Learning From The Failure Of Others

In the course of life many people have one or more Defining Moments.  These are events or circumstances by which your life will be remembered and defined.  For some people, It is the way they handled a crisis, or an accomplishment, or a particular event in their life

Let me give you some examples . . .what do you think of when I say these names?

  • Washington – crossing the Delaware River
  • Lincoln – Gettysburg Address
  • Benedict Arnold – Act of treason
  • Herbert Hoover – The Great Depression
  • Neil Armstrong – walk on the moon
  • Richard Nixon – resignation
  • Mike Tyson – biting Evander Holyfield

The Bible records many such defining moments:

  • Adam and Eve – their sin in the garden
  • Abraham – His willingness to offer His Son Isaac
  • Moses – The Dramatic Exodus from Egypt
  • Judas – His act of Betrayal
  • Thomas – His expression of Doubt
  • Peter – His Thrice-Denial of Jesus

This morning we look at this last defining moment . . .the threefold denial of the strong, confident leader of the Apostolic Band.  The account is really quite straightforward.  Listen to the way Matthew describes it: (26:69-74)

Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”  He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.”  Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed.

As I read this account I have two questions: 1) How could such a thing happen to Peter

2) How can I keep it from happening to me?


Now, it is important to see that things did not start out badly.  Peter was willing to fight (and presumably, to die) in the Garden.  And after the arrest of Jesus, Peter did follow ( v. 15).   It’s after this that the story takes a sordid turn.   How could Peter, who started so well, end up denying the Savior?

He was overconfident about His own strength

Do you remember these words in Matthew 26:33-35

Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”  But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

Peter wasn’t too sure of the other disciples . . . however, he knew that He would NEVER deny the Lord.  He was so confident, He didn’t even give it another thought . . . and that was the problem.

When anyone reaches the point of feeling spiritually sufficient they are on the verge of great failure.  It happens when the crowd gathers around us and calls us “mature”, a “spiritual leader”, “an example of Christian living”.  It can also happen after a great religious experience (camp, a great conference, an ecstatic declaration, a warm feeling from worship).  When we conclude from these things that we are strong . . . . then you are weak.  As the Lord taught Paul, “when you are weak . . . then you are strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)

You see, when we are aware of our weakness we depend more fully upon the Lord.  When we feel strong, we depend more on ourselves.  When we rely on our own strength, the Devil licks his chops.

He underestimated the pressure of the world

Peter was confident as he followed his Lord into the courtyard of the High Priest.  He thought he was safe.  He believed he would stand against any crowd.  He underestimated the power of accusation.  He underestimated how much pressure could be applied through the crowd that stood around the fire in the courtyard.  It happens to the best of us.  We think we will stand for Christ in any circumstance but we underestimate the power that comes when the approval of the crowd is at stake; in the locker-room, in the dorm,  with our fellow employees, when we are with those we admire, when we are on a date.  The crowd is powerful . . . we must not forget it.

Peter forgot that denial (sin) gets easier with repetition

In the Matthew text quoted earlier you saw the progression of Peter’s denial.  The first time he played dumb, “I don’t know what you are talking about”.  The second time he denied WITH AN OATH, “as God is my witness”.  The third time he added CURSES to the oath and the denial, “May God strike me dead, if I’m lying”.

The first time Peter denied the Lord I suspect he felt it “really wasn’t a denial”.  He might have said he was being coy.  Maybe he would say, he was just trying to avoid trouble.  He could rationalize the first denial.  However, once the door to compromise and denial had been opened, the second and third denials were much easier.

This is how sin works. We are tempted to make a small compromise.  Once we compromise a little we are tempted to compromise “just a little more”.  Before long we have left the way of holiness.

The best example is the decline of television.  Watch television any night and you will hear cursing and blatant sexual innuendo, you will at times see partial nudity, you will see constant violence, and you will see homosexuality, immorality, adultery, and the intimate times of a husband and wife graphically displayed.  How did it come to this?

We didn’t move from the twin beds of the Dick Van Dyke Show right to NYPD and Ellen.  It happened in gradual steps.  In fact it happened so slowly that we didn’t even realize we were compromising our standards.  Once we gave a little, it became easier to give a little more.  It’s like cancer: it doesn’t begin with a large mass . . . it begins with a few maverick cells.  Guard your heart, my friends!


Let me give you six quick principles for guarding our hearts:

Be Honest About Inherent Personal Weakness

Every time we look in the mirror it is important that we remind ourselves that we are who we are by the grace of God.  We are saved by God’s grace . . . and we are sustained by His grace.  It is by His power that we accomplish anything.  We dare not enter the battle in our own strength.

Remember Who You are Talking About

Peter loved Jesus . . . but not as much as would come to love Him.  Don’t forget, Jesus hadn’t gone to the cross yet.  He hadn’t risen from the grave yet.  Peter didn’t know that Jesus was giving himself as a willing substitute for the sins of men. However, we expected Peter to treat his friends better than this.

However, we DO know who Jesus was, what He did, and why He came.  How can you not love the one who has done so much for you?

We love our children.  And because you love your children what is your response to the person who criticizes your child?  You are angry.  You are like a momma bear watching over her cub.  No one talks to or about your children in a hurtful way.  We should have that same attitude of reverence and respect for our Lord.

I encourage you to treat the name of Jesus with high regard.  Don’t use the title and name “Jesus Christ” in a disrespectful way.  Don’t joke about the one who loved you enough to go to the cross in your place.  Don’t treat any of the things of God lightly.  Be careful about asking God to “damn” things or people.  Consider what a horrible request you make . . . even in jest.  Don’t make light of the torments of Hell by saying “I’ve just lived the day from Hell.”  My friend, be assured, the worst day on earth . . . will seem like Heaven in comparison to the reality of Hell.  When we minimize sin, hell, judgment we minimize the penalty Christ paid for our salvation.  We minimize Him.

Develop Spiritual Disciplines

Hear the account in Matthew 26:36-41:

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”  Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”

Peter fell asleep when he needed to be praying.  We all know that we can only survive the difficult times of life by remaining constant in prayer.  What we forget is this: We never know when a difficult time is right around the corner!  We must be ready at any moment.

National Guard members are required to take occasional weekends to practice their skills.  Is that because the government is concerned that these men have forgotten how to shoot a gun?  No, it’s because they want to keep this reserve force in constant readiness.  We can’t afford for these forces to get “rusty”.  It may not seem to matter today . . . but if battle comes we want these soldiers to be at their best.

Spiritual disciplines are like that.  They keep us sharp.  They help us focus.  They keep us on course.  Develop spiritual disciplines in your life:

  • Daily times of talking with God
  • Daily exposure to God’s instruction manual the Bible
  • Weekly meetings (worship) with the faithful
  • Regular giving of our substance (our checkbook shows what our priorities are!)
  • Systematic Study (we must keep our minds sharp)
  • Periodic Fasting (to gain new focus and perspective.)
  • Daily Journaling (to help us listen for God’s voice)

When we begin to get lax in our spiritual disciplines, our defenses get weak and we are vulnerable.  It happened to Peter . . . it can happen to you.

Establish Accountability in Relationships

We can’t see everything clearly.  It is hard for us to spot some of our rationalizations.  We sometimes don’t see when we are beginning to drift. We need the help of our friends.

Church Swindoll has, for years has had a few men that hold him accountable.  When they meet they ask each other these seven probing questions: [Quoted in THE BODY by Chuck Colson p. 131]

  1. Have you been with a woman anywhere this past week that might be seen as compromising?
  2. Have your financial dealings lacked integrity?
  3. Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?
  4. Have you spent adequate time in Bible Study and Prayer?
  5. Have you given priority time to your family?
  6. Have you fulfilled the mandates of your calling?
  7. Have you just lied to me?

Monitor your Friendships Carefully

Francis Bacon said, “We think according to inclinations, speak according to learning and opinions, but act according to custom.”

Bacon is right, we may think and talk well but we are going to do those things that are deemed acceptable by those we surround ourselves with.  We must maintain non-Christian friendships so we can fulfill the great commission but we must be careful that we are the ones influencing and not the ones being influenced. Evaluate your friendships regularly.  Distance yourselves from those who drag you down. Cultivate the relationships that help you grow.

Learn to Act with an Eye on Consequences

My wife and I have a saying whenever we are faced with a decision: “At what price?”  If we are asked to serve on a committee, take a new job, make a big purchase . . . we try to ask, “What is the long-term price?”  Most people live for the moment with no eye on how the decisions of today will impact the future.

Do you think Peter would have denied the Lord the first time if he thought about where this one act of denial might lead?  Listen to these words from Luke 22:61-62 [after the third denial] “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.”  Would Peter have denied the first time if he realized the hurt He was bringing to the Lord?  Peter surely thought he “wasn’t hurting anyone.”

Let me share an experience from this week.  I had to take our dog (Ariel) to see the Vet.  We walked in and I wanted to get things over with so I could get back to La Harpe for an appointment.  The woman came out from behind the desk, put a leash on Ariel and began walking her to the back room.  She looked back and said, “You can pick her up after 3:00 and before closing.”  I was stunned.  I didn’t come prepared to leave her for the day.  And I don’t think Ariel came prepared to stay either . . . she thought we were on a fun outing together.

As Ariel and the woman walked toward the door Ariel suddenly realized that I wasn’t coming with her.  She stopped dead in her tracks and looked at me with pleading eyes as if to say, “How could you leave me?  How could you betray me like this?”

You know the look I’m talking about.  You may not have seen it in your family pet but I’m sure you’ve seen it.  You’ve seen it in the eyes of your children after you say something that hurts them deeply.  You’ve seen it in the eyes of your spouse when you go for the jugular during an argument.  You’ve seen it in the eyes of a friend who depended on you and you let them down.

Back to the story.  For a number of reasons (which I won’t get into), Ariel’s look cut me deeply.  I went out in the car and began to cry.  I couldn’t forget the look on her face. . . . a look I had seen in others before.

Later that day (after I had retrieved my dog), I reflected on my experience and wrote these words in my journal,

I took Ariel to the Vet today.  When I found out that they were going to keep her and I had to come back and get her . . . it was crushing.  The look of betrayal (it seemed) on her face tore me up.  Is that the same look of the Savior every time I sin?  Does sin and the thought of the Savior’s eyes, crush me in that same way as leaving Ariel at the vet?  What if every financial compromise brought to mind that picture of His eyes?  What if every mis-spoken word brought that image?  What if every rationalization brought me that image?  Hmmm.

Remember those eyes my friend.  Remember that our words and actions DO have consequences.


It is important that I add a postscript here.  I know that some of you are very much aware of your failures.  You know you have disappointed the Lord.  You can name many of the times you have ignored Him or denied Him.  You feel broken and distant.  Friend, I don’t want to “bust your chops” today.  It is not my intention to “beat you up” and then leave you to lick your wounds.

So, please note that when Peter realized what He had done, he repented.  He was sorry for his stupidity and foolishness.  And do you know what?  Jesus forgave Him. Jesus forgave Him and gave Him a job to do.

I heard John Maxwell say something like this: It is never too late to begin again and so bring about a different end . . . . That’s true in your case too, my friend.  It may be that you have failed miserably . . . I have done so – more often than I care to admit.  But I have learned that God’s love is greater than our weakness Is it time for you to turn to the Savior?  If you come, He promises to receive you and change you.

I can hear someone now saying: “Bruce, aren’t you encouraging a careless disregard for sin by your words?”  Won’t people just continue sinning and figure that God will forgive them?  I don’t think so.  I think there are lots of people who are in desperate need of God’s word of pardon and restoration.  They don’t want to keep on sinning . . . they know where that leads.  They want to come home.

Jesus wants us to know that whatever we have done . . .no matter what wreckage we have made of our lives . . . He paid for each of those things on the cross.  The only thing keeping us from forgiveness is our sincere desire to receive it.  Peter didn’t take his sin lightly.  He wept bitterly.  When you see you life in that way, when you are really sorry for what you have done . . .  and then experience forgiveness, You will not want to offend this gracious God ever again.

When your spouse loves you in spite of your failures . . . don’t you work all the harder to show them your love in return?   When your parents believe in you even though you have given them reason not to . . . you want to reward that trust.  And the fact that our Savior is faithful even when we have been unfaithful should make us all the more determined to never deny Him again.  May God help us reach that goal.

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