Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from a Jacobite and Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Themes: Hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Humility, Servant Leadership
Volume 7 No. 441 October 13, 2017
III. Featured Article on Humility

Be Humble or Be Humbled - Growing Stronger Through Failure

by Dr. Jeffrey F. Evans


Matthew 23:8-12
Luke 22:31-38; 54-62
Psalm 119:65-72

I have often heard people say: "There are two unavoidable things in this life -- death and taxes." And it's true! You can't avoid either one!

And likewise, we could also say (when it comes to believers) there are two OTHER unavoidable things in this life. The FIRST is the fact that God is both very intentional and unrelenting in his work of sanctifying or shaping the believer into the likeness of Christ.

Paul tells us that much in a statement much like a promise, where he writes in Phil. 1:6: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

Which simply means that if you are a believer, you can be confident of this fact: That as long as you are alive, God will NEVER stop His very purposeful work of molding and forming and reshaping you into the likeness of Christ.

And the SECOND thing which is also unavoidable in the life of a believer, is that God, on numerous occasions throughout our lives, will carry out that purpose by using difficulties, trials and even afflictions as the chisel He uses to chip the sharp, abrasive, unsightly, or rough edges off our character and personality.

Psalm 119 makes that especially clear. There in v. 67, the psalmist writes: "Before I was afflicted, I went astray; but now I obey your word."

That is, BEFORE he went through this unnamed experience which was so painful he could call it an "affliction" ("affliction" meaning "a state of great suffering and distress usually caused by immense pain, illness, injury or adversity"), he says he disobeyed God and followed the wrong path.

But AS A RESULT OF THIS PAINFUL AFFLICTION he tells us he learned to obey God's word. His affliction produced godly obedience within him.

Which is why he adds this interesting comment in verse 68: "YOU are good, O Lord, and what you DO is good -- teach me your decrees."

Do you see what he's doing? He's acknowledging that this affliction did him good. It matured him spiritually and taught him to obey. And thus he adds: "teach me your decrees, " which surprisingly, in the context, means this: "If painful afflictions were necessary to help me grow and teach me obedience, then let them come into my life again. Teach me again by using that same type of thing."

It's a point he repeats again in v. 72, where he says: "It was GOOD for me to be afflicted, that I might learn your decrees."

So, what I'd like to do today, is look at Peter, and the excruciating trial he went through, with two purposes in mind: FIRST I'd like to look with an eye toward how God intended to use Peter. / And then SECONDLY, I'd like to consider how this painful, heart-wrenching, failure experience, was actually a necessary step in the process of preparing Peter to assume the task of leadership among the apostles.

So FIRST, let's consider how God intended to use Peter. Because anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at the NT, will see that Jesus (right from the very beginning) was grooming Peter to take over the role of leading the apostles after He had ascended into heaven.

Whatever else Matt. 16:13-20 may mean (where Jesus says to Peter, "Your name is Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church"), this much is very clear -- Peter will be at the forefront. Definitely one of the prime movers in the early church as the book of Acts bears witness.

On the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit falls with great power upon all the disciples, who's the one that stands up and takes charge and refutes some false accusations before preaching the first evangelistic message of the new-born church? PETER.

Through whom is the first recorded miracle of healing accomplished? PETER.

Who receives a word of knowledge from the Holy Spirit about Ananias and Sapphira's deception and sin of lying to the Holy Spirit? PETER.

And when Herod wants to crush the rapidly growing early church, who does he arrest and plan to kill to stop the movement in its tracks? None other than PETER! WHY? Because he was going by the common assumption that you put a stop to any movement by killing its main spokesman or leader.

Thus, any unbiased reader of the NT would have to admit that right from the very start, Jesus was grooming Peter to play a significant leadership role in the early church. He was one of Jesus' inner circle of three.

And THAT is extremely important for us to remember, if we are ever to understand what's going on here. Because apart from it it's extremely hard to see why Jesus would allow Peter to go through such a humiliating, and emotionally excruciating failure experience, which would cause him so much internal grief, remorse and emotional agony.

You see, this passage not only confirms what I said last week about God being sovereign over all the circumstances of our lives / it also makes it very clear that God uses those circumstances -- painful as they may be -- to shape and form and equip us for the work He has chosen for us to do.

Like the fire used to refine gold / suffering and trials (or as Isaiah called it, "the furnace of affliction") is what God uses to melt things like steel-hard stubborn-ness / or deeply ingrained pride / or sharp and offensive personality flaws that would hinder us from serving Him as He desires. It's NOT about our COMFORT, it's about our TRANSFORMATION!

Trails and suffering are what God often uses to temper us / and change us in ways that mere verbal instruction CANNOT!

Which brings us to our SECOND point: How this painful, heart-wrenching, failure experience, was actually a necessary step in the process of preparing Peter to assume the task of leadership among the apostles. If we fail to see that we will never understand what's going on in this passage.

You see, before Peter ever comes out with his proud, public, boastful declaration, "I am ready to go with you to prison or death," Jesus tells him: "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat." That is, "take him apart." Satan has asked Jesus permission to put Peter through the ringer (bringing back images of the same thing in Job).

And though Satan surely hopes to destroy Peter by it, or at least destroy Peter's faith, Jesus essentially gives Satan permission to do so -- with the one interesting comment added on: "But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail."

In other words, I'm going to let him do it, because you need it. Satan's purpose is to make you BITTER; My purpose is to refine you through it and make you BETTER. And to that end "I have prayed for you," He says. "And when you have turned back... (it's actually the same word used in Acts 3:19 for "repent") "When you have turned back or repented, strengthen your brothers."

What a profound and unspeakably helpful and instructive interaction! Because it assures us that Jesus was in total control of everything that would happen to Peter during his trial.

He not only permits this trial to take place / and in that sense ordains that it happen (since He very easily could have told Satan, "No! hands off!" when he asked permission to sift Peter) / but by his prayer He even determines the outcome of the trial before it starts!

Notice that before the sifting even begins, He does not say: "And IF you turn back, strengthen your brothers."

There's no "if" involved, because "if" is a word used by people who merely desire that a certain thing would happen, while lacking the ability to ensure that it happens. And Jesus doesn't fall into that category of people!

He very clearly declares with unquestioned certainty: "And WHEN you turn back..." How does He know Peter will turn back? He tells us: "But I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail." And that prayer, and the grace that accompanied it (and NOT anything in Peter himself) ensured that the trial would purify and refine him, instead of crushing or destroying him. It would make him BETTER instead of BITTER.

He even goes so far as to tell Peter what this trial or humiliating failure experience (this "sifting by Satan") was meant to accomplish in him. It is meant to prepare him / or better equip him / to carry out the leadership task of "strengthening his brothers" (the other disciples).

Why, then, did Jesus deem this painful experience one that was necessary for Peter? Because there were aspects of Peter's personality that were abrasive, and irritating, and would actually hinder him from being the leader he needed to be or the leader God wanted him to be.

You see, Peter was extremely impulsive. / He was head strong. / He was stubborn. / He spoke without thinking about the consequences of what he was saying.

He's the one disciple that Jesus rebuked the most! In fact, Peter received the most stinging rebuke of anyone else, when Jesus said to him: "Get thee behind me Satan." Peter was so out of turn on occasion and putting himself where he didn't belong, that Jesus actually calls him Satan!

But most of all (and it comes out in this passage) Peter is very proud and boastful. And Jesus knew that if Peter was ever to be the leader he needed to be, he would have to be broken of that proud / arrogant / boastful / bragging type of attitude / that said, "I can do everything better than everyone else."

PETER is the one who is so bull headed that he actually rebuked Jesus (the only disciple ever to do that)! (Matt. 16:22) / PETER is the one who told Jesus He would never wash his feet! (John 13:8)

And yes, it is PETER who arrogantly boasts in Matt. 26:33: "Even if everyone else falls away on account of you, I will never fall away." You can almost picture him looking at the other disciples, and saying, "THEY might fall away, but not ME. I'm not weak like them. I'm strong. I would never fall away."

So how do you break someone of that proud, boastful, strong-willed, self-assured, and self-reliant type attitude? Listen: You can't do it by mere verbal or classroom type instruction. Just knowing one needs to stop doing those things isn't enough. It doesn't work.

Why? Because that type of attitude or that type of spirit in a person can only be rooted out by one or more harrowing or humiliating experiences, where they are allowed to fall flat on their faces -- usually in the area of their life where they are the most overly confident or self-assured and thus boastful, arrogant or conceited.

They must go through the very painful experience of being broken by God (or sifted by Satan with God's permission) until they come to see how weak, and needy, and dependent they are on the grace God has provided to make them all that they are / and empower them to do all that they do. And it's not a matter of just saying it -- they must actually believe it.

And, of course, it's not that proud people aren't good at certain things. Like Peter, they are. No, the problem comes in because they mistakenly and arrogantly believe that THEY are the source or reason for their success. They forget what Jesus so clearly says: "I am the Vine, and you are the branches, and apart from Me you can do NOTHING." / Or again in Acts 17:25: "It is GOD who gives us life and breath and everything else."

If you have some gift or ability, it came from God! And thus it should be a reason for humble gratitude, and not arrogant boasting or pride.

And the way God teaches us that, over time, is by life experiences that show us how truly powerless and weak and needy we really are apart from His grace. Experiences that will continue until we admit from the bottom of a convinced and truly believing heart / that apart from God we could truly do nothing. That God and His grace undergirds all we are, have, or can do.

As Paul says to the Corinthians, driving home the same point: "What do you have that you did not receive?" (and he means "from God as a gift?")

And the answer? NOTHING! And truly believing it is so necessary to our spiritual growth that God won't relent until we can say it and mean it!

Yet Peter's response to Jesus, when he tells him he's going to be sifted, shows he's not there by any means! Because with a typical Peter-like arrogance, he boasts: "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!"

You can just hear the pride oozing out of that statement. He may as well have said: "I'm strong. I'm fearless. I'm courageous. I have everything it takes. All these other wimps may turn and run like cowards, but not me! They could put me in prison or kill me and I wouldn't deny you. Not me! I can do anything."

But that very response is one of the things that showed Peter was not ready to lead the disciples.

Many times Jesus had hinted to Peter that he needed to be far less proud, but Peter never seemed to take the hint to heart. And thus, with time running out before Peter would assume his leadership role among the apostles, Jesus had to turn up the heat and allow him to be subjected to a trial so painful, and so traumatic, and so emotionally agonizing, that it would effectively dislodge what all His verbal instruction had failed to dislodge.

"Sometimes," as the old saying goes, "certain people can only learn things the hard way." Like a father or mother who tells their child, some 20, 30 or 40 times not to touch the hot stove / sometimes you get to the point where you simply need to let them touch the hot stove!

And that one, trying, painful, tear producing experience will do more to prevent the behavior in the future than 100 verbal lessons!

Then LAST, let's consider the fact that God never picks perfect people to be leaders in his Church (primarily because there aren't any out there)! Rather, He works with the only thing He has to choose from -- imperfect people whom He must then groom and prepare for service in His church.

And not one true Spirit-born child of God is exempt from that grooming process we call sanctification. A process often moved forward in our lives by painful trials, hurtful situations, times of affliction, sifting by Satan, or humiliating failure experiences where we must eat our words or fall flat on our faces.

AND PLEASE LISTEN CLOSELY! The degree of heat used by God as He puts us through the "furnace of affliction," is usually directly proportionate to the type of person we are or personality we have.

People who are humble, teachable, delicate and timid souls don't need much heat, and one short trial will do the trick. / Whereas strong, proud, stubborn, belligerent controlling people, tend to need a high degree of heat / and prolonged trials / or a greater number of trials in order to learn the same lesson.

And yet I suppose we should take great comfort when such times come, realizing that God's purpose in them is never to crush us, but to purify us / never to leave us defeated, but to heal us and transform us and raise us up and make us better equipped for His service!

It's never simply to drive us to despair, but to drive us to despair in ourselves so that we might come to the end of our proud selves and learn to live in a humble reliance upon Him -- who alone is sufficient to strengthen and sustain us and meet our every need.

In fact, maybe we could imagine this conversation taking place between Jesus and Peter (or if applicable, between Jesus and us)! "Peter, I have chosen you to lead my disciples when I'm gone. You're the one I've hand-selected, because you have so much potential.

But there's one big problem Peter. / You lack empathy, compassion and humility. / You're too darn cocky and head strong and stubborn and self-assured and self-reliant. / You're too quick to boast that you can do anything.

In fact, you're so full of yourself there's little room for God in your life. / You need to become far less self-centered, and self-reliant and become far more God-centered and reliant upon Him -- humbly finding all your sufficiency in Him.

I've confronted you about this before, Peter, but you never seem to get it. Yet if you're going to lead my Church, it's not optional. You need to be more humble, understanding, compassionate, and loving. / And you need to stop depending so much on you, and learn to depend entirely on me.

That's why I've decided to let Satan "sift you like wheat." To show you -- strong, proud, boastful, stubborn, impervious Peter -- how weak and needy and human you really are.

If there was any other way to teach you this lesson -- a way that was less painful and humiliating -- I would employ it, because this trial will be traumatic, excruciating and agonizing for you. I know that.

Yet I also want you to know this -- I am wounding you, so that I might heal you. I am going to allow you to be hurt, in order to make you better. I will allow you to experience deeper pain than you've ever felt before, so that when it's all over, you'll be emptied of yourself, and thus equipped to do what you can't do right now -- "be a leader who is able to strengthen your brothers."

You see, if there's one thing this passage teaches us, it's that God's love for us DOES NOT MEAN He will keep us from all painful circumstances or situations. / It does not mean we'll be sheltered from the wind of every storm / or kept from ever going through "the furnace of affliction."

Because if we read this passage right, it tells us He may purposely make us endure such things, if those things are the only things that will work in accomplishing His sanctifying purposes for our lives.

Out of love and not anger -- He will do whatever it takes to form us into the likeness and image of Jesus. Because THAT is why He chose, predestined and redeemed us (Rom. 8:29 and Eph. 1:4) Remember? It's not about COMFORT, it's about TRANSFORMATION.

LISTEN: In Jeremiah 29, God says to a people who have just been taken off to begin 70 years of captivity in Babylon, God could say, "I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

It's a promise that makes no sense unless you see it in the light of God's greater purpose of using every means -- including painful trials -- to form and mold and shape His people into the people He wants them to be.

True change is possible! Praise God! But the message of this text (and so many others) is that oftentimes that change cannot happen apart from pain and struggle. As Dorothy had scribbled in her Bible: "Pain purifies our lives."

You see, I sat for quite some time trying to imagine the look on Jesus' face when the cock crowed, and it says in v. 61: "The Lord turned and looked directly at Peter."

At first I thought maybe it was a stern look, as if to say: "I told you so you loser." But that doesn't fit the context. / Then I considered maybe it was a look of disappointment. But that wouldn't fit either, for Jesus knew all along that Peter was going to deny him. He had ordained that Peter should be sifted and fall.

It was part of His plan for forming Peter's character, and therefore couldn't have been a great disappointment to Him when it actually happened! / Nor can I imagine that it was a look of anger, or disgust, or exasperation. None of those can be made to fit the context, either.

No, the only look that fits the context was a look of love that said:

"Even though you've denied Me, just like I said you would, I still love you Peter. In fact, it's because I love you that I allowed Satan to sift you in the first place. I could have let you go on being proud and cocky and arrogant and boastful. But that wouldn't be loving, because love wants people to be the best they can be. And if trials like this are what it takes to make that happen, then so be it. I love you that much."
(And the same is true for us!)


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