–50).

So, who was the mysterious fellow ready to go to war for the cause of Christ? John tells us in his Gospel: “Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it . . . and cut off his right ear” (John 18:10). The reactionary hothead was Simon Peter. What was happening to him?

His problems began with pride. That brought about prayerlessness, and that brought about presumption. It is always an indication of someone being out of touch with the Lord Jesus when we say and do irrational, presumptuous things. A Christian who operates in the energy of the flesh dishonors the name of the Lord and loses the respect of others around him.

Paul thus argued: “I, brethren, do not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:1–3).

Operating in the flesh is a real sign of infancy in the Christian life. Simon Peter acted like an undisciplined child when he struck off the ear of that servant.

4. Paranoia

The fourth step along the spiritual downgrade is paranoia. Peter exemplified a quintessential paranoia: “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). That is what he boasted, but the reality was substantially different. “Having arrested Him, they led him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed at a distance” (Luke 22:54).

He wasn’t so excited about going to prison with Jesus after all, was he? He followed at a distance. That kind of thing happens all the time. It is the fourth step in this long and tortured chain reaction, from pride to prejudice to presumption to paranoia.

Simon Peter was afraid — of what others might think and of what others might do to him. He was afraid of his circumstances — a situation we might all be able to identify with. Thus, he was sunk in a sea of fear. It wasn’t that he wanted to abandon the faith altogether. He didn’t. At least he came to the house of Caiaphus. The rest of Christ’s disciples forsook Him and fled in the darkness. No, it wasn’t so much that Peter wanted to quit following the Lord. But he followed at a great distance due to his own paranoia. He was gripped with fear.

Jesus said, “No one having put his hand to the plow, and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). To turn away — even to be distracted — from our calling is a disgrace precisely because it calls into question the authenticity of our faith.

5. Peer pressure

The fifth step along the downgrade was peer pressure. Notice how Peter yields to the opinions and inclinations of others:

Peter followed at a distance. Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, “This man was also with Him.” But he denied Him, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.” And after a little while another saw him and said, “You also are of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, “Surely this fellow was also with him, for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying” (Luke 22:54–60).

What happened? Peer pressure and worldliness finally molded Peter into a member of the crowd. Peter was worried about what other people might think, and as a result, he betrayed his first principles at the drop of a hat. The psalmist says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful” (Ps. 1:1). Sadly, that description hardly fit Peter at this point in his walk.

When Jesus was arrested, He was taken to the house of Caiaphus, and Peter followed. He made some big promises, but now, he was identifying with the world which rejected Jesus. He was sitting among them at the fire denying that he had ever known Him, molded into their world. His sense of identity suddenly shifted from his Master to his peers. He caved in to the expectations of those around him.

That, in turn, led to the next downward spiral.

6. Paralysis

The sixth step along the spiritual downgrade is paralysis. Now it appeared things were going from bad to worse for Simon Peter. He became more and more insensitive to the Lord. His bold pledge of allegiance just a few hours earlier faded into the background of his consciousness. He became numb to the warning Christ had pronounced concerning the terrible denial — which was now sure to follow. Thus, he arrived at the fire in the courtyard and found that he was spiritually paralyzed.

This always happens when we backslide. The descent is a gradual slippery slope that begins in pride and goes down from there. But, it doesn’t go straight down. If we are not careful, in fact, we might even miss its import altogether. We can become so insensitive that we actually, without ever intending it, end up like Peter, denying our Lord.

There is no prayer we need to pray more frequently than the prayer that God will graciously prevent us from getting into a position or a place where we become insensitive to His voice. There is no danger we need to be on guard against any more studiously than spiritual senses dulled to the point that we are frozen from appropriate activity — spiritual or physical.

7. Perjury

The final step along the downgrade is perjury. Open denial. Lying. Not once, not twice, but three times Simon Peter lied; and if Simon Peter can do this, which of us can possibly be immune?

Hours before, he had boasted of his willingness to die for the sake of his faith if need be. Now, he is not even willing to be honest in a casual conversation for the sake of his faith. Before, he was a champion of the gospel. Now, he has become a spiritual Casper Milquetoast.

All’s well that ends well

Thank God this not the conclusion of the story. In the end, Simon Peter marvelously repented and returned to the fold of faithfulness: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.’ So Peter went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62).

The ultimate result of Peter’s tortured walk along the downgrade was the shedding of bitter tears of remorse. He did not remain recalcitrant. He recognized his betrayal for what it was, and God honored that repentance.

Later, when the women came to the tomb following the crucifixion, an angel greeted them and told them, “Go, tell His disciples — and Peter — that He is going before you into Galilee” (Mark 16:7). The message specifically singles out Peter. Jesus especially wanted Peter to know that his one failure didn’t make a permanent flop. He was graciously given a second chance.

Still later, the apostle Paul tells us, “[The risen Christ] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5, NIV). Somewhere, someplace that day, Christ had a private meeting with Simon Peter. The only way to overcome a spiritual downfall is to rebound into the favor of the Lord. The only recourse is to receive His rest. For Peter, that process began when he wept bitterly — when he cried out in repentance.

There are seven steps to an open denial: pride, prayerlessness, presumption, paranoia, peer pressure, paralysis and perjury. It all started when Simon Peter began to put his confidence and trust in his own flesh, when he became self-confident, self-assured and self-actualized.

No wonder the first Beatitude asserts: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). If we always remain in humble submission to the sovereign purposes of the Lord, many of our sinful problems might never become so great in magnitude. Thus, many a moral earthquake would never occur.

This seven-step descent along the downgrade is, of course, not restricted to Peter alone. It affected many characters throughout the Bible — and it affects us as well. We must be vigilant against the din of pride in our lives. Yet, even if we fall, God’s love does not fall with us; it remains strong, able to lift us again.

God is a God of the second chance. His love for us dictates His actions. He desires to see us reconciled to Him so we may commune with Him and carry out the tasks He has set for us. Therefore, He makes sure that we are reconciled. Christ restored Peter to Himself just as God restores any one of us to His fold.

God is the Great Shepherd and loving Father of us all. The God of the second chance delights in that chance being extended and accepted, whether it is to reconcile a sin by one of His children or to cover a multitude of sins when someone is born again. All of Heaven rejoices when either occurs.

Moral soundings

  • Do you find yourself somewhere along the seven-step downgrade that leads to a spiritual fall?
  • Do you detect the telltale signs of pride, prayerlessness and presumption in your life?
  • What about paranoia, peer pressure, paralysis or perjury?
  • In what ways have you self-confidently relied upon your own flesh?
  • Is your spiritual identity tied up with your past spiritual accomplishments — or in Christ?
  • Have you arrived at the place of Peter — crying out in repentance?
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