Peter, Peter…brave, impetuous, headstrong Simon Peter. The man who threw in with Jesus without hesitation. The man who knew Jesus to be the Messiah. The man who was willing to face persecution and danger with Jesus, who promised to die with him if necessary, who wildly tried to defend him with a sword. And, unfortunately, the one who ended up denying he even knew him. Not once, but three times in a row, just as Jesus predicted.
I doubt that Peter’s denials were a matter of pure cowardice. Rather, I imagine that under the pressure of trying to remain incognito, he forgot all about what Jesus had said about betrayal. He was feverishly improvising, moment by moment, what he had to do to not be discovered so he could stay near Jesus or even spring into heroic action if the opportunity arose.
Then the rooster crowed, and Peter was undone.
From Genesis to Revelation, the grand story of God is populated with a diverse cast of flawed characters, capable of demonstrating heroic faith one moment and behaving badly the next. These are not superheroes or sinless saints, but fallible human beings. We need them in the story to remind us of two important things. First, the story is primarily about God’s faithfulness, not theirs. And second, because of this, God’s story can therefore accommodate some rather sketchy characters…
Characters like us.
. . .
Previously, we’ve used the story of the father who cried out “Help me with my unbelief!” as a touchstone for reading James in a way that makes room for the frailty of our faith. To this, I want to add a story about Peter, one in which Jesus chides him for doubting.
As we’ve seen, though we usually translate James’ word as “doubt,” I think he’s describing something more like ambivalence — not a failure to believe, but “double-mindedness,” or holding onto two competing beliefs. Peter’s story can help us illustrate and round out what I believe James is trying to teach us.
The story is found in Matthew 14:22-33. After Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of thousands, he sent the disciples away on a boat and went up a mountain to pray in solitude. The disciples had been fighting a strong headwind and choppy seas all night when Jesus came to them, walking on the water.
At first, they were terrified and screamed, thinking it was a ghost. But Jesus calmed them down with the Aramaic equivalent of “Chill, guys. It’s just me.”
Then Peter said, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water” (Matt 14:28, CEB).
Who knows where Peter got such a loony idea? If Jesus rolled his eyes, Matthew doesn’t say. All he tells us is that Jesus replied, “Come.” Here’s what happened next:
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!” Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!” (vss. 29b-33)
This is Simon, the one to whom Jesus gave the nickname “Peter,” or “rock,” the rock on which Jesus would build his church. Perhaps Jesus gave him this name to symbolize the stalwart character he could see in Simon.
But for the moment, Rocky just sank like a stone.
The words “you man of weak faith” together translate a single word in the Greek, an adjective that literally means “of little faith.” Did Jesus say this in exasperation? Was he scolding Peter for his failure?
I think a better way to read the scene is that Jesus said this kindly, giving Peter another nickname: “Little Faith.” “Oh, Peter,” Jesus says with a gentle heart. “Oh, Little Faith. You were doing so well. Why did you waver? Why did you start looking at the wind and waves instead of at me?”
The word that is translated as “doubt” here is not the same as in James; it’s only used twice in the New Testament, both times in Matthew. But like the other word, it suggests double-mindedness, or more literally, taking “two stands.” This is the instability James describes: a vacillation between two competing beliefs, making a person “like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind” (James 1:6).
Literally, in Peter’s case.
But what I want us to remember here is Jesus’ response. He didn’t say, “Why don’t I just let you flounder a bit? That’ll teach you a lesson.” He didn’t say, “Yeah, I thought so. You just don’t have what it takes.” And though I imagine he had the power to levitate Peter out of the water from a distance, he didn’t do that either.
Rather, what Matthew tells us is that Jesus immediately grabbed Peter and pulled him out. Immediately — in the Greek, it’s the first word in the sentence. Whatever tone of voice we choose to read into Jesus’ words, it must be consistent with the fact that Jesus didn’t waste a moment rescuing the man who wavered in his faith.
We would do well to remember that story when we read what James has to say about faith and doubt.