The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?"
He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
I met a man named Jack when I was working at the hospital last summer. He was in his early 80s and was struggling with a slow recovery from heart surgery. When I entered his room, he asked me to sit down and began sharing his story. His first marriage had ended when he was a young man, and he'd blamed God for his loss. In the years since, despite remarrying, he'd never quite gotten over his bitterness and disappointment. Now, many years later, he had health problems and wondered if God was done with him—if he'd missed the chance to make things right with God and draw close to him.
We've probably all reached points where we wondered if our mistakes and decisions have disqualified us, in some sense, or if God had simply run out of patience for our stubbornness. But our inconsistency isn't a limitation to God's love. God is a God of second chances.
When I think about second chances, there are several people in the Bible that come to mind, but one I often think about is Peter. When Jesus is arrested shortly before his crucifixion, someone asks Peter if he is with Jesus, and he says, no—three different times. Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. After Peter's third denial, a cock did crow. Luke tells us in his account that Peter wept bitterly when that happened (Luke 22:62).
All the disciples were afraid, but only one of them denied Jesus. So when the unthinkable happened and Jesus emerged victorious over death, Peter carried a unique burden—the knowledge that he'd failed his Lord and friend. When the disciples travel to Galilee under Jesus' instructions, as depicted in John 21, Peter lets the others know, "I'm going out to fish."
Some have speculated that his words indicated he felt washed up and was returning to his old life. That might be overstating things, but one thing is certain—God wanted him to know that fishing wasn't a career-option for him. No fish were caught that night. If he'd had success, he might have forgotten that the Lord had called him to be a fisher of men. In our failure, we can become distracted and pursue our own plan instead of trusting God's. We might believe our mistakes have cut us off from his blessings or think God is too preoccupied to care about what we're going through. None of these things are true, but they can become convenient excuses to shelter our disappointment.
The solution to weathering our failures and disappointments is to keep sight of the goal. Don't hyper-focus on the moment. Life is a journey, and parts of that journey lead us through difficulty. At the end of our journey, all that matters is that we waited on God and continued to serve him. He will lead us through the storms of life, the disappointment of broken dreams, and the shame of our sins. His power shines in the darkness and through the lives of imperfect people who do his work and rest in his love.
When Jesus calls to the disciples in the fishing boat from the shore, Peter dives in immediately and swims to him. The distance from God in our hearts is nothing more than that—a short gap we can close quickly. God waits for us like Jesus waited for Peter, longing to restore and bless us. Jesus doesn't bring up mention of Peter's failure; he asks him about his heart. "Simon son of John, do you love me?" If Peter does, he has work for him to do. "Feed my lambs." Peter's failure didn't disqualify him for Jesus' plan and calling on his life. It's the same with us. If we love him, he will continue to work through us and for his glory.
Peter is hurt because Jesus asked him a third time, "Do you love me?"—apparently missing the fact that Jesus was erasing his denials with three loving confessions. God often replaces our failure with blessing so that we know we are loved. There is a symmetry in God's plan for us. For every failure, there is a chance to show the Lord how much we love him. For every wrong turn, there is a new beginning.
I prayed with Jack, that God would comfort him and give him peace in knowing he was loved, despite the mistakes of the past and the uncertainty of the future. I swung back to see him a few days later; he'd taken a massive turn for the better and was going to be discharged. I could see joy on his face. He asked me to pray for him. I did so and then encouraged him. "Jack, the Lord has granted you more years, and he wants you to walk with him through all of them. He has work for you to do."
That's his message to you, too. Walk with him, trust him in the journey. Accept his mercies, wait for his blessings. Whatever mistakes you've made, whatever difficulty and disappointment you're experiencing, his plans for you have not failed.