Before his betrayal by Judas, Jesus told his disciples what would happen. To Peter in particular, He said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31–32, NKJV)
Notice that Jesus’ comfort was “but I have prayed for you,” not “but Satan will not be allowed to have you.” In fact, Satan was allowed to have Peter, if only for a time. I’d like to consider what Satan did with Peter during that time.
Before we do, though, let’s address those who inwardly snicker at the first serious mention of Satan or spiritual things, as though they were fairy tales and myths. At this point we will let them depart in peace from us and from Dr. Luther, who earnestly wrote, “He seeks to burst us, who are a part of Christ, and the bond of that Word, with which Christ binds us, asunder. Therefore we should not cease to beware of his snares. Christianity is a continuous struggle, not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, as Eph. 6:12 says. One should not act smugly.” (LW 30:258)
It began when Peter denied being any associate of Jesus, or even knowing Him. He was given three opportunities to confess his Lord before men, and each time Peter chose not to. This denial was not the sifting that Jesus mentioned. It was only the tool by which Satan would gain leverage over Peter. The sifting was not done in an outward or visible way. It was done internally and mentally. Here’s how the evangelist Mark describes it. (14:66-72, NKJV)
Now as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came. And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with Jesus of Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you are saying.” And he went out on the porch, and a rooster crowed.
And the servant girl saw him again, and began to say to those who stood by, “This is one of them.” But he denied it again.
And a little later those who stood by said to Peter again, “Surely you are one of them; for you are a Galilean, and your speech shows it.” Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know this Man of whom you speak!” A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept.
The next thing we hear about Peter comes after Jesus rose, about two and a half days later. Mark 16:7, NKJV: “But go, tell His disciples — and Peter — that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” Notice that there is a distinction between the group called Jesus’ disciples and Peter. This distinction was made not first by Jesus, but by Peter himself in his denial of Jesus. Peter had sworn an oath, “I do not know the man.” That excludes him from being a disciple.
The sifting began with the temptation and the denial, but it did not end there. We are not told what happened during the next 60 hours or so, but things have been written about it.
Many people consider Peter to be the equivalent of a faithless heathen at this time, so that if he had died, he would have been eternally condemned under God’s law without a savior. It’s true that Peter had disavowed Jesus, and that Jesus had earlier taught clearly, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32–33) Undoubtedly this was on Peter’s mind during those long hours. It would be surprising to find that he enjoyed much rest.
Yet the same Jesus who never said that Satan’s request was denied also said, “But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail.” It may seem extraordinary that Jesus should pray for a disciple, but it’s not. In fact, He does just that in John 17, and not only for his apostles like Peter, but for all who believe on the basis of their teaching. In connection with Peter, His prayer included at least one request, which He revealed to Peter: “that your faith should not fail.”
In fact, Peter was sifted as wheat by Satan. It doesn’t seem too much to believe that Jesus’ prayer was also granted: Peter’s faith did not fail. So then what happened? It’s implied by Jesus’ words, “when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” Jesus never left Peter, but Peter left Jesus in a sense, for a while. It’s not revealed exactly what this means in relation to Peter’s status as a child of God, except for Jesus’ prayer “that your faith should not fail.”
While Peter was suffering these two and a half days of sifting, Jesus himself experienced the apex of agony under the justice of God against the world’s sin. He would not forsake Peter, so He paid the price: his own innocent life, taken at the hands of the wicked. But pay it He did, and satisfied all of God’s wrath against human sin. During those same hours, Peter was sifted. This sifting is comparable, maybe sometimes identical, to mental illness.
A mental illness can be considered clinically, the way a physical disease or injury may be considered. That is both a strength and a weakness of modern medical science, for while there are treatments to help the mentally ill, its source is not a natural part of creation. The malicious sifting by our spiritual enemy is not taken into account nor even addressed by medically altering the victim’s brain chemistry. Yes, the effects of the sifting can be partly mitigated, but the source of the problem remains.
When mental illness is only considered as a material problem (meaning physical and/or mental), the material treatments available often help in real ways. These can make the difference between coping, and agony or misery. They can allow time for healing to take place. But like all injuries and illnesses, mental illness also has a spiritual dimension.
Illness should not be considered a “spiritual” problem without explanation. Peter had a spiritual problem: denying a connection to Jesus. But that serious sin was also forgivable through Jesus’ death. We can suppose that he experienced what would now be called a mental illness after that, a despairing depression. It would have been like a hole in his existence, a hatred of himself; a sense of shame so deep that the slightest reminder of human failure would pierce his own soul, whether the failure was his or not. It’s a wonder that he did not take the path of Judas, because the thought would have occurred to him. What stopped him? We can only answer by remembering the prayer of Jesus.
Calling Peter’s problem “spiritual” may imply to modern minds that it was imagined, or worse yet: subjective. That would mean that Peter’s spiritual condition or status before God was in jeopardy or worse entirely because of Peter’s own will, words, or actions; that it was all taking place in Peter’s head or heart. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Peter was under attack from the outside, not from the inside.
Peter was being sifted by a malicious will bent on his fall and eternal destruction. But Satan could care less about Peter, except that that Peter was Jesus’ most vocal supporter. Satan wanted to turn him as he had turned Adam and Eve, and so undermine absolutely all the good that God has done. He wanted Peter in hell not for his company, but to be a trophy.
Yes, Peter had a spiritual problem, and that problem has a name: Satan. We all have that problem. Satan is the enemy. He’s a deceiver and a murderer. He wants us to think that there is no hope, that God could never forgive us. He wants us to be overwhelmed by guilt, right after he has led us to the sin that produced it. He wants us to remember only those words of God that condemn sinners, and forget every word of pardon and forgiveness. He wants us to spiral through hopelessness, self-loathing, self-destruction, addiction to behaviors or substances, and many other paths of misery. He’s an expert at managing our influences: keeping away the wholesome while strengthening those that continue or accelerate the spiral. He hand-tailors negative spiritual feedback loops for his victims’ weaknesses, and does all he can to keep them plugged in. That’s the spiritual problem that Peter had.
This fact alone can encourage us as we suffer Satan’s spiritual attacks. 1 Peter 4:15-16 (ESV) says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” And in Dr. Luther’s explanation of this, he writes:
When faith begins, God does not forsake it; He lays the holy cross on our backs to strengthen us and to make faith powerful in us. The holy Gospel is a powerful Word. Therefore it cannot do its work without trials, and only he who tastes it is aware that it has such power. Where suffering and the cross are found, there the Gospel can show and exercise its power. It is a Word of life. Therefore it must exercise all its power in death. In the absence of dying and death it can do nothing, and no one can become aware that it has such power and is stronger than sin and death. Therefore the apostle says “to prove you”; that is, God inflicts no glowing fire or heat—cross and suffering, which make you burn—on you for any other purpose than “to prove you,” whether you also cling to His Word. (LW 30:126)
There’s one important difference between suffering in this kind of spiritual problem and the misery of hell itself. We may think that there’s no hope, no joy, no contentment to be had in the depths of our earthly despair, but we are wrong. This only the simulator of hell, crafted with diabolical intent for each victim. We may not see any hope, joy, or contentment, but it’s all there, just waiting on the other side of our time of sifting. And God’s purpose for that sifting is different from Satan’s. Satan is no more than a tool, and used in a different task than he would like.
Peter’s sifting ended when Jesus dragged a net containing 153 fish to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and Jesus reversed Peter’s threefold denial. “Simon, do you love me more than these?” “Lord, you know all things; You I love you.” (John 21:17, NKJV)
When Peter returned to Jesus, Jesus accepted him with open arms, for when Jesus suffered and died on the cross, it was for sinners like Peter and everyone else under Satan’s attack. All of Peter’s spiraling doubts, self-loathing, and despair, those tendrils of Satan’s influence, found their match in the forgiveness of Peter’s sin. Thereafter, the sifting that Satan had done turned into a blessing. In retrospect, it showed Peter the difference between the chaff and the wheat in his own character.
Those today who suffer the sifting of the enemy in the form of mental illness can take comfort in the fact that it’s limited by our gracious Lord, who has also prayed for us. The time of sifting will end, and God will somehow show it to be a blessing. Until then, all facets of the disease should be addressed, whether material or spiritual. Material treatments are provided through medical doctors and psychological counselors. Modification to behavior, environs, and habit help to limit negative influences and encourage positive ones. It’s important to recognize and remember the spiritual dimension in all of this, because the root problem is our sin coupled with the enemy’s attacks. The only possible solution for such a problem took place on a cross, and there are only three ways that God has promised to deliver its benefits: his word of forgiveness, holy baptism, and the sacrament of the altar. Any treatment strategy that ignores that dimension of the problem is hamstrung from the start.
: Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 258). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
: Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 30, p. 126). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.