It’s a phrase that has been attributed to both Socrates and Plato, but it’s also a mantra that has been taken up in the modern day. In so many words, all kinds of gurus from all kinds of perspectives are saying the same thing – Know thyself, and then obey thyself. That is, the chief end of mankind is to understand what makes you uniquely happy, and then to pursue that happiness regardless of what stands in your way.
Of course, there is an assumption behind this philosophy. It is assumed that when we end up knowing ourselves, we will find a great deal of freedom and release and gratification when we finally do. But what happens when self-awareness leads you where you don’t want to go? What if you subscribe to the philosophy, and yet at the end of it, you are broken by what you find? This is what happened to Peter, one who came face to face with what he was truly capable of, and it left him devastated.
He was so sure of himself. He was the one who confessed Jesus as the Messiah. He was the one who had walked on water. He was the one who had come to His defense with the sword in the garden, and that last one happened after Jesus cast doubt on his commitment. He heard the words about his denials in the back of his mind as he slashed at the soldier. Three times indeed.
But then it happened. In a matter of a few hours, Peter saw the truth about himself. He came face to face with the fact that he was not nearly as strong, not nearly as faithful, not nearly as committed as he would have liked to believe. And the truth of himself made him weep bitterly.
I remember many years ago I was pushing a lawnmower. And for the first time, and seemingly out of nowhere, I had my own “rooster” moment. I saw with vivid clarity the fact that all my religious actions, all my friendships, all the good things I had done, were really about me. They were all done, at least at some level, to make people like me. Or think well of me. Or be impressed with me. And the lawnmower got very difficult to push much further.
It is a frightening thing to look inside oneself. There’s nothing quite as devastating as realizing with sudden clarity just what you are capable of. It’s in those moments that the “good news” of self-exploration and the idea that true joy and happiness can be found with knowing, and then obeying, oneself is proven false. The lie is exposed when we peel back the layers of our personhood. And we are left, like Peter, like me, with a sense of bankruptcy. We cry as the prophet did, “Woe is me! For we are unclean people, and we come from an unclean people.” Self-awareness – true self-awareness – will lead us to a place we don’t want to go.
But gratefully, Jesus meets us there.
There is a scene recorded in John 21 when Peter finally, at long last, knew himself. He had at last come face to face with that which Jesus had known all along.
And the resurrected Christ, over a smoldering breakfast of fish, asked Peter a simple question: “Do you love me?” Our language fails us a bit here, because Jesus asked Peter if he loved him in a specific way. In the Greek language, Jesus phrased His question using the term for love that meant the God-like kind of love. Agape love. The love that never fails. And Peter, still reeling from this true revelation of himself, responded equally simply: “Lord, you know I love you.” But Peter used a different word – phileo. Because he now had a clear picture, he knew he could not say yes. He did not love Jesus in the way Jesus asked him. He responded that he “loved” him – but the word he used was the Greek word for friendship. It’s affection. It’s a great kind of love, but it’s not agape.
That’s what Peter said back. It seems like he’s saying, “Jesus, I know what you’re asking me. But you and I both know my track record. So as much as I want to say I agape you, I have to, in all honesty, say that I phileo you.”
They go back and forth like this twice, and then finally, in the last question, Jesus comes down to Peter’s level and asks, “Peter, do you phileo me?” And Peter was grieved.
It’s one thing to say it yourself; it’s another thing to hear Jesus say it.
Peter couldn’t handle Jesus using the words he himself had just used to describe their relationship. And then in verse 18, Jesus did something strange: He transitioned into talking about Peter’s death:
I assure you: When you were young, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go… Follow Me!
I think Jesus was trying to encourage Peter with these words. I think He was saying, “Peter, I understand that you feel unworthy of the task before you. I understand you are battling with insecurity and guilt about your level of commitment. But I want to crack the door of eternity for you a little, and let you in on a secret.
There will come a day when you will courageously, bravely, and with conviction oozing out of your pores – a day when you will be tested beyond your wildest imagination – and you will pass. And the truth is that I can use even your failures of the past for good. So don’t worry about your level of commitment. It will come. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other and follow me.”
Praise the Lord. For all of us have explored ourselves, and found ourselves wanting in our faith, thank goodness that Jesus will complete His work in us. Thank goodness He will bring us to the end.
Friends, if you’ve traveled the road of self-awareness, then you know you have been found wanting. So have I. And there is grace there for us still.