My wife, Nancy, had a hemorrhagic stroke on January 19, 2019. I’ve written about that experience several times, and I hesitate to revisit the event in writing. However, even at the risk of being tedious by reciting the same event again and again, I do so because I hope to encourage anyone who might today be struggling with their own crisis of faith as I struggled for a long time with mine.
I recently concluded my latest reading through Luke’s gospel and paused, as I usually do, at 22:61 and 62. The context is St. Peter’s third denial of his Lord, at which point Jesus: “Turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
It’s not hard for me to imagine this scene in my mind when the Lord turned to look at Peter. Peter, so sure of his love and devotion to Jesus had sworn he’d never desert Him, and much, much less, deny Him.
But he did. Three times.
As it turned out, the day I read this text in Luke’s gospel, I also read 150:
Praise the Lord! Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in His mighty expanse. Praise Him for His mighty deeds; Praise Him according to His excellent greatness. Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe. Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150)
I laid aside the Bible and thought of the time in January 2019 that I could not praise the Lord – in His sanctuary, or anywhere else. Guilt and shame over my own failure had engulfed me – not too unlike how I imagine Peter’s guilt and shame overwhelmed him.
As I sat thinking about the psalm, I reread a note I’d placed in the margin of my bible on February 16, 2019, a few weeks after Nancy’s stroke: “Lord, I have so many questions. I don’t understand so much. Rather, I understand nothing at all. All I will be content with is this – You are God, and you are GOOD. That is an objective truth that doesn’t depend on my experience. But I still fear what else may fall on us. Oh Lord, help me in my unbelief.”
I still could not understand how I could have lost everything I’d ever taught and preached and written about faith and trust in our GOOD God who does all things well.
By February 16th, 2019, when I wrote that note by the psalm, I’d fallen so hard on my own sword, I thought I could never fully recover. My crushing regrets dogged me. I dragged myself through each day.
Until October 15th – eight months after I’d written that prayer in the column beside Psalm 150. On that day, Jesus said to me what He said to Peter after he’d denied his Lord three times – once even with a curse. If it has been a while, I urge you to read John 21 in context with the last several chapters of that gospel. I’ll paraphrase the essence of the Lord’s gentle rebuke of Peter in 21:
“Peter, you betrayed me. I know you feel horrible about it. But you’ve repented. Now – move on. Our fellowship is restored. I still love you. So, stop dwelling in the past and get on with the work I’ve called you to do.”
And that is exactly what Jesus said to me nine months minus a day since I fell apart at Nancy’s diagnosis. All that I thought I knew about myself and my relationship with Jesus fell apart on that day and the weeks following while she lay between life and death in an ICU bed.
All that I had taught and preached and shared about trusting God had evaporated like water vapor in a flash fire. I actually EXPECTED God to hurt us further. I expected Him to drop the other proverbial shoe. I had lost all confidence and trust and hope in everything I thought I knew what God was like.
Oh, how I had failed Him.
The months between January 2019 and October of that year were dark months for me. And although I continued to teach and write and preach – something was missing. It was joy.
On October 15, 2019, I awakened before sunrise, stumbled out of bed and into the kitchen to make myself some coffee before settling down in my study for my regular routine of reading Scripture and prayer. I continued to do those things probably more out of habit than devotion. My spirit knew I MUST NOT stop moving toward God, even if I had no joy in doing it.
And it was there, in my study, that I finally heard God speak to me in a way I’d not heard Him for quite some time. As I write this, more than two years later, I still remember the warmth that settled over me, like a whoosh of warm water.
God said to me essentially what He said to Peter that day on the beach: “Richard, you blew it. And I know you feel terrible and ashamed and confused about it all. But – you’ve repented. Many times, since then, you repented. So now – move on. Stop dwelling in the past. I still love you. Now get on with the work I’ve called you to do.”
If you’ve read this far, you might already suspect that the point of my story is NOT about me and my failure and how Jesus restored my relationship with Him. The point of my story is about YOU.
Have you failed the Lord? A month ago, or a decade ago – the time elapsed is unimportant and irrelevant. What IS important is that Jesus says the same thing to you who have repented as He said to Peter on that beach and to me in my chair: “Okay, you blew it. You feel terrible and ashamed. But it’s over. I love you. I have never stopped loving you. You are forgiven. Now stop dwelling in the past and get on with the work I have called you to do.”
And THAT, dear reader, is how Jesus deals with repentant sinners. It is Satan who wants you to live in the past, always ruminating about your forgiven sins and failures. But never forget what Jesus said of the devil: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
Now get up. Dust yourself off. And get to the work God has called you to do.