With a twinge of anxiety, I let go of the bike seat, slowed my run to a trot, and watched Anna’s precarious balance carry her down the bike path. In the 3.5 seconds it took to slow my trot to a walk and begin to pat myself on the back for a job well-done, I witnessed perhaps the most classic bike wreck in history. As soon as she realized that I was no longer holding onto the seat or running beside her, her mind went blank and all reasoning ceased. She steered sharply to the right, released both handlebars, and attempted at once to become Supergirl. Her momentum carried her forward, arms outstretched. She came to an abrupt halt two and a half feet later—sprawled out, face down, entangled in the metal heap of her bicycle.
Before she even landed, her piercing cry rang in my ears. I took my time to come to her aid, knowing myself that the fear induced in her fall was likely worse than the actual injury. When I reached her, I employed my impressive skills at untying human knots, picked her up from the ground, and set her on my knee to assess the injuries. She was scraped up for sure with gravel embedded in the abrasions on her hands and some pretty awesome road rash to the knees. I was impressed!
Unfortunately, Anna did not share my enthusiasm. “I can’t do it right. I don’t want to learn how to ride my bike. I don’t want to try again!” she wailed. Holding her close, I offered a few words of encouragement: “Anna, sometimes you have to fall down in order to really learn how to ride your bike. Falling down is just part of the process. You may understand that later, after you have learned how to ride.” When I assured her I would stay by her side, she was ready to try again.
How often I sound like Anna and I don’t receive the truth of what a “fall” off the bicycle might mean for what it truly is!
- I’m tired of feeling like God is far away.
- His silence must mean I’m failing.
- The unknown ahead of me is intimidating and I’m afraid I won’t measure up.
- The darkness around me seems so much greater than the light.
- Come soon, Lord Jesus!
If I’m being totally honest, lately I feel farther from God, not closer. I find myself feeling the weariness of defeat, wondering if His silence is punishment or a judgment on me. I feel like I’ve fallen off the bicycle and I’m not sure I want to get back on. And yet, I am curious and compelled, feebly trusting that despite my struggle, God is still helping me.
In the Gospel of John, Peter makes some pretty bold proclamations. Jesus is eating with the disciples in the upper room and washing their feet when He cryptically starts telling the men that He will be betrayed and that they can continue to follow Him when He’s gone. Peter boldly resolves, “I will lay down my life for you” (John 13:37). Whoa! We all know what happened later that night. Peter tried to blend in with the crowd in Caiaphas’ courtyard, but due to his accent, three different people asked if he was one of Jesus’ disciples. And what did he do? He betrayed his Savior, denying that he ever knew Him! Just a few hours earlier Peter was ready to die for Jesus, and now he didn’t know Him? That was a pretty big “fall” off the bicycle.
If I were Peter, I would have been chastising myself: “What have I done?” “I wanted so badly to be a good follower of Jesus, but I failed. How could He ever want a wretch like me?”
I am so glad John recorded the whole story. In the darkness of his “fall”, Peter felt the full pain, remorse, and shame of his betrayal. In that place God likely felt farther away than ever before. Peter may have even felt that in his betrayal of Christ, God had truly abandoned him. But in that space, a very real and authentic transformation took place. This transformation was not something Peter could have produced on his own, it was the work of Christ in his fall off the bicycle. Peter had surrendered his grasp on proving himself worthy and had let go of his control on God. He was ready to let God be God and he desperately knew that Christ’s love for him did not depend on his efforts to sacrifice and prove himself worthy, they depended on Christ Himself.
So, when the risen Christ invited Peter and the other disciples to dine with Him on the beach, Peter likely felt a bit sheepish and uncomfortable. I imagine him longing to be embraced by his friend and Savior, but instead standing back, averting his eyes from Jesus gaze. So, when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Peter’s first response “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:16) may have been stated with a sigh, expressing the fullness of his shame and grief. But Jesus didn’t stop at one question. He asked again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The second time, I picture Peter looking up and looking Jesus in the eyes for the first time since his betrayal. The longing in Peter could be kept in no longer. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The pain was poignant, but hope was springing to life. Light may have begun to shine in the darkness that had surrounded Peter since his fall. A third time, Jesus asks him, “Do you love me?” Peter knows now that he cannot hide his “fall”, his betrayal, his failure. In his grief, he acknowledges that Jesus knew everything he had done, and yet His loving gaze never left Peter. Jesus loved him, always had, and was inviting him to get back on the bicycle and to be empowered to fulfill establishing the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, from the source of Christ’s love rather than his own.
It strikes me that God did not rush to Peter’s aid as soon as he betrayed Jesus. When Anna fell from her bicycle, I wanted to run to her side, to remove the pain and help her feel better. I didn’t, though, because there was something about that moment of fear and the pain that seemed important for her to feel. In reality, I couldn’t fix or remove that pain anyways. I can see now that while God may feel slow to answer or far away when I find myself in the depths of darkness, that He is actually quite present. He is not slow because He doesn’t care. On the contrary, He cares more than we can imagine and He knows that there is something about this space, this place where we are overwhelmed by our fear, pain, and maybe even remorse, that will aid us in discovering the invitation to love that requires surrendering our beliefs about how God should respond and trusting instead that He is.
Peter himself confirms this truth in 1 Peter 1:6-9:
“6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”