“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15, TNIV). In recent days, I’ve been haunted by this penetrating question. Perhaps “these” referred to the boon of fish, symbolizing the joy of successful work. Or Jesus may have meant the other disciples, alluding to the pleasures of friendship with like-minded people. Our Lord could even have been asking Peter whether Peter’s love for Him exceeded the other disciples’ love for Him. Regardless of the referent, the piercing point of the question remains the same.
As we substitute our names for “Simon son of John,” we sense the voice of Jesus as His eyes gaze into our souls, inviting us to a ruthless examination of what we may love more than Him. In the wellspring of the soul, we find the conflicted desires of our true and false selves. There is little doubt when Peter saw the charcoal fire on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:9), the pain associated with his triple denial of the Lord before another charcoal fire (John 18:18) returned to him with searing heat.
In Luke’s account, Peter’s third denial was immediately followed by the crowing of a rooster and the worst moment of his life: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). That penetrating gaze caused him to go out weeping bitterly, and it was upon him once again as Jesus took Peter aside to confront, heal and reinstate him with renewed purpose and mission (John 21:15-19). The three commissions in this text corresponding to the three denials illustrate the profound biblical truth “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).
The harsh reality is that the sometimes wrenching journey from the false self toward the wholeness of the true self is replete with our own denials of the Lord when we turn to our own way instead of His. We deny Jesus’ rightful rule when we crave pride-driven autonomy rather than the humility of radical trust and abandonment to divine providence.
The false self, nourished by the quest for having, being and doing on our own terms, can choke the life of the new self that has been implanted in the heart of the believer. The illusory persona is biased to follow false compasses because of our pursuit of gratification. Given the power of continually reinforced cultural cues, no wonder people who wish to follow Jesus often end up following the fantasies of this present darkness. The effect of invalid role models and erosion of our knowledge of goodness, truth and beauty through the accelerating process of relativism conspires against the formation of true identity in this world.
As films like Memento and The Man Without a Past vividly portray, the prospect of living in this world without a coherent identity can be terrifying. We are driven to cobble together some sense of past and of place, of possession and of position, in an attempt to authenticate our being and assure our trajectory. The sea is wide and our boats are small and frail, and we are desperate to think we are on course, though few people have a clue as to their real destination. Without a transcendent source of meaning and identity, people will cling to the detritus of myths that happen to be floating about, myths of power and fantasy; myths of success; coming-of-age myths. Our ambient world system promotes a desire to succeed in the false self that outstrips the desires of the true self.
Scripture teaches we were never meant to be autonomous individuals who make our way in this world apart from God. We cannot even know ourselves without knowing the One through whom and for whom we were created. We can only find and nurture the true self by abandoning our illusions of control and committing ourselves to the goodness and grace of the living Lord of all.
The task of becoming an authentic self requires the overthrow of the illusory and sensate self who was forged in the personal and social milieu of youth. Most people resist this process by embracing avoidance strategies to guard them from reflection, ambiguity and pain. “This only have I found, God created humankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). We use multifarious devices to sidestep God’s claims on our lives, because they challenge our attempts at autonomy. Yet God has multifarious means of getting our attention. Recall C. S. Lewis’ insight in The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The Greek playwright Aeschylus made this poignant observation: “Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” The “awful grace of God” drives the false self to the point of despair through affliction, disappointments, adversity and failure. The defining moment in the parable of the Prodigal Son was “when he came to his senses” and said, “I will get up and go to my father” (Luke 15:17-18). Without the experience of radical desperation, he would never have reached this defining moment. Grace drove him to it, and grace drew him through it to the father’s house.
The false self will always worship and serve the created order through the idolatry of possessions, positions and people. The true self, embraced by dying to the idolatrous quest of the false self, revels in the fact that nothing less than God will satisfy the restless heart.
Dr. Ken Boa is the president of Reflections Ministries, which equips people to know Christ, follow Him and reproduce His life in others.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Neue.