28. Savoring the Things of God
The unexpected violence of Jesus' rebuke must have stunned poor Peter, who, after all, had only been trying to shield his beloved Master from danger. A few moments previously, when Peter had declared that Jesus was "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16) he had been highly commended. "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona," Jesus had said; "thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (The word "petros" means a rock.) "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven."
What had Peter done to deserve this sudden change, from a blessing to a curse? It wasn't what he had done, but what he had said. In fact, neither the blessing nor the curse belonged to Peter the man, but to the two statements he had made. (1) "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (a statement expressing a belief which, if properly followed through, will admit anyone into the kingdom of heaven). (2) "God forbid that you should go to Jerusalem, at such a time as this, and suffer many things, and be killed. This shall not be!" It was this kindly concern of Peter's, and his appeal to Jesus to steer clear of trouble, that came to Jesus with all the force of a temptation from Satan.
When you make a seemingly innocent remark to a friend, such as, "Don't do that, it might hurt you," and he over-reacts with unexpected violence and show of emotion, you can be pretty sure that an inner battle has been raging in that man's soul over this very thing, and you have unwittingly blundered onto the battlefield. Jesus was human as well as divine, and all his consciousness was on his human side. Do you think he wanted to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be put to death in agony? Would you have felt happy at such a prospect? Would you have gone through with it, when it could easily have been avoided? And now, in the midst of our Lord's indecision and hesitation and tormenting fear, when he so desperately needed reassurance, he asked himself, "Who am I?" - and he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" They answered, "Some say, John the Baptist, some say Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets." This doesn't help Jesus much, so he comes nearer home. "Who do you say I am?" and Simon Peter declares, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." That was what Jesus needed to hear! Blessed be that glorious assurance! Very well, he would go through with the ordeal, which he realized was necessary for the redemption of the human race. So he began to tell his disciples how he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer, and be put to death, and be raised again the third day. He would see it through! And it was at just that point that Satan prompted Peter to make his blundering appeal, "Be it far from thee, Lord! God forbid that you should suffer and die in such a dreadful manner!" No wonder Jesus turned and said, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" He went on to explain that, not only must he himself suffer these things in order to enter into glory, but so must they. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and follow me. For whosoever would save his life, shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it."
Turning back now to our Lord's words to Peter: "thou art an offence unto me, for thou savorest not the things that be of God," the word "offence" means a stumbling-block, something that trips you up and prevents you from progressing. To "savor" means, of course, to enjoy the taste of something. Peter was preferring the things of man to the things of God; or as the R.S.V. has it, he was "not on the side of God, but of men." A struggle is going on all the time in the heart of each one of us, between God and Satan, or, if you prefer it, between heaven and hell. We are in equilibrium between the two tremendous opposing forces, and can choose which side we shall support. The choice often comes to us somewhat in this way: either ease and pleasure and security and avoidance of all trouble and risk; a good time in this world with plenty of fun, all on a downward slope leading to the rubbish heap; or, a tough upward climb with much self-denial, facing up to the eventual abandonment of all one's selfish ambitions and the painful whittling away of the ego, until one is nothing in one's own sight - a mere empty vessel to be filled with life from the Lord . . . and then utter peace and joy in His nearness which is heaven. That is the way our heavenly Father wants us to go; and all the circumstances of our life are carefully planned by Him to encourage and help us to choose wisely and take the path to heaven, without any feeling that we are being pressured or interfered with. All our choices must be made "as of ourselves."
Do you believe that the circumstances in which you find yourself at this moment are the best possible circumstances, taking your present needs into consideration? I am not suggesting that the world is perfect, by any manner of means. Maybe the Lord is deliberately presenting you with a broken situation; but He is also giving you a bag of tools, meaning that you should set about trying to mend the situation. In which case He probably sees that you need at this moment the experience which you will gain from trying to mend that particular situation! Don't blame the Lord that the situation needs mending. He didn't break it! It was produced by the mistakes and weaknesses and evils of men. Grapple with it courageously, in His strength, and it will yield you a blessing.
We are so ready to criticize the Lord for the way He is running the universe. Of course, if I were God, I would make a much better job of it! I would abolish all evil, to begin with: all war, hunger and sickness, all sin and suffering. What if someone wants to sin? Well, I should have to abolish him also! Too bad! This would just leave the good people, those who think as I do and want what I want. That is how I should rule the world if I were God. And I can just imagine how glad you are that I am not God! The real God has very different ways of working, and different ends in view. He loves people, no matter how they act or behave. He will permit evils and irregularities of all sorts if necessary, but He will always twist them around in some way so that good will come out of them. The most important thing, from God's point of view, is that we His children should choose freely to love Him and be united with Him in joy and happiness. So He must preserve our free will at all costs, even when we are misusing it. God demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ that He Himself was prepared to submit to the worst that evil men could do to Him, rather than compromise in the least degree on the absolute demands of Love.
"If only things were different!" we moan. "0 God, don't let things happen this way! Make them happen in some other way; I'll show you how! It will be much better if things go the way I want them to!" How often have we spoken rashly like this, not openly of course but in our hearts, telling God what we want, from our point of view, rather than listening to what HE wants, from HIS point of view! Challenging authority is in the air, each man doing what is right in his own eyes. You even hear of university students telling the professors what they are to teach, whereas the obvious thing would be for the students to assume that the professors, with their wider knowledge and experience, would have a better idea of what would be good for the students than the students themselves would have. And, since this world is a school or college, in which we are being prepared for the life of heaven, does not the same thing apply in our relations with God? I think we would all do well to try to develop a greater spirit of acceptance, realizing that the Divine Providence is operating, and is overruling everything for our eventual good. Our best line is to go along with Providence, trusting the Lord and following the course which He in His wisdom lays down for us.
I realize that acceptance of one's lot sounds to many people like fatalism, as when the Moslems say, "It is the will of Allah. When accident or sickness strikes, who should interfere? It is the will of Allah!" But this is not what I am saying. Maybe the accident or sickness has been permitted by God. (Of course God has permitted it, or it couldn't have struck!) But it is not God's will that we should leave it at that. It is His will that we should react to circumstances wisely and creatively, doing what we can, within our competence, to improve matters. By doing so, we grow, and that is what God intends for us; whereas, if we were living in a perfect world, without stress or sin or woe, what opportunity would there be for growth?
We have two possible extremes, and must find our way somewhere between the two. One extreme is to play God - to assume responsibility for everything, and, if things are not as we feel they should be, to complain and criticize, or to feel guilty. The other extreme is to leave everything to God, and just sit back and be submissive and make no effort to improve or change anything. Americans have gone to the extreme, so that in speaking to Americans one has to emphasize the need for acceptance and contentment, trust in Providence, relaxing and letting things go their own way. We westerners seem to have a congenital itch, an urge to control and improve things, to make everything bigger and better; convenience and speed, good plumbing, hygiene, the right number of calories in our diet, blood tests, tri-focal glasses, electric tooth-brushes, the lot . . . and if all this really leads to happiness and contentment, we Americans should be the happiest and most contented people on earth. But we are not! Why? Because happiness is not obtained by gadgets and machines. It cannot be bought with money, or secured by jet fighters and napalm, or threats of nuclear missiles. Happiness doesn't come from this world, let alone from hell on earth. It comes from heaven only, and can be obtained solely by the exercise of loving concern for others and acceptance of the will of God.
So true is this that if a man's conscience is working properly he can know whether a thing is of God or not by his feelings in connection with it. If when you have acted in some way you feel happy, deep down in your heart, then that thing was probably the will of God; but if you feel ashamed and uncomfortable in connection with it, then it was probably not the will of God, but the will of man. Maybe this is the only way by which we can know the will of God in any specific sense. If the Lord took us into His confidence and showed us clearly what He had in mind for us, our selfishness would intrude, and, like Peter, we should say, "God forbid!" The old established order of things is crashing around us; the church as we know it is (we are told) "on its way out," and we cry, "God forbid!" Wherever we look, people are crucifying our beloved Master, and we cry, "God forbid!" Great forces are at work which are beyond our comprehension and are certainly beyond our control. We feel that this could not possibly be what God wants for the world, but how do we know? "His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways." All we have to do is to react as well as we can to circumstances as they present themselves to us personally, realizing that however dark the stage, however materialistic the age, however great the devastation around us, the Lord is at the controls. He is handling everything with unerring skill, and we can trust ourselves utterly to Him.
And so I end by saying: Let God be God. We cannot possibly tell, with our finite minds, limited as we are by time and space, what our eternal needs are. If we did know what the Lord was planning for us, we should probably resist and reject it, preferring our immediate comfort and pleasure to the long-term advantage. Only the Lord knows what we really need, and He is bringing it forward for us, and it can be ours if we receive it with loving acceptance. But we must abandon all anger and resentment at the way in which life comes to us. Have faith in the Lord, for on this rock of faith He will build His church in us, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.