Humility and Pride in Peter and Saul (not Paul)

November 23, 2004 | 11 comments
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When Samuel anointed Saul, he anointed a man of kingly stature, handsome and tall, but who thought of himself as the least important man of Israel. Saul said, “Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin?” (1 Sam. 9:21). He was simply an obedient son, asking the prophet for help in finding his father’s donkeys. Saul gained a new sense that day of what makes a godly leader, and was given a new heart (1 Sam 10:9). He led decisively to free Israel from the predatory Ammonites and Philistines, but continued to show his humiity.

Though he made early mistakes, even in victory he was gentle with those in Israel who had questioned his right to be king. With time, however, Saul became more concerned with honor. Perhaps he even projected his own imbalance onto God. When told to destroy every living thing among the Amalekites, he spared the king and the best livestock, if not for spoil then to make a show of sacrificing them (1 Sam 15). But God is less interested in symbolic displays of honor than in obedience. Saul meant to be faithful, but he had not properly learned. He had paid too much attention to the pleasures of his position and not quite enough to its duties. Saul knew how to be faithful as a son or an unexpected hero, but not as an established king.

The apostle Peter was perhaps even more impulsive than Saul, but quicker to respond to correction. On the mount of transfiguration, Peter, dazzled, proposed building shrines to Jesus and his visitors. Jesus seems to have simply ignored the suggestion and let it pass (Mark 9:5-6). At Jesus’ arrest, Peter with typical enthusiasm drew a sword and attacked. Yet Christ called him back and healed his target on the spot (John 18:10-11, Luke 22:51). Peter could hardly have felt more foolish. Still, he followed Christ at a distance, in peril of his life. Peter was vigorously faithful, and when he needed to relearn his faith, as he often did, he went right to work.

Peter was persistently humble, even as he was being prepared to lead the church. Perhaps his willingness to look foolish was what suited him for the job. Perhaps Christ even prepared him by setting him up for embarrassment. The simple instruction just hours before the arrest, to carry swords, seems cruel knowing what Christ had planned. Yet perhaps Peter needed this training to avoid Saul’s mistakes of the heart. For an earlier example, how many of us would not be discouraged by a literal dunking, in front of an attentive audience, incurred in the exercise of imperfect faith? Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, are much less willing to be a fool for the truth. For us, to be confronted by an authority as Peter was, when we fail, would crush our resolve. When Saul was told he would be replaced as king for his disobedience, he returned to worship the Lord but clung all the more tightly to his power. Saul had hid among the baggage when Israel was gathered and Samuel was coming to designate him as king, but now he was willing to murder David, his people’s greatest hero and his son’s best friend, to keep his place.

How well do we react when we are corrected by authority figures? Like Peter, or like Saul?

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11 Responses to Humility and Pride in Peter and Saul (not Paul)

  1. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 23, 2004 at 7:41 pm

    Nicely put. Sorry, I don’t have any comments to add in terms of criticism or expanding the discussion, but nicely put.

  2. Jim F. on November 24, 2004 at 12:43 am

    Like Ethesis, I don’t have anything to add. Perhaps a trumpet flourish would be an appropriate response, but I don’t know how to play it (as if you could tell that I don’t by what I put on the internet): ta-da!

    Thanks, Ben, for a very thoughtful piece. In my mind, these kinds of things contribute more to Times and Seasons than 1,000 pieces on same-sex marriage or similar “hot” topics: light rather than mere heat.

  3. Wilfried on November 24, 2004 at 1:13 am

    A post to ponder in humble acceptance. Not easy to make a comment that would trigger some discussion. Let me try. In the examples given the “authority figures” are God and Jesus Christ. The commandments are beyond questioning. There should be no hesitation as to obedience and that is the lesson to be learned. It becomes more difficult when variables enter the picture. “How well do we react when we are corrected by authority figures?” What if the correction is (felt as) unfair? What if the authority figures (seem to) act beyond their realm? And we limit it here to ecclesiastical leaders. The discussion is not new. It remains a challenge.

  4. Adam Greenwood on November 24, 2004 at 10:19 am

    Peter was clearly dealing with the perfect Christ, though (1) I’m not sure Peter knew that well and (2) Paul suggest that Christ progressed while in mortality, which in turn suggests that his perfection was only that he did not consciously do wrong. He might have made mistakes and he may have even made them in way that Peter could notice.

    Saul was only dealing with Nathan (do I remember right? was there some kind of miraculous manifestation that made God’s role indisputable?). Tough, especially because, from Saul’s perspective, Nathan may have known very little about the ‘realities’ of kingship.. Imagine if you’re CEO and the prophet comes to you and says, you know, there’s this kid I really like, he’s a good kid, so I’m going to order all the LDS shareholders to give me their proxies and I’m going to vote you out and put him in. No hard feelings. This is God’s will, by the way, so I hope you can be humble about it. Or say the Board of Trustees decides to fire you despite your tenure and replace you with some callow youth that they’re pretty enthusiastic about, and it becomes pretty apparent that the Board of Trustees knows squat about your field, in fact they have some unworthy prejudices and misconceptions and this callow youth likewise, but, hey, God inspired them, they say.

  5. Adam Greenwood on November 24, 2004 at 10:19 am

    Also, fear not hammering away at SSM and abortion and other hot topics.

  6. Ivan Wolfe on November 24, 2004 at 10:50 am

    I’m curious about Peter following Christ.

    He did so, but then lied about knowing Christ – something that caused him to weep bitterly.

    (and no, he was not commanded to deny Christ – in the NT Christ uses the indicative form – a statement of fact, not the imperative – a command).

    Not trying to undermine your point, which I think is wonderfully made. I’m just curious.

  7. Keith on November 24, 2004 at 7:43 pm

    I found this today by Kierkegaard and thought it might fit here. Though he is speaking of God, the same would carry over to submitting to God’s authority(ies). “Save me from becoming a fool who will not accept your discipline, or a defiant fool who will not accept your discipline, a fool who will not accept it as a blessing, a defiant fool who will accept it to damnation.” (Journals and Papers 3:560)

  8. Ben Huff on November 24, 2004 at 8:59 pm

    Ivan, would it be extremely weird for Christ to use the indicative but mean the imperative? I really am partial to the idea that it was a command in the end. It’s hard to imagine someone willing to take up a sword in defense of Christ, alone against a whole crew who came to arrest him, denying him out of cowardice.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on November 29, 2004 at 10:49 pm

    Ben, I love your close reading of character. I’m afraid I react very poorly to correction from authority, and though I like to think that I would respond more humbly to a rebuke coming directly from the Lord, I have no real basis for that hope. I think I respond more defensively the greater my own authority, so I suppose my only salvation lies in remaining in humble and lowly stations.

  10. Ben H on April 18, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Thanks, Rosalynde and Wilfried! Maybe if you were put through the ringer like Peter, Rosalynde, it would take the pride out of you : ) Would you like to find out?

    My friend Matt Grey recently pointed out to me how in the last chapter of John, Christ gives Peter the opportunity to claim him (affirm his loving devotion) three times, as though to heal the damage their relationship suffered that dark night, and in turn reaffirms Peter’s calling to serve on his behalf. We love him because he first loved us, and even loves us and reaches out despite our turning away from him!

  11. Mark Martin on April 18, 2005 at 6:44 pm

    Perhaps one measure of our humility, when corrected by a human authority figure, is whether we consider whether there is merit to the comments or suggestions made to us. It’s easier to think things like “He’s stepping outside of his authority” or “He is not a musician (or teacher), so who is he to tell me this?” The humble truth-seeker might ask himself, “Is there something here that I can improve or correct?” The result might be that the Holy Ghost teaches more precisely or clearly than the human did, but only if the recipient was humble.

    I’ve heard Elder Eyring (I think it was him) tell about talking to a group and seeing a man take copious notes. I believe this was before he was a general authority. Then when he saw this same man taking copious notes while a youth was speaking, he realized that it wasn’t his own impressive teaching that led to the note-taking. That man was a humble learner, whether or not the speaker was “authoritative.”

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