When I feel discouraged and confused about certain types of mistakes that I (or others) have made, I gain strength and understanding by relating to a particular story of Peter that is found in all four Gospels.
When the Savior was arrested by an armed mob in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciple Peter drew his sword and cut off the right ear of a man named Malchus, a servant of the high priest. Promptly, Jesus rebuked Peter, and then He healed the severed ear (see Matthew 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:51, and John 18:10–11).
There are many different types of mistakes that we make in life, and what I like about this story is it illustrates a certain type of mistake: when we act out of courage and sincere conviction that we are defending Christ, and we have every reason to assume that we’re doing the right thing . . . but in reality we’re just hurting someone and further complicating the problem (and making our opponents less able to listen).
In my imperfect efforts to be valiant, I may also hurt people. I may think I’m doing the right thing, only to learn that I’ve made a mess and that I was not actually doing what Christ would have me do in that situation. These types of mistakes are sometimes the ones that take the greatest humility for us to acknowledge, because we feel we deserve to be recognized as the hero.
Peter no doubt felt confused and bewildered to be rebuked instead of validated by the Lord. A different person in Peter’s shoes may have thrown up their hands and said, “Fine! If you don’t want my help, or if I just keep making things worse no matter how hard I try to do the right thing, then I guess I’ll just stop trying.” Not Peter, though. He kept following Christ.
Now, in making this comparison between the mistake Peter made and the mistakes we sometimes make, I realize there were many contextual factors to Peter’s story that would never apply in our own situations. So I’m not trying to speculate on the historic or symbolic significance of this particular incident. Rather, I’m merely following Nephi’s example to “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23).
One of the biggest differences between Peter’s story and the personal situations that I have in mind is that, in Peter’s case, his victim was a member of a mob who wished Christ harm. But more often, those we hurt are actually fellow disciples of Christ, even if they don’t appear so in the moment.
With that in mind, an alternative example is when Captain Moroni wrote a seething letter to Pahoran, accusing Pahoran of treason and warning that the judgments of God would come upon him, when in reality it was a big misunderstanding and Pahoran was innocent. But unlike the story of the severed ear, Pahoran was unhurt by Moroni’s mistake, having an unusual level of perspective that allowed him to not be offended. Perhaps Pahoran’s immunity is because Pahoran saw Moroni the way that we see Peter—as one of the greatest disciples—and thus he understood the source of Moroni’s high emotions and chose to “rejoice in the greatness of [Moroni’s] heart” (see Alma 61:9).
I wish I could use more of my own examples of when I have observed myself or others “cutting off ears,” but my most poignant experiences are either too personal (involving drama with close family or friends) or too controversial (involving current social and political issues that have yet to be resolved). I can, however, cite some lesser examples: There were times in high school when I thought I was standing up for a gospel principle, but really I was just being insensitive or prudish. There were also times on my mission when I “testified” to someone, but realized afterwards that I was just bashing with them and relying on autopilot rather than the Spirit.
Sometimes these types of mistakes come about because we try to apply certain principles in inappropriate situations, perhaps overstepping our stewardship or trying to limit someone’s agency. Or perhaps we misunderstand certain doctrines, or we confuse certain opinions and traditions for doctrine. Or we simply lack knowledge of God’s plan and rely on our own experience and judgement to know how to act in the moment. Thinking of Peter’s experience helps us be more forgiving when we or others act rashly due to limited current understanding.
As another example, prior to the 1978 revelation that allowed men of black African descent to receive the priesthood, Elder Bruce R. McConkie and others boldly defended existing Church policies by promoting reasons and justifications that were hurtful to many. But after the 1978 revelation, Elder McConkie said in a BYU speech, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” (Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike unto God,” BYU Speeches, Aug. 18, 1978)
While Elder McConkie and other Church leaders may have ascribed incorrect reasons for the Lord’s will, and caused others pain, that does not diminish their legacy as true disciples of Christ, just as Peter’s mistake did not diminish his legacy either. And those who were hurt by their mistakes can be healed through Christ, just as Christ healed the ear that Peter cut off.
In short, there are three takeaways that strengthen me when I liken the story of Peter and the severed ear:
- If you’re in the position of Pahoran or Malchus and had your ear cut off (meaning that you’ve been damaged by someone’s harsh and self-righteous words or actions), rather than demonizing your attacker and labeling them as a hateful bigot, think of Peter and realize that person is a disciple of Christ whose passions are just misguided or who has yet to receive additional light and understanding. Remember that Peter was still called and chosen, despite his imperfections.
- If you’re in the position of Peter, and you realize you misunderstood God’s will and acted in a way that may have “cut off someone’s ear,” learn from your mistakes, continue trusting and drawing closer to Christ, forgive yourself, and freely admit you were wrong.
- Whether you’re in the role of Malchus, or Peter, or one of the onlookers to such a painful mistake, remember that however messy and irreparable things may appear in the moment, Christ can heal all.
In Elder James R. Rasband’s October 2020 address entitled “Ensuring a Righteous Judgment,” he said, “To ensure a righteous judgment, the Savior’s atoning sacrifice will clear away the underbrush of ignorance and the painful thorns of hurt caused by others.”
Elder Rasband also related a quote by President Boyd K. Packer: “The thought that rescued Alma [the younger] . . . is this: Restoring what you cannot restore, healing the wound you cannot heal, fixing that which you broke and you cannot fix is the very purpose of the atonement of Christ.”
(When I read that line about Christ’s atonement, I was reminded that one of the reasons Christ corrected Peter is because Peter’s way would have prevented Christ’s mission and atonement from being completed.)
Elder Rasband went on to say, “The joyous truth on which Alma’s mind ‘caught hold’ was not just that he himself could be made clean but also that those whom he had harmed could be healed and made whole.”
As I strive to be a disciple of Christ, I realize that—in my imperfect efforts to stand up for what I believe—I may occasionally make mistakes that metaphorically cut off the ears of others, making their lives more difficult. But the good news is that Christ can heal what I’ve broken. He will heal me and He will heal you, so that we can then hear Him more clearly.