An incident in the Gospels can help us put the worst act we have ever committed into perspective. It’s what St. Peter did to the Lord on the evening of Holy Thursday.
Peter, the leader of the apostles, did something he would never forget. On the night Jesus was arrested, he denied knowing him and being his disciple. And, shockingly, he did this three times. Worse yet, Peter was not being tortured (though many years later he would be, as would many Christians who were burned, beaten to death, or crucified for their faith).
We go back to the Last Supper, when Jesus frightened Peter and the others by describing a dreadful series of events. Jesus’ enemies would arrest him. He would be beaten and put to death on the cross. He also warned them that their faith would be shaken. Peter, filled with self-confidence and pride, assured Jesus that his faith was unshakable. Jesus then predicted Peter’s denials. Again, he protested: “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:31-35).
The actual test confronted Peter hours later in the courtyard of the high priest where Jesus was being held. Note that he was not being threatened by someone in authority or by some tough guards who remembered Peter when they arrested Jesus in the garden. It came from a teenage servant girl. She saw Peter warming himself by the fire and told him that she recognized him as one of Jesus’ followers. Peter was startled, shocked, and filled with fear.
In an instant, all of Peter’s bravado from a few hours before had vanished. “I do not know the man,” Peter said loudly, trying to sound convincing to those around him. In a panic, Peter moved on.
Another bystander heard Peter’s Galilean accent. Surely this linked him as a disciple of Jesus. Matthew relates, “At that he began to curse and to swear, ‘I do not know the man’” (Mt 26:74). Despite all his protestations of loyalty and bravery just hours before, Peter’s self-confidence collapsed like a house of cards. He had perjured himself.
How serious was Peter’s triple denial of Jesus? More than a few spiritual writers would say it trumps even Judas’ sin of betrayal.
Could Peter forget what he did to Jesus that night? Jesus had even washed Peter’s feet a few hours earlier. No amount of repression, rationalization, or denial could ever blot out from his mind those denials. They were forever part of his personal history and memory.
Think of the night when Jesus was led across the courtyard and saw Peter. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke no words. He simply looked at Peter. At that moment, Peter saw Jesus’ battered face and realized in his heart the terrible thing he had done.
What did Jesus convey with that look in his eyes? It could have been this: “Peter, didn’t I tell you that this would happen? But you refused to pay attention. I’m disappointed beyond words.”
That’s not how it went, though. Jesus’ teachings about mercy and forgiveness tell us what he conveyed with his eyes in just three words: “I love you.” At that moment Peter’s pride and self-sufficiency were exposed and came crashing down. Peter had fallen flat on his face. It’s no wonder “he went out and began to weep bitterly” (Lk 22:62).
When Peter got up, that traumatic experience left him wounded and paralyzed. But what he did not realize was that while he had fallen so terribly, he actually fell forward. At that moment of despair, he was on his way to inner healing. It was only in his sinful act that he realized something: without Jesus, he could do nothing.
We might wonder how Peter could not suffer with paralyzing regret—both emotionally and spiritually. Powerful memories can have that effect. Peter was forgiven; he knew that. His guilt and sin were removed. But because he was human, he would never forget what he had done.
After Pentecost, we read that Peter and the other disciples preached in Jerusalem with a conviction that stunned and frightened the chief priests. For the next dozen years, Peter proclaimed Jesus as Lord; and he, too, suffered imprisonment and beatings. In the end, he was faithful to the death, being crucified during the persecution of Emperor Nero around AD 64.
There is so much to learn from Peter’s experience. When dealing with our own regret, it is important to remember:
There are two very helpful ways of dealing with regret. First, when those painful feelings rise up inside, turn to the Lord and ask, “Why am I feeling so down?” He speaks the same words to us as he did to Peter: “I love you.”
Second, as we continue to accept our own human weakness, we grow in self-knowledge and understanding. We avoid wasting time thinking how we could do such a thing. We act with humility, and true humility is best seen as the truth. Self-loathing only makes us feel worse.
St. Francis of Assisi, who once said he was the most sinful among men, often prayed this little prayer which helped him put everything in his life into proper perspective: “Who are you, O Lord, and who am I?”
In the midst of the moments of hurt and regret, those few prayerful words can lead us to a sense of gratitude and peace of heart. We know the Lord is always saying, “I love you.”
When I preach parish workshops, one of the most important topics is “Our Life’s Journey.” I give each person a blank sheet of paper and ask them to put the date of their birth on the far left. On the far right, they should put the present date. In the middle they mark their journey’s midway point.
Then we take time for them to reflect on their journey— from their birth to the present. This includes times of happiness, growth, and success. It also includes difficult times of struggle and failure.
Most people are surprised to realize their journey has been more eventful than they might have imagined. Good memories bring smiles to their faces. Difficult memories are painful. Some participants now have an opportunity to deal with events in their past that have felt like boulders on their backs.
Many good people tend to be more understanding and compassionate with another’s past failings. With themselves, however, they often show no mercy. Even with the certitude that their sins have been forgiven, there remains the burden of remembering the hurt they’ve caused.
Regret can be best described as a feeling that rises from the pit of our stomach. It is a sense of sorrow or remorse for a sinful act or decision we know was wrong. It can be like a painful lament. There is no question that the deepest regrets result from hurting people we love and who love us. A husband may have been unfaithful; a parent abused a child; a woman had one or more abortions.
Yet in the midst of the deep guilt and regret that can result, a person is never without hope.