Saturday, 8 October 2016

For the person who knows everything

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me....” Peter replied, “Even if everyone else falls away, I never will... Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. Matthew 26:31-35

But, of course, they did.

Where were they in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed, after asking them to keep him company in his sorrow? Asleep.

Where were they at his trial before the Sanhedrin, being lied about, spat at and mocked? Anywhere but with him. All right, Peter was outside, but when challenged about his allegiance to Jesus he ended up cursing, swearing and dumping Jesus like a sack of rubbish: “I don’t know the man!”

Where were they at the trial before Pontius Pilate? Don’t ask. Where were they as the nails were hammered home? Skulking, presumably, in some corner. Where were they at the burial? Who knows?

It’s easy to shake your head and despise them, isn’t it? All belt and no trousers! All hat and no cattle! All talk and no action. But of course it’s impossible to avoid the question, Where would I have been if I had been in their shoes? A question I personally would rather not ask.

One of the pluses of getting older is that (hopefully, at least) it drains the over-confidence out of you. True, some younger people don’t need this process: they are humble and teachable right from the start. But I suspect that many of us go through a period when we know just about everything there is to know, are very happy to put everybody else right, and are blissfully sure of our capacity to face any situation. I know I did. I cringe now when I think of it.

And - let’s be brutally honest - some of us never entirely grow out of this mentality. There are some pretty arrogant oldies knocking around the place - perhaps I, and perhaps even you, among them.

It’s a great thing, even if also a painful one, to discover the truth about yourself. It means you can start at last to live the life you were intended for. Simon Peter certainly found this. 

When the cock crowed, signalling his betrayal, he “went outside and wept bitterly”. But the moment of brokenness was the moment of healing: John tells us that it was in that very brokenness that he was restored by the risen Jesus (John 21:15-20). His life at that point was given a whole new start, and the pathetic wretch of the first Good Friday becomes, by God’s grace, the heroic figure of Pentecost and those wonderful following days.

Over-confidence is a weed that grows out of the soil of cast-iron certainty. But this raises a question. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be certain?

Well, yes, of course. Certainly there is no room for any kind of fawning, foot-shuffling, hand-wringing humility - like the obnoxious Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Indeed, the truly humble person never feels the need to claim humility: Francis de Sales (1567- 1622) said that “true humility makes no pretence of being humble, and scarcely ever utters words of humility.” Who needs words of humility when it’s just, well, what you are?

But certainty about God, about Jesus, about his life, death and resurrection, certainty about the fact that I am a sinner saved by grace, certainty about eternal life and about a divine purpose for my life here on earth - certainty about all these things is a very different matter from certainty about my own knowledge, my own wisdom, my own strength and my own capabilities. A very different matter.

There can have been few figures in Christian history more certain about his faith than Paul. Yet he frankly reveals in his letters that there were times when his confidence was low. When he warned the Corinthian Christians “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12) I think he knew what he was talking about.

Indeed, his slightly puzzling admission in 1 Corinthians  9:27 is, to me, very revealing about his inner insecurities: “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after having preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize”. (Interesting...!)

The essential point is simple: as Christians “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). And wherever faith - believing where we cannot see - is key, there is bound to be also the possibility of doubt. Even those cast-iron certainties about God will sometimes seem somewhat less than certain.

I seem to have started this little reflection with over-confidence, and somehow worked our way to humility and faith. (Rather like Simon Peter, in fact.) I didn’t plan it that way, but perhaps it’s not a bad journey to have made, a journey that leads naturally to prayer...

Lord, empty me of all arrogance and over-confidence, and fill me with love, faith and genuine humility. Teach me to trust solidly in you, but only very cautiously in myself. Amen.

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