My church is working through the book of Galatians right now and it's been nothing short of eye-opening. Galatians as a whole is a none to gentle reprimand to believers who were falling back into some old bad habits and looking to other things to justify them in their faith. Paul doesn’t pull any punches as he starts his letter and honestly the more I read it, the more I can feel the sheepish cringing on behalf of the Galatians.
In chapter two, Paul starts illustrating his larger point by talking about his interactions with the apostles. He tells a story about Peter and it’s… Less than flattering.
“But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. 12When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. 13As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.
14When I saw that they were not following the truth of the gospel message, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?’”
Poor, poor Peter. He tries so hard, but every time he’s in front of the camera he always seems to find a way to fall on his face. It’s painfully familiar. What strikes me about this interaction in Galatians is how similar this is to another one of Peter’s less than stellar moments. I’m referring to Peter during the trial of Jesus. Not a few hours before Peter had declared in an Oscar-worthy moment that he would certainly die alongside Jesus. Then Jesus is arrested and put on trial and Peter sits out in the courtyard waiting for some news. Before long, people start confronting him about his association with Jesus and Peter demonstratively declares that he’s never had anything to do with Jesus and he does so not just once but on three different occasions. It’s one of those ugly moments of human nature where courage fails and we see all over again just how much the sacrifice Jesus was about to make was needed.
At face value, it may not look like Peter’s actions during Jesus’ trial and his during Paul’s visit have much in common, but a closer look shows a trend that hits a little close to home. Peter cares so much what other people think of him and it trips him up miserably every single time. Every. Single. Time.
I feel downright uncomfortable reading Peter’s struggles because I tend to get tripped up by the same thing. Chalk it up to a performer personality, but I care entirely too much about what other people think of me and if I’m not watching myself vigilantly, I slip right into making that the basis for my decisions and actions. It’s an ongoing struggle that I have to keep careful tabs on.
In Peter’s case, this is not so much two different stories, one about the time he denied Jesus and one about the time he was embarrassed to be seen with Gentiles. This is an ongoing story of Peter’s struggle to care more about the saving grace of salvation than his own personal image. When Paul confronts Peter about being embarrassed in front of the Jews, he’s addressing a narrative that started long before and isn’t isolated to a single incident. He had a weak spot in his character, and twice now it’s been exploited to damaging effect.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from my uncle (who coincidentally has given me about 80% of the other best pieces of advice I posses). We were talking about the enemy as I was struggling with something and he simply told me: “Look, here’s the thing about the devil. The only way he can come at you is sideways.”
It’s an encouraging notion and a terrifying one. Encouraging, because it shows how little power then enemy truly has when it comes to truth. You don’t have to get in an all-out physical brawl with the devil. All you have to do is hold on to God’s truth and let that take care of the rest. Name the enemy for what he is and watch him slink back into the shadows. But it’s a terrifying notion as well because of the realism in it. It acknowledges that an assault from the devil is not a one-time event. It will happen again, and it will happen in a new way. You will have to keep watch and keep sharp. Our enemy is terrifyingly creative and he will find a new angle to come at you.
You will not save yourself any time by pretending the enemy won’t come calling again.
So you’ve beaten an assault from the enemy back? Great! Now pivot and get ready, because he’s going to come again and it’s not going to be as recognizable to this time. He’ll likely use the same struggle or temptation you’ve always been fighting, but it’s going to look so subtly different it will be hard to recognize. It’s the same enemy in a different mask. So learn to recognize the voice behind the mask.
So how do you recognize the voice? Do the work to understand your war, not just its individual battles. For a situation like Peter’s, it’s far easier to say “Wow! I’m not going to deny Christ again!” than it is to address what it was about his nature that made it so instinctual for him to deny Jesus. We save ourselves so much time and heartbreak if we do the work to recognize our weak spots and the patterns they create in our lives. Understanding the patterns of your struggle cuts down on the amount of time the enemy can use it against you.
And we don’t have to make it a solo endeavor either. In fact, we really shouldn’t. One of the most practical ways to train yourself to recognize the voice behind the mask is to get some fellow believers in your corner who know your struggle and can keep watch along with you. Life is dangerous enough as it is, don’t attempt it alone. Peter may have hated every single second of Paul publically calling him out for his behavior, but he was awfully blessed to have someone in his life who was willing to pull him up short before there was the third chapter to add to the story of his struggle. Get yourself a Paul, a person who loves you too much to watch you fall prey to a struggle and listen to them when they bring you an issue.
It’s not a fun reality knowing that our Christian lives are going to be marked by struggles, weaknesses, and attacks from the enemy. But the way I see it, we aren’t going to save ourselves any time by wishing that it would be different. Dig deep, get ready, and shout down every sideways attack from the enemy with God’s truth. We’ve been equipped to survive such attacks. May we live like it.
Let’s find some joy,