The eve of my salvation was what C.S. Lewis might call a “mad midnight moment,” only this midnight lasted three years before the Lord brought me to repentance. Though I often cried for daybreak, to my unregenerate mind dawn was only a new shade of color in the sky, a sufficient degree of light by which to see; I did not yet know just how bright this new light would be.
The last year was perhaps the maddest of the three. The slow march of time proved most painful: I could feel every scraping moment pass me by. Many nights were spent poring over the Scriptures for bits of hope, a grace I did not recognize at the time. Instead, Nehemiah, Galatians, and the Synoptic Gospels were tantalizers conspiring to offer a message of hope that would just as quickly leave. I recorded the tension in my journal:
I don’t understand grace. I am not reconciled, and it’s exhausting because I want to love. I want so badly to be with God, but I can’t because sin won’t let me. I feel almost caged, yes, as enslaved to sin. It brings me to tears that I am so far from love.
The pages continue,
Why? Why am I like this? How long will I be enslaved by sin? If you died for my sins and paid the price, how long will I remain in captivity? How long will I be angry?
It wasn’t long until Luke’s account of Peter’s denial gripped me.
And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:61–62 emphasis mine).
Here was Peter, a man I knew not by his frame or form, yet recognized as kin by the madness of his own midnight moment. Peter was bitter in his weeping, and all I could pin it to was Jesus’s gaze. How had Jesus looked at Peter? With bitterness? Scorn? Disappointment and regret? Matthew and Mark wrote nothing of this look, and Luke’s account was bare. “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” Eight little words: seven monosyllables and one object, Peter. Yet, for all their scantiness, Peter received the crushing weight of the world in these two little verbs.
For weeks, this gaze preoccupied me. I was fixated on how Jesus had turned and looked at Peter because I was terrified of how Jesus was looking at me. It was the haunting echo of the words I never wanted to hear, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matt 25:12). Would I, like the five virgins, stand outside the door of redemption, rejected forever in captivity?
But the Lord is gracious, and he graciously eased my fearful mind: this look could not have been anything of scorn or regret because Christ cannot negate himself. He had already spoken redemption into Peter before Peter’s denial, urgently praying that Peter’s faith may not fail (Luke 22:31–32). Even more, anything less than compassion would have negated the very thing Jesus would soon do on the cross. And if it were true that Christ intimately extended compassion to Peter at Peter’s lowest, then, it was actually quite simple. Peter wept bitterly at the brokenness that led to his denial. He wept in repentance, for his loving Savior, true to Christ’s nature, was still willing to turn and look at him.
Peter’s affirmation was the beginning of my own. In time, I would repent and accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, the one who turned to look at me in my wretched form and still had compassion. But this passage does not only mark a new timeline; it has dotted my timeline several times since, for I still struggle with how the Lord is looking at me in moments of deep sin. My repentance does not often sound like Peter’s bitter weeping; I do not often wail, fast, and mourn for my sins (Joel 2:12–13). And so, at times, I do not feel forgiven. Is my repentance enough? By doubting my repentance, however, I often end up doubting the Lord, for I am asking, in other words, whether my sin is beyond his grace’s reach.
Perhaps you are like me. Perhaps you wonder how the Lord could look your way when you fall into sin, and so he may seem silent. The answer is simple: he turns to look at you because he first turned toward the cross. If you are in Christ, the question of assurance is not how good your repentance must be in order for him to look. The question is whether you believe your repentance is possible because God has kindly turned toward you in Christ. What does God look like to you? Is he magnanimous or hostile in your eyes?
Because of Christ, there is no repentance that goes unanswered for God’s people. When God’s kindness leads us to repentance, that kindness also ensures grace. For he has said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Praise God for his kindness in Christ. For nothing, save salvation itself, is as liberating as knowing that God convicts us of sin not to condemn us in our mad midnight moments, but instead to invite us into a dawn of grace and love through repentance.