The gift of a penitent heart

Yes, this is a Christmas story, of sorts. So, of course, we’ll go to Luke 22 (NIV):

60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed.
61 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.”
62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

A good Christmas gift is something we want, but the best gift is something we need but have no means to acquire. Today, we will discuss penitence, something we can’t buy.

Everyone, at some time in his life, has fallen. Many have fallen many times; few, few times. And the more a person knows their life and watches its critical flow from day to day, the larger seems to grow the number of these falls, and the oftener reaches out to God their penitential prayer, “Turn yet again, O Lord!”

Peter needed something that he was utterly unable purchase. Peter needed to be restored to Jesus. This could only start by penitence. From this passage in Luke we find four outstanding characteristics of the state of penitence:

(1) It is a divine thing. It began with God. Peter did not turn. But "the Lord turned and looked upon Peter."
(2) It is a very sensitive thing. A look did it. "The Lord looked upon Peter."
(3) It is a very intense thing. "Peter went out and wept bitterly."
(4) It is a very lonely thing. "Peter went out" -- out into the quiet night, to be alone with his sin and God.

These are characteristic not only of the penitential state but of all God’s operations on the soul. The Lord turned and looked upon Peter. There is nothing more sensitive in all the world than a human soul which has once been quickened into its delicate life by the touch of the divine.

We seldom correctly estimate the exquisite beauty and tenderness of a sinner’s heart. We apply coarse to move it, and harsh stimulants to rouse it into life. And if no answer comes we make the bludgeon heavier and the language coarser still, as if the soul were not too fine to respond to weapons so blunt as these.

There is coarseness in the fibers of the body, and these may be moved by blows, and there is coarseness in human nature, and that may be roused with threats; but the soul is delicate as a breath, and will preserve, through misery and cruelty and sin, the marvelous delicacy which tells how near it lies to the spirit of God who gave it birth.

Christ’s gift to Peter could not be given until Peter fully understood his need. Notice, Christ turns first to Peter. When we are in the act of sin, it takes an act of God to break the hold of sin. Jesus gave that to Peter by a single look. Jesus never forgets us, no matter what are the circumstances.

Now, there are two prevalent human responses when sin’s grip is broken; these are human penitence or divine penitence. We may have thought we had been stronger men and women, and when we were put to the test we found to our dismay that we had failed. And this embarrassment is what we are apt to mistake for penitence. But it is no Divine gift of grace, this human penitence — it is merely wounded pride — sorrow that we did not do better, that we were not so good as ourselves and our neighbors thought.

Contrast this with the publican’s prayer of penitence in the temple (Luke 18:13). It was not wounded pride with him. And we feel as we read the story that the Lord must have turned and looked upon the publican, when he cried “God” — as if God were looking right down into the man’s eyes — “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Stricken before his God, this publican had little thought of the self-respect he had lost and felt it no indignity.

Jesus looked at Peter, his sin was made real to him, so he ran to be alone and weep, not from pride but from a penitent heart. That was a gift to Peter – Godly sorrow.

There is nothing more sensitive in all the world than a human soul which has once been quickened into its delicate life by the touch of the divine. People seldom correctly estimate the exquisite beauty and tenderness of a sinner’s heart. Peter’s penitence was not only an intense thing and a lonely thing, but it was also an immediate thing.

We spoil the grace of our penitence many a time by waiting until the sin grows old. We do it on purpose. Time seems to smooth the roughness off of our sin and take its bitterness away. And we postpone our penitence until we think the edge is off the sharpness of the wrong. As if time, as if eternity could ever make a sinner’s sin less black. Sin is always at its maximum. And no one ever gets off with penitence at its minimum. The time for penitence is just the time when we have sinned.

Christ’s second gift to Peter was restoration. We read about this in John 21:15-19. Peter would not and could not have received his second gift without the first. It would be like getting batteries without a toy car to put them in; nothing would happen.

A penitent heart is a great gift. It is one we need but cannot acquire on our own. However, it does have a shelf life. Receive Christ’s gift to you. Open it. Its value is beyond measure.

*Note: This devotion rests heavily upon “Penitence – The Ideal Life” by Henry Drummond, a 19th-century Scottish evangelist.