By Karen Wingate
One look. One word. That’s all it takes to know someone else knows. One nanosecond for shame to envelop your soul like a smothering blanket.
I felt that way. I was in a rush and not paying attention. Hoping to catch the next city bus in less than 10 minutes, I steered my shopping cart into the nearest checkout lane and tossed my items on the conveyer belt. Fifteen items maybe? I looked up to feel the burning glare of the clerk.
“This is an express lane.”
I hadn’t seen the sign. Or bothered to look. “I’m sorry. It’s just a few items over.”
She was unyielding. “You’re making other customers wait who need to use this line. Put all your groceries back in your cart and move to another line.”
Disgusted at the delay, the customer behind me wheeled her cart of five items into another cashier’s aisle. I pulled my cart in behind her. With no one now in her checkout line, the stern clerk moved over to bag my groceries, refusing to accept my verbal apology.
Yes, she was ungracious. But I was still guilty. The worst part was that everyone saw and heard—the legalistic clerk, other clerks, and customers. They all knew I had selfishly, carelessly disobeyed Express Lane rules. I felt horrible. I felt that sinking, smothering veneer of shame that makes us wish we were invisible.
That’s what shame is. An inward feeling of remorse and embarrassment at the public exposure of our sin. The sickening realization that someone else knows we aren’t what they expected us to be.
As incriminating as my soul-dropping feelings were that day, they were probably a speck compared to what the apostle Peter felt when he denied Jesus.
Peter was the impetuous one. Some people term his ready answers as foot-in-mouth disease. I don’t go that far. The depth of his responses during his three years with Jesus show that Peter grasped the identity of Jesus more than his fellow disciples. When the Lord asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13), Peter immediately answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). After many followers had left him, Jesus asked his disciples, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”
“Lord, to whom shall we go?” was Peter’s quick response. “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-69).
That’s what makes Peter’s denial so incredible. Peter knew to the bottom of his sandals that Jesus was the Messiah. Peter was the apostle who walked on water. He knew the essence and substance of faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
Perhaps Peter found it easy to say the right words to Jesus when everyone around him would nod in agreement. But when the opposition asked, Peter couldn’t bring himself to admit that he not only knew Jesus, he was one of his best buddies.
All four gospels record the scene of Peter’s denial. Luke 22:61 describes how Jesus looked straight at Peter, causing Peter’s meltdown into shame. Jesus gave him the look children dread to receive from their parents. It’s the look that sees through your soul and floods your memory with what you’ve done. The look communicates, “I know what you’ve done and I am disappointed in you.”
As a teenager I participated in a March of Dimes Walk-a-Thon rescheduled for Sunday morning. Even though I didn’t finish the course within the abbreviated timeframe, a volunteer initialed my donation sheet as having completed all 20 miles. I knew better but didn’t protest.
When I approached one of our church elders to collect his donation, he gave me the look. “You skipped church and then you lied about how many miles you walked?” Shame covered me. I was guilty and I disappointed a man I greatly respected. I really hated disappointing Elder Gene.
For Peter, the shame intensified. Jesus was led out of sight and sentenced to death. We don’t know if Peter stood at the cross, watched from afar, or cowered in the Upper Room. It doesn’t matter. Innocent Jesus died while guilty Peter lived.
Getting caught doing wrong is bad enough. The inability to fix the problem is far worse. Peter was utterly helpless to halt the tragic death of the man he knew was the Messiah. In Jesus’ darkest hour, Peter couldn’t give his Lord the support he needed. Some best buddy he was.
How appropriate for all four Gospel writers to recount Peter’s rejection of Jesus. How courageous of Peter to let them include his story of shame in their historical record. For you see, Peter’s action of turning his back on the Son of God is the very reason Christ died on the cross—to provide a remedy for our rejection of him and to remove our shame.
Peter! Don’t despair. All is not lost. You can’t fix the harm your choice caused. But, through his death, the one you spurned fixed the problem of sin for you and all others.
Moving Past the Shame
We all face moments of humiliation. Caught with our hands in the cookie jar or under the shirt of our betrothed. Caught saying words we shouldn’t whether in denial, anger, or deceit. Covering our tracks, hedging the truth. Seeking desperate solutions that only make matters worse. Like Peter, we want to hide until the accusing fingers retract and everyone moves on to the next sensational headline of someone else’s sin.
The six-million-dollar question is this: how did Peter move from a huddled heap of tears and regret to a fearless leader on the Day of Pentecost less than two months later?
Jesus didn’t let Peter wallow in his shame. Mark 16:7 says that an angel instructed the women to tell the disciples and Peter of his return to life. Luke 24:34 suggests that Jesus met with Peter privately in those first crucial hours after his resurrection. John tells the heart-mending story of Peter’s reinstatement in John 21.
Peter overcame his shame in three steps. First, he acknowledged his error. Next, he accepted Christ’s forgiveness. Finally, he returned to God’s plan for him, stronger than ever. Knowing the high cost of failure gave him the courage to proclaim to Jewish leaders, “There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Shame no longer bound Peter like a straightjacket; instead it morphed into humility as Peter learned to let the Holy Spirit work through him to do great things for God’s kingdom.
Have your poor choices been held up to public scrutiny? Maybe you bear a secret no one else knows, but you know God knows and you hang your head, feeling like you can never be fully useful to his kingdom. You can move past the shame. Admit to God what you’ve done. Accept that he has forgiven you. Allow your moment of shame to strengthen you for what God has planned for you to do in his kingdom.
Just like Peter.
Karen Wingate is a Bible study leader, blogger, and minister’s wife in Roseville, Illinois. Her blog appears at www.graceonparade.com.