After my daughter died, I struggled with feelings of guilt and abandonment even after God assured me of His love, and convinced me that He had been in control all along. Although in the past my security had been rooted in the truth of what God says, this experience tested my beliefs.
God continually called me to look to Christ after Stacey died. His children are precious to Him. God is love. It is His nature. His love for us never fails. The irony is that His love was what I most feared losing. God steadfastly offered His love, mercy and comfort to me as one who applies healing salve to a wounded soul. I desperately needed His healing balm, yet it often seemed far out of reach, beyond my grasp. What a peculiar and deceptive paradox.
Long before Stacey’s passing, I had begun to allow a need to control the circumstances of my life to rule in me, rather than allow God’s influence to control me. As I acquiesced to ungodly tendencies, they gradually took control of my thoughts and actions. At the time of Stacey’s death, those attitudes held me hostage. At times, guilt and insecurity crushed my freedom in Christ.
God’s joy and peace eluded me. Endless “what ifs…?” tormented me—swirling around and around, until they became muddied water filled with millions of shards of debris. My predisposition to work things out in my own strength and by my own clouded understanding offered no peace, rest, or security.
Peter describes satan as an adversary who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5: 8-10 NKJV). He advises, “Resist him, steadfast in the faith….” Satan took full advantage of my perfectionist tendency and my need for control. I willingly followed him into the prisons of self-condemnation and guilt.
I discovered I needed to turn to God minute by minute, to avoid the pitfall of believing I had held Stacey’s life in my hands. If only I could have completely trusted in God’s sovereignty over her life, I could have rested in the confidence that God finished His work in her and blessed my efforts on her behalf. Time and again, I took my eyes off His perfect love and completed work. At those times, I faltered. I felt bruised, defeated.
In fact, I had exchanged God’s grace for a legalistic mindset.
Robert Jeffress says of legalism, “Not only do legalists employ a faulty standard for conduct; they also offer an erroneous incentive for obedience to the standard they have manufactured. In its strictest sense, legalism is an attempt to earn our salvation by adherence to a code of conduct. Legalism implies that faith in Christ is necessary but not sufficient to secure God’s forgiveness.”[i]
We find no mercy in legalism, no comfort in punishment. Not for ourselves or for others.
I wondered if Peter, who denied Christ three times on the eve of His crucifixion, might have shared some of my same fears: Will I never again enjoy intimacy with Jesus, that sweet fellowship which we once shared? Might this fear have been, at least in part, the reason Peter ran from the boat, ahead of the others, to the lakeside fire where the resurrected Jesus waited to ask him, “Do you love me?”
The One who knew Peter’s heart—as He knows mine—listened patiently when Peter answered, “Lord, You know that I love You” (John 21 NKJV). Three times the same heart-wrenching question. Three times the same heart-rending answer. Would the Savior accept Peter’s penitent heart? Could they be close again? Could we be close again? Jesus and me?
Matthew Henry’s Complete Bible Commentary captures the essence and pathos of this scene. Henry speculates on the conversation between Jesus and Peter at their shore-side meeting. Still feeling guilty about having denied his Savior, Peter might well have expected the chastisement he so richly deserved. Jesus, Henry says, let Peter know the truth of the matter.
When Christ entered into this discourse with Peter, it was after they had dined: they had all eaten, and were filled, and, it is probable, were entertained with such edifying discourse as our Lord Jesus used to make his table-talk. Christ foresaw that what he had to say to Peter would give him some uneasiness, and therefore would not say it till they had dined, because he would not spoil his dinner. Peter was conscious to himself that he had incurred his Master’s displeasure, and could expect no other than to be upbraided with his treachery and ingratitude. “Was this thy kindness to thy friend? Did not I tell thee what a coward thou wouldest prove?” Nay, he might justly expect to be struck out of the roll of the disciples, and to be expelled the sacred college. Twice, if not thrice, he had seen his Master since his resurrection, and he said not a word to him of it. We may suppose Peter full of doubts upon what terms he stood with his Master, sometimes hoping the best, because he had received favour from him in common with the rest. Yet not without some fears, lest the chiding would come at last that would pay for all. But now, at length, his Master put him out of his pain, said what he had to say to him, and confirmed him in his place as an apostle. He did not tell him of his fault hastily, but deferred it for some time. Did not tell him of it unseasonably, to disturb the company at dinner, but when they had dined together, in token of reconciliation, then discoursed he with him about it, not as with a criminal, but as with a friend. Peter had reproached himself for it, and therefore Christ did not reproach him for it, nor tell him of it directly, but only by a tacit intimation. And, being satisfied in his sincerity, the offence was not only forgiven, but forgotten, and Christ let him know that he was as dear to him as ever.[ii]
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4:8-10).
There was once a tree planted in the soil of this earth upon which Christ’s blood did drip, then gushed forth. His flesh tore open. His heart broke. Until, at last, His breath poured out. God’s only Son paid the price for my sin’s debt—and all the world’s—with Passion’s flow.
Jesus Christ exchanged that bloodthirsty tree of death for the healing Tree of Life. One day, when I reach His heavenly city and sin no longer rules, I will eat from the Tree of Life. For now, what He offers—I drink. “The Fountain of the Water of Life” flows freely through the veins of my soul. He removed every obstruction of His love appearing to me, every hindrance to His presence abiding in me.
[i] Robert Jeffress, Grace Gone Wild! (WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, Colorado 2005) 42.
[ii] Matthew Henry’s Whole Bible Commentary, Accessed from Biblos.com, Parallel Commentaries John 21:15-19, http://niv.scripturetext.com/john/21-15.htm (accessed September 10, 2011).
[iii] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, James Reimann, ed.(Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, copyright 1992 by Oswald Chambers Publications Assoc. Ltd. , Discovery House books are distributed to the trade by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.) January 31.