Editor's note: This piece was co-authored by the author's daughter, Kristin Carey.
Sitting by a fire on the beach of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me?" Perhaps you know the story. Peter replied, "You know I love you."
But the word Jesus used, "agape," means unconditional, sacrificial love.
Jesus was asking Peter, "Do you love me unconditionally? Do you love me enough to lay down your life for me? Do you love me the way I love you?"
When Peter responded, he used a different word: "phileo," which expresses a lower type of love.
Peter was saying only, "You know I am your friend. You know I am fond of you."
Jesus may have been hurt by Peter's answer, perhaps even as profoundly as we are when we feel alone and loved less than we desire. He had twelve disciples, but he may have been the loneliest person in all of history. As the Son of God living on earth, Jesus had a deep "agape" love for humanity. It was his love that brought him here in the first place. It was his love that drove him to the cross. It was the perfect love of God—deeper and wider than any person could ever imagine—and so it was an unrequited love.
Peter knew, that though he had a deep love for his friend, it simply couldn't measure up to the love Jesus had for him. Peter had once lived under the illusion that he could, through willpower and passion, be perfectly loving, loyal, steadfast and true. He had even promised Jesus that he would stick by him if it meant his own death. He promised never to deny him. But he broke that promise; he turned his back on his friend just when Jesus needed him the most.
As Jesus was being beaten and abused on his way to the cross, Peter, out of fear, denied three times that he had ever known him. Immediately afterwards, he was overcome with guilt and grief. He wept with the humble realization that his heart was incapable of the perfect love he had promised and desired to give.
Now Jesus was before him again, this time as a man who had not only conquered the grave, but as the only man who has ever been able to prove perfect, unconditional, sacrificial love.
There by the fire, Jesus asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" And Peter responded honestly, remembering his denial, pained at his own imperfection. "Lord, you know everything. You know I am fond of you."
If you have ever broken a promise, or if you have ever been lied to, you are not alone. If you have ever failed the people closest to you, or if they have hurt you, you are not alone. If you feel ashamed or unworthy of love this Valentine’s day, you are not alone. Remember, our Lord and his disciples felt that way too.
Jesus explained our condition in simple terms: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt 26:41, NIV). No matter how deep our desire, our human hearts are incapable of giving perfect love.
The Hope: New Hearts
In our culture, we understand the heart to be the seat of love, and we are desperate for it. Just go to any drug store this week of Valentine's Day and try to count the number of hearts you see. The condition of our hearts is important to us—yet so many of us walk around with broken hearts because we're either hurt by someone else's failure or we’re ashamed of our own. Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV) describes it well: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"
We all have sick hearts in need of healing. But the good news is that "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18, ESV). God is in the business of healing and redeeming. He can heal the hearts of husbands and wives, the hearts of fathers and sons, of mothers and daughters, of friends, of those who were once friends. In many places throughout scripture, people cry out to God to heal their broken hearts; and He does. King David was one of them. He wrote, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10, ESV).
Every single time someone sincerely cries out to God for that kind of deep cleansing and healing, He provides it. God's love is sufficient for the hurting, the lost and the lonely. James 4:8 (ESV) says, "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you." He wants us to come to Him so that He can heal us. And He doesn't simply patch up our hearts—He replaces them.
In Ezekiel, God said, "I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart" (Ezekiel 36:26, NLT). He does that for us as many times as we need Him to because He wants to teach us to love Him and to love one another with that pure, "agape" love that can only originate from His power. He wants us to love Him with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. And He wants us to "increase and abound in love for one another and for all…so that He may establish [our] hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father" (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, ESV).
Before Jesus left his disciples for Heaven, he promised to send a gift: the Holy Spirit, the very power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. And when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples found that their hearts and lives dramatically changed. Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit produced fruit in their lives—the first of which was "agape" love. And as a result, Peter finally found the strength to follow through with his promise to love Jesus with truly unconditional, sacrificial love—even to his own death as a martyr.
No matter what is in your past, and no matter where you are right now, God can give you a new heart—one that is capable of both giving and receiving the deepest, purest love that exists. May this be the most loving of all Valentine's Days for you, as you tap into God's agape love. He's waiting.