by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”—Luke 5:8.
The disciples had been fishing all night, and now were mending their nets. A stranger appears. They had seen him, probably, once before, and they remembered enough of him to command respect. He borrowed Simon Peter’s boat and preached a sermon to the crowd. After he had finished, he told them to go out into deeper water and let down their nets again. Peter objected that they were professional fishermen and had already fished all night without success. Eventually they obeyed Jesus, and, instead of disappointment, they took so many fish that the boats almost sank, and the net began to break. Surprised at this strange miracle, and the one who had worked it, Peter thought himself quite unworthy to be in such company, and fell on his knees, and cried this prayer, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
I. The prayer in the worst sense we can give to it
It is always wrong to put the worst construction on anyone’s words, and therefore I do not intend to do so, except for a few moments, to see what some might make out of these words. Jesus put the best construction upon what Peter said, but a wrong interpretation could be put to this sentence: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
When the gospel comes to some, and disturbs their conscience, they say, “Go away; when I’m not busy I will send for you.” When someone tells them of their sins, and rouses them so that they cannot sleep or rest, they get angry. And if they cannot get rid of him, they can at least get out of his way. They say, “We do not want to give up our sin or our prejudices, and therefore go away Jesus; leave us alone?” Peter meant nothing of this sort, but there are some who do virtually make up this cry, “Depart from us, O Christ.”
There are some Christians who really do pray this prayer. For instance: if a Christian yields to temptation, if he finds pleasure in sin, if he forsakes the fellowship of other Christians, if his life is inconsistent practically, because of his neglect of holy living, the sacraments, private prayer, the reading of the Word,—what does such a Christian say but, “Depart from me, O Lord”?
Why does the Holy Spirit withdraw the sense of his presence? Our sins ask him to go; our unread Bibles do with loud voices ask him to go. We treat him as if we were tired of him, and he takes the hint, and hides his face, and then we sorrow, and begin to seek him again.
This prayer at its worst is sometimes practically offered by Christian churches. Any church that becomes divided, so that the members have no love for one another, is an act of horrible praying. It says as much as, “Depart from us, Spirit of unity! You only dwell where there is love: we will not have love: go away!” The Holy Spirit delights to abide with those who are obedient to him, but there are churches that refuse to live by the Word of God. They have some other standard, and they forget the glories of his.
The prayer may be understood in this worst sense. It was not meant that way by Peter, and our Lord did not take it so. We must not think Peter meant that, but let us take care that we do not offer it that way ourselves.
II. A prayer we can excuse, and almost commend
Why did Peter say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord?” There are three reasons. First, because he was a man; secondly, because he was a sinful man; and thirdly, because he knew this, and became a humble man.
The first reason for this prayer was that Peter knew that he was a man, and therefore, he felt amazed in the presence of Christ. The first sight of God would be amazing to anyone, even pure angels! God never has revealed himself completely, never could reveal himself completely to any creature. Now, here is Peter, beholding for the first time in his life the splendor and glory of the divine power of Christ. He looked at those fish, and he remembered the night of heavy work, when not a fish rewarded his patience, and now he saw them in masses in the boat, and all done through this strange man who sat there, having just preached a sermon, and he did not know how it was, but he felt scared. I am not surprised that Peter should be amazed, and in his amazement at Christ’s greatness, should say he scarcely is able to gather together his thoughts. “I am a man; how can I bear the presence of the God that rules the fish of the sea, and works miracles like this?”
His next reason was, because he was a sinful man. As a sinful man he stood alarmed at the holiness of Jesus. I do not doubt that in the sermon Jesus delivered there was such a clear denunciation of sin, and such a declaration of the holiness of God, that Peter felt himself unveiled, and now came the finishing stroke. The One who had preached those things could also rule the fish of the sea. He must, therefore, be God, and it was to God that all the defects and evils of Peter’s heart had been revealed and thoroughly known, and because the criminal was in the presence of the Judge, and the polluted in the presence of the Immaculate he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
There was a third reason, namely, that Peter was a humble man, as is clear from the saying, because he knew himself, and confessed that he was a sinful man. You know the stories of those who have suddenly found a king knocking on the door of their little cottage, and the good housewife felt as if the place itself was so unfit for him that, though she would do her best for his majesty, and was glad in her soul that he would honor her hovel with his presence, yet she could not help saying, “Oh! I wish your majesty had gone to a worthier house, had gone on to the great man’s house a little up the road, for I am not worthy for your majesty to come here.”
Peter meant that, and so, we may not only excuse his prayer, but even commend it, for we have felt the same. Maybe we have said “Does Jesus meet with a few poor men and women that have come together in his name to pray in a school library? Oh! surely, this is not a good enough place for him; let him have the whole world, and all peoples to sing his praises; let him have heaven, let the angels be his servants, let him rise to the highest throne in glory, and there let him sit down, no more to be wounded and despised, and rejected; but to be worshipped and adored for ever and ever.” I am sure we have felt that way, and, if so we can understand what Peter felt, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
Now, there are times when these feelings, if they cannot be commended in ourselves, are yet excused by our Master, and actually please him.
Sometimes a man is called to an eminent position of usefulness, and as he sees what he will have to do, and the honor Jesus has given him, it is very natural, and I think it is almost spiritual for him to shrink and say, “Who am I that I should be called to such a work as this? I am willing to serve you, but oh! I am not worthy.” Like Moses, who was glad enough to be the Lord’s servant and yet he said, and he meant it so heartily, “Lord, I am slow of speech; I am a man of unclean lips, how can I speak for you?” Or, like Isaiah, who was happy to say, “Here am I, send me” but who felt, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips; how shall I go?”
Sometimes, again, this prayer has been almost on our lips in times of intense enjoyment. Some of you know what I mean, when the Lord draws near. Many of God’s people have at such times been overcome. To quote a Church of Scotland minister, who when he was overcome by the goodness of God exclaimed, “Hold, Lord! hold. it is enough! Remember, I am but an earthen vessel, and if you give me more, I die!” God does sometimes put his new wine into our poor old bottles; and then we are half inclined to, say, “Depart, Lord: we are not ready yet for your glorious presence.” We may not actually say that: but still, the spirit is willing, and the flesh is weak, and the flesh seems to run away from the glory which it cannot bear.
Another time when this may have happened, is when the sinner is coming to Christ, and has indeed believed in him, but when that sinner perceives the greatness and richness of the divine mercy, and the glory of the inheritance which is given to pardoned sinners, then that person may say, “It is too good to be true; or if true, it is not true for me.” A Christian may rest in Christ for months or years, and one day, while reveling in the delights of being saved, and rejoicing in the truth eternal glory, it comes across his mind, “And all this for me, for such a sinner as I am—how can it be so?” It may be a form of saying, “Depart from me; I am too sinful to have you in my boat, too unworthy to have such priceless blessings as you bring to me.” Now, that is not altogether wrong, and not altogether right. There is a mixture there, and we may excuse, and somewhat commend it.
III. A prayer that needs amending and revising
Let me put it in a different way, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Would it not be better to say, “Come nearer to me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord?” That certainly expresses humility. That would be a good argument, for see: “Since, Lord, I am a sinner, I need purifying; only your presence can truly purify: come nearer to me, then, Lord, for I am sinful, and do not want to be always sinful; come, wash me from my iniquity that I may be clean.”
Again, “Come near to me, Lord, since I am weak and nothing can make me strong but your presence. If you depart from me, I will fall, I will die; come near to me, then, O Lord, that by your strength I may be encouraged and be fit for service. If you depart from me, I can render you no service whatever. Can the dead praise you? Can those with no life in them give you glory? Come near me, then, my God, though I am so feeble, and as a tender parent feeds his child, and the shepherd carries his lambs, so come near to me.”
Do you not think Peter might have said, “Come near to me, Lord, and abide with me, for I am a sinful man,” in the recollection of how he had failed when Christ was not near? All through that night he had put the net into the sea, and had drawn it up with many an eager look, but there was nothing that rewarded his toil. In went the net again, and now when Christ came, and the net was full to bursting, would it not have been a proper prayer, “Lord, come near to me, and let every time I work I may succeed: and if I am to be a fisher of men, keep nearer to me still, that I may bring people into your net, and into your Church that they may be saved”?
What I want to draw out from the text—and I shall do so better if I continue bringing out these different thoughts—is this: that it is well when a sense of our unworthiness leads us, not to get away from God, in an unbelieving, petulant despair but to get nearer to God. Now, suppose I am a great sinner. Well, let me seek to get nearer to God for that very reason, for there is great salvation provided for great sinners. I am very weak, and unfit for the great service which he has imposed upon me; let me not, therefore, shun the service or shun my God, but reckon that the weaker I am the more room there is for God to get the glory. Would it not be a fine thing if we could all say, “I glory not in my talents, not in my learning, not in my strength, but I glory in infirmity, because the power of God rests upon me. What is the secret of our success? We cannot discover it; we are no different from others, or perhaps only the difference that we have less of natural human gifts and money than others.” Then glory be to God; he has the praise more clearly and more distinctly, and his head deserves to wear the crown.
Let us not run away from our Master’s work because we feel unfit, but for that reason do twice as much. Do not give up praying because you feel you cannot pray, but pray twice as much. You need more prayer, and instead of being less with God, be more. Do not let a sense of unworthiness drive you away. A child should not run away from her mother because she is dirty and needs a bath. Children do not run from their parents because they are hungry, nor because they have torn their clothes, but they come to them just because of their necessities. They come because they are children, and they come because they are needy and hurting. So let every need, let every pain, let every weakness, let every sorrow, let every sin, drive you to God. Do not say, “Depart from me.” It is a natural thing that you should say so, but it is a glorious thing, it is a God honoring thing, to say, on the contrary, “Come to me, Lord; come nearer to me still, for I am sinful, and without your presence I am utterly undone.”
It is strange, that what one person makes a reason for coming, another makes a reason for staying away! David prayed in the Psalms, “Lord have mercy, and pardon mine iniquity, for it is great.” “Strange argument,” you will say. It is a grand one. “Lord here is great sin, and there is something now that is worthy of a great God to deal with. Here is a mountain of sin, Lord, have omnipotent grace to remove it. Lord, here is a towering Rocky Mountain range of sin; let the floods of your grace, like Noah’s flood, come sixty feet over the top of it. I am the chief of sinners; here is room for the chief of Saviors.”
How strange it is that some sinners make this a reason for staying away! Unbelief is cruel to sinners; it keeps them from the comfort they might enjoy. It is cruel to Christ, for nothing ever wounded him more than that unkind, ungenerous thought, that he is unwilling to forgive. He never is so glad as when he is saying, “Your sins, which are many, are all forgiven you.”