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Jesus healing Peter: healing trauma and shame

By Seth Strawn, LPC | August 04, 2023 

A little while back, during the summer of 2022, I was listening to a sermon on John 21, and the pastor made an observation which I had never noticed. This observation immediately struck me to my core. It was a simple yet significant observation: Jesus was making breakfast for his disciples by a charcoal fire, and when Peter denied Jesus three times, he was also standing by a charcoal fire. The charcoal fire – that was the observation.

I believe that all of Scripture is significant and intentional, and that nothing in Scripture is written by accident or a coincidence. Prior to being a therapist, learning about trauma, how trauma is stored withing the body (nervous system, brain, mind, and memory), what trauma is, the physiology and modern science regarding trauma, and learning about how trauma is healed, this observation would not have stood out to me. But now, knowing what I know about trauma, the charcoal fire stood out to me like a flashing sign, which immediately caused me to realize a truth in this passage of Scripture which I had never realized before, and it is that Jesus healed Peter.

This account is often viewed and interpreted as Jesus redeeming Peter. We focus on Jesus redeeming Peter with three opportunities to express his love for Jesus and Jesus affirming him three times in parallel to Peter’s three denials. And in this sense, we see Peter redeemed from his three denials and his position before Jesus restored. Jesus does more than just redeem Peter, though. He heals him. Jesus heals Peter of trauma and shame.

The detail of the charcoal fire is significant.

Through the study of neuroscience, physiology, and psychology, what we know about trauma is that trauma is less about what happened to you and more about how your body experienced what happened to you. Trauma is primarily experienced on a sensory level more than a cognitive level, and it is through the sensory experience (visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and sensations within the body) that the memory of the trauma is coded and held within our brains and nervous systems.

The charcoal fire is significant, because it is a specific sensory detail associated to Peter, creating a pathway from the night and moment he denied Jesus to the morning where he shared breakfast with Jesus and expressed his love to Jesus. By appearance, these are two contradictory messages (a denial and a confession of love), and therefore, which belief is true becomes difficult to know, confusing, and the beginning of how dysfunctional beliefs and cognitions develop.

In addition to the charcoal fire, there were other sensory memories associated to Jesus which were active for Peter on that post-resurrection morning. Let’s consider some of those previous memories and experiences of Peter.

When Peter met Jesus for the first time, it was after fishing all night and catching nothing. Right before pulling in the nets and docking his boat in the morning, Jesus (from the shore) instructed Peter to cast his net one more time. Peter did not know who Jesus was at this point. However, he cast his net, and as soon as he did, it overflowed with fish – more fish than they could haul in. Peter then realizes who Jesus is, falls down before Jesus, and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

On the morning depicted in John 21, leading up to breakfast with Jesus, it was almost an identical experience. Peter had been fishing all night with some of the other disciples, and they had caught nothing. They were getting ready to bring the nets and boat in, when someone from the shore told them to cast their net one more time. (At this point in time, they did not recognize that it was Jesus.) The disciples listened, and as they threw the net into the sea, it overflowed with fish. At this point, Peter jumped into the water to swim towards Him. This is the first activation of Peter’s sensory memory network associated to Jesus – associated to his first encounter with Jesus, the miraculous catching of fish.

At the conclusion of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus, Jesus tells Peter that from that point on, Peter would be a fisher of men, thus giving him a new title, livelihood, and identity. Jesus then gives Peter an invitation to follow Him, and he does. Peter leaves everything and follows Jesus.

Peter becomes a student of Jesus, a disciple, an apostle, and a friend. He sees Jesus perform miracles, heal the sick, preach to thousands, and walk on water. By faith, Peter even walked on water toward Jesus in the midst of stormy winds and waves. Peter saw Jesus in his glorified state with Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration.

Peter recognized Jesus as Lord… as the Messiah. Then (recorded in John 13 and in Luke 22), Jesus tells the disciples that the time is coming when He must leave them, and that where He is going they cannot follow. Peter protests, boldly saying, “Why can I not follow you? I will lay down my life for You,” and, “Lord, I am ready to go both to prison and to death.”

Jesus questions Peter on his claim, and Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows the following morning.

As that night continues, Jesus is arrested, and the trauma of which Jesus later heals Peter begins to unravel. While Jesus is being questioned and accused, Peter was nearby, standing next to a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest to warm himself. This is a sensory memory being created. As Peter is standing next to the charcoal fire, he is asked three times about whether he knows Jesus or is a follower of Jesus. Three times, Peter denies any association to Jesus, and then, after the third denial, the rooster crows, and Jesus turns and looks at Peter. This is the moment where Peter is broken, and he weeps. It was while he was standing next to a charcoal fire that he realized he denied his Lord, Savior, Messiah, and Friend. It was in this moment that Peter realized Jesus’ prophecy came true – that rather than stand with Jesus and suffer with Jesus as he said he would, he denied Jesus. It was in this moment that the LORD looked at Peter; their eyes met, and they both knew exactly what had just happened. Can you imagine the eyes of Jesus as He looked at one of His best friends who had just denied Him, in possibly one of the loneliest moments of life? Can you imagine the emotion on His face and the posture of His body as He turned toward Peter? The sorrow, the hurt, and the compassion for Peter. Can you imagine what Peter saw and felt? It seems likely that this experience was instantly engrained into every part of Peter’s being, including the experience of the warmth, smell, sight, and sound of the charcoal fire – the sensory memory associated to the emotional experience. Can you imagine Peter’s shame, guilt, remorse, and embarrassment – the sense of unworthiness he possibly felt?

Now, lets fast forward to Peter and the other disciples having breakfast on the beach with Jesus. At this point, Jesus had already been crucified and resurrected. The reality remains that Peter had abandoned Jesus in His time of need, and he had abandoned his own confession and promise, and up until this moment, Scripture does not reveal how Peter has been dealing with the weight and burden of that night.

Already, on this morning, the sensory memory of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus has been activated. I can imagine, that at this point, Peter is doubting whether he is still going to be a fisher of men, possibly feeling like a failure, not good enough, and unworthy of the call Jesus first gave him – possibly wondering if Jesus’ original invitation is still valid.

Now, Peter is sitting next to Jesus by a charcoal fire, and his sensory memory network would associate this experience to the last experience he had with Jesus while being warmed by a charcoal fire. The shame, the guilt, the pain, the three denials, the look on Jesus’ face… and then, after sitting by the fire long enough to finish breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”

Peter replies, “Yes Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus commissions him to “Feed My sheep.” Jesus asks a second time, and Peter replies the same. Jesus commissions him to “Tend My sheep.” Then, Jesus asks a third time, “Peter, do you love Me?” At this point, Peter is grieved and says to Jesus, “You know everything. You know that I love You.” Jesus tells Peter again, “Feed My sheep.” Three denials, and three affirmations. In a sense, Peter’s position before Jesus is restored. Jesus does not stop here, though.

Jesus then tells Peter how it is that he is going to die, and that his death will be glorifying to God. Peter, the disciple who boldly told Jesus that he was ready and willing to lay down his life and die for Jesus (he was so confident of this), and then when the moment came to stand with his Lord, he cowered, fled, feared for himself, denied him, and watched from a distance as Jesus was sentenced and led to the cross… He did not lay down his life for Jesus. He did not live up to his promise. On that night, when Jesus was betrayed, Peter abandoned Him.

But now, while sitting next to a charcoal fire, Jesus assures Peter that he is still commissioned, that he will lay down his life for Jesus in the end, and lastly, Jesus gives Peter the same call and invitation as He did on that first day when they met, saying to him, “Follow me.” The same call and purpose Jesus gave to Peter in the beginning is given to him again, like a new beginning and a clean slate – where his shame, guilt, failure, and unworthiness no longer have power over him. Jesus heals Peter of his trauma, and we see the evidence of that healing by the way Peter lived the rest of his life. He followed Jesus, not perfectly, but from a place of wholeness and grace, and he had the honor of boldly and confidently dying for Jesus. He did not run, and he did not hide.

We see all throughout the Scriptures and the Gospels miraculous ways in which Jesus heals people supernaturally. But here, we see Jesus heal Peter not through supernatural means, but in His sovereignty (remove parentheses) through trauma processing… through the use of adaptive sensory and somatic memory experiences… by means of safe exposure to triggering stimuli. He reprocessed the painful emotions and beliefs and replaced them with adaptive memory networks associated with the sensory memory so that the trauma of the past would stay in the past and no longer have power over him in the present. And As a result, we see Peter move forward with a sense of renewed purpose, honor, confidence, belonging, imputed worthiness, and wholeness.

Everything that we see in this account lines up perfectly with what we know today about how trauma or adverse experiences are processed and healed, and Jesus—the Creator and author of the universe, of our minds, bodies, and emotions—did this over two thousand years ago.

As a Christian therapist, I cried the first time I recognized everything which was just expressed from these accounts in Scripture. What this reveals to me is Jesus’ heart to heal the broken-hearted. As a therapist, it gives me a renewed sense of meaning in the work that I do, and a renewed sense of hope that Jesus uses this work that I do to help others and bear fruit for His glory.

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A little while back, during the summer of 2022, I was listening to a sermon on John 21, and the pastor made an observation which I had never noticed. This observation immediately struck me to my core. It was a simple yet significant observation: Jesus was making breakfast for his disciples by a charcoal fire, and when Peter denied Jesus three times, he was also standing by a charcoal fire. The charcoal fire – that was the observation.

I believe that all of Scripture is significant and intentional, and that nothing in Scripture is written by accident or a coincidence. Prior to being a therapist, learning about trauma, how trauma is stored withing the body (nervous system, brain, mind, and memory), what trauma is, the physiology and modern science regarding trauma, and learning about how trauma is healed, this observation would not have stood out to me. But now, knowing what I know about trauma, the charcoal fire stood out to me like a flashing sign, which immediately caused me to realize a truth in this passage of Scripture which I had never realized before, and it is that Jesus healed Peter.

This account is often viewed and interpreted as Jesus redeeming Peter. We focus on Jesus redeeming Peter with three opportunities to express his love for Jesus and Jesus affirming him three times in parallel to Peter’s three denials. And in this sense, we see Peter redeemed from his three denials and his position before Jesus restored. Jesus does more than just redeem Peter, though. He heals him. Jesus heals Peter of trauma and shame.

The detail of the charcoal fire is significant.

Through the study of neuroscience, physiology, and psychology, what we know about trauma is that trauma is less about what happened to you and more about how your body experienced what happened to you. Trauma is primarily experienced on a sensory level more than a cognitive level, and it is through the sensory experience (visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and sensations within the body) that the memory of the trauma is coded and held within our brains and nervous systems.

The charcoal fire is significant, because it is a specific sensory detail associated to Peter, creating a pathway from the night and moment he denied Jesus to the morning where he shared breakfast with Jesus and expressed his love to Jesus. By appearance, these are two contradictory messages (a denial and a confession of love), and therefore, which belief is true becomes difficult to know, confusing, and the beginning of how dysfunctional beliefs and cognitions develop.

In addition to the charcoal fire, there were other sensory memories associated to Jesus which were active for Peter on that post-resurrection morning. Let’s consider some of those previous memories and experiences of Peter.

When Peter met Jesus for the first time, it was after fishing all night and catching nothing. Right before pulling in the nets and docking his boat in the morning, Jesus (from the shore) instructed Peter to cast his net one more time. Peter did not know who Jesus was at this point. However, he cast his net, and as soon as he did, it overflowed with fish – more fish than they could haul in. Peter then realizes who Jesus is, falls down before Jesus, and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

On the morning depicted in John 21, leading up to breakfast with Jesus, it was almost an identical experience. Peter had been fishing all night with some of the other disciples, and they had caught nothing. They were getting ready to bring the nets and boat in, when someone from the shore told them to cast their net one more time. (At this point in time, they did not recognize that it was Jesus.) The disciples listened, and as they threw the net into the sea, it overflowed with fish. At this point, Peter jumped into the water to swim towards Him. This is the first activation of Peter’s sensory memory network associated to Jesus – associated to his first encounter with Jesus, the miraculous catching of fish.

At the conclusion of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus, Jesus tells Peter that from that point on, Peter would be a fisher of men, thus giving him a new title, livelihood, and identity. Jesus then gives Peter an invitation to follow Him, and he does. Peter leaves everything and follows Jesus.

Peter becomes a student of Jesus, a disciple, an apostle, and a friend. He sees Jesus perform miracles, heal the sick, preach to thousands, and walk on water. By faith, Peter even walked on water toward Jesus in the midst of stormy winds and waves. Peter saw Jesus in his glorified state with Moses and Elijah during the Transfiguration.

Peter recognized Jesus as Lord… as the Messiah. Then (recorded in John 13 and in Luke 22), Jesus tells the disciples that the time is coming when He must leave them, and that where He is going they cannot follow. Peter protests, boldly saying, “Why can I not follow you? I will lay down my life for You,” and, “Lord, I am ready to go both to prison and to death.”

Jesus questions Peter on his claim, and Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows the following morning.

As that night continues, Jesus is arrested, and the trauma of which Jesus later heals Peter begins to unravel. While Jesus is being questioned and accused, Peter was nearby, standing next to a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest to warm himself. This is a sensory memory being created. As Peter is standing next to the charcoal fire, he is asked three times about whether he knows Jesus or is a follower of Jesus. Three times, Peter denies any association to Jesus, and then, after the third denial, the rooster crows, and Jesus turns and looks at Peter. This is the moment where Peter is broken, and he weeps. It was while he was standing next to a charcoal fire that he realized he denied his Lord, Savior, Messiah, and Friend. It was in this moment that Peter realized Jesus’ prophecy came true – that rather than stand with Jesus and suffer with Jesus as he said he would, he denied Jesus. It was in this moment that the LORD looked at Peter; their eyes met, and they both knew exactly what had just happened. Can you imagine the eyes of Jesus as He looked at one of His best friends who had just denied Him, in possibly one of the loneliest moments of life? Can you imagine the emotion on His face and the posture of His body as He turned toward Peter? The sorrow, the hurt, and the compassion for Peter. Can you imagine what Peter saw and felt? It seems likely that this experience was instantly engrained into every part of Peter’s being, including the experience of the warmth, smell, sight, and sound of the charcoal fire – the sensory memory associated to the emotional experience. Can you imagine Peter’s shame, guilt, remorse, and embarrassment – the sense of unworthiness he possibly felt?

Now, lets fast forward to Peter and the other disciples having breakfast on the beach with Jesus. At this point, Jesus had already been crucified and resurrected. The reality remains that Peter had abandoned Jesus in His time of need, and he had abandoned his own confession and promise, and up until this moment, Scripture does not reveal how Peter has been dealing with the weight and burden of that night.

Already, on this morning, the sensory memory of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus has been activated. I can imagine, that at this point, Peter is doubting whether he is still going to be a fisher of men, possibly feeling like a failure, not good enough, and unworthy of the call Jesus first gave him – possibly wondering if Jesus’ original invitation is still valid.

Now, Peter is sitting next to Jesus by a charcoal fire, and his sensory memory network would associate this experience to the last experience he had with Jesus while being warmed by a charcoal fire. The shame, the guilt, the pain, the three denials, the look on Jesus’ face… and then, after sitting by the fire long enough to finish breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”

Peter replies, “Yes Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus commissions him to “Feed My sheep.” Jesus asks a second time, and Peter replies the same. Jesus commissions him to “Tend My sheep.” Then, Jesus asks a third time, “Peter, do you love Me?” At this point, Peter is grieved and says to Jesus, “You know everything. You know that I love You.” Jesus tells Peter again, “Feed My sheep.” Three denials, and three affirmations. In a sense, Peter’s position before Jesus is restored. Jesus does not stop here, though.

Jesus then tells Peter how it is that he is going to die, and that his death will be glorifying to God. Peter, the disciple who boldly told Jesus that he was ready and willing to lay down his life and die for Jesus (he was so confident of this), and then when the moment came to stand with his Lord, he cowered, fled, feared for himself, denied him, and watched from a distance as Jesus was sentenced and led to the cross… He did not lay down his life for Jesus. He did not live up to his promise. On that night, when Jesus was betrayed, Peter abandoned Him.

But now, while sitting next to a charcoal fire, Jesus assures Peter that he is still commissioned, that he will lay down his life for Jesus in the end, and lastly, Jesus gives Peter the same call and invitation as He did on that first day when they met, saying to him, “Follow me.” The same call and purpose Jesus gave to Peter in the beginning is given to him again, like a new beginning and a clean slate – where his shame, guilt, failure, and unworthiness no longer have power over him. Jesus heals Peter of his trauma, and we see the evidence of that healing by the way Peter lived the rest of his life. He followed Jesus, not perfectly, but from a place of wholeness and grace, and he had the honor of boldly and confidently dying for Jesus. He did not run, and he did not hide.

We see all throughout the Scriptures and the Gospels miraculous ways in which Jesus heals people supernaturally. But here, we see Jesus heal Peter not through supernatural means, but in His sovereignty (remove parentheses) through trauma processing… through the use of adaptive sensory and somatic memory experiences… by means of safe exposure to triggering stimuli. He reprocessed the painful emotions and beliefs and replaced them with adaptive memory networks associated with the sensory memory so that the trauma of the past would stay in the past and no longer have power over him in the present. And As a result, we see Peter move forward with a sense of renewed purpose, honor, confidence, belonging, imputed worthiness, and wholeness.

Everything that we see in this account lines up perfectly with what we know today about how trauma or adverse experiences are processed and healed, and Jesus—the Creator and author of the universe, of our minds, bodies, and emotions—did this over two thousand years ago.

As a Christian therapist, I cried the first time I recognized everything which was just expressed from these accounts in Scripture. What this reveals to me is Jesus’ heart to heal the broken-hearted. As a therapist, it gives me a renewed sense of meaning in the work that I do, and a renewed sense of hope that Jesus uses this work that I do to help others and bear fruit for His glory.

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