I've been contemplating faith lately. More specifically, my faith. What it means to me, where it wants to take me, and am I willing to go. I plan to share more of that later. But for the time being, during my faith meditations, I thought of an essay I published in my last book, Lessons Along the Journey. I modified it for this blogpost.
Although I’ve grappled with forgiveness, commitment, holiness, and a dozen other spiritual markers along my journey with Christ, I’ve often had to repeat those same steps. Even as I write this, the grappling continues.
Yet, as I reflect over the decades, I can clearly see one predominant thread woven through each lesson learned. It is this: God loves me. His love was there when my father left us. I was five. It was there during my teen years when I got lost in immorality and rebellion. It was there when I raised my fist and accused Him of not caring about me. It was there when . . . when . . . .
Truth is, it’s always been there.
But now I will share one more thought. It centers on a Scripture I read a few months before I completed this manuscript. The lesson summarizes the essence of the Father’s relationship with His children.
The New Testament writers used two words for “love” – phileo and agape. Phileo (fil-EH-oh) carries the idea of tender affection. Agape (ah-GAH-pay) is often used to describe God's unconditional, merciful, and enduring love – the kind of love He commands us to have for Him and for others.
One morning, I read the twenty-first chapter of St. John’s gospel and paused at verses 15-17. The margin of my Bible includes the Greek words used for “love” in this passage. I include the words in parentheses below:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me more than these?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” He said to him, "Feed my lambs.”
He then said to him a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (agape) me?” He said to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love (phileo) me?” and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love (phileo) you.” (Jesus) said to him, "Feed my sheep.”
As I meditated on the passage, I wondered why Peter responded to Christ’s agape with phileo. A modern version of the conversation might sound something like this:
“Peter, do you love me with all your heart?”
“Lord, I have great affection for you.”
“Feed My lambs.”
“Peter, do you really love me?”
“Lord, I think you are wonderful.”
“Tend My sheep.”
“Peter, do you have great affection for me?”
“Lord, you know I do.”
“Feed My sheep.”
Two things caught my attention in this exchange between the Lord and Peter. First, I believe Peter must have felt miserable about his thrice denial of his best friend and Lord. But then I noticed how the Savior tried to help Peter move beyond his guilt. When Peter wouldn't say – couldn’t say – he loved Jesus, the Lord came down to his level: “Okay, my friend. Do you have affection for me?”
How like Christ to be so gentle to our wounded spirits.
And second – and this is equally important – after each agape/phileo exchange the Lord’s charge to Peter was essentially the same: “Feed My sheep.”
In other words, “Peter, I know you feel guilty, but your repentance restored our relationship. Your sorrow and guilt are unnecessary. Don’t let them keep you from your task to tend My flock."
How like the merciful Christ to call us out of our sorrow. How like Him to renew our relationship – vessels of clay that we are – and set us about the work He’s given us to do.
I need that gentleness and mercy. And I imagine you can probably use a dose of it yourself.
When we feel unable to tell Him, “I love You,” the Savior tells us it’s okay if we just like Him a lot. And when our sorrow overwhelms us, the Shepherd comes alongside, puts His arm across our shoulders and tells us, "I agape you."
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33). The penitent's sins are forgiven. All of them, forgotten. All of them, washed in the Blood of the Lamb.
Now, let's get about doing His work.