On Monday, March 22, Ahmed Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, walked into a Boulder, Colorado grocery store and began shooting. Witnesses say that he never spoke a word and that he didn’t spray rounds into the store but took measured shots. He murdered 10 people that afternoon including an officer of the Boulder police force.
Ahmed Alissa suffered from serious delusions. Ever since his time in high school he believed people were always following him and looking for him. A couple of weeks before the shooting, while having lunch with his sister in a restaurant, he was so adamant that people were in the parking lot looking for him that his sister went out to check just to calm him down. No one was there. He recently posted on Facebook that his life would be better if those “racist Islamophobic people would quit hacking my phone.” His family expressed grief and sorrow for the victims and said they were shocked at the unexpected turn in their brother and that mental illness must be involved.
Delusions. The Bible says that too often we’re deluded. In Jeremiah, we read: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? (17:9). And in 1 John 1, we read, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (v. 8). Is it possible for us to entertain a delusion and not be aware of it?
Psychologists refer to delusional disorder as “a condition in which an individual displays one or more delusions for one month or longer. Delusional disorder is distinct from schizophrenia and cannot be diagnosed if a person meets the criteria for schizophrenia. If a person has delusional disorder, functioning is generally not impaired and behavior is not obviously odd, with the exception of the delusion.”
Many would say that those sucked into the QAnon conspiracies were/are delusional, but, interestingly, they don’t fit the clinical definition. Delusions typically contain a self-referential component – the belief is about the believer in some highly improbable way. QAnon beliefs, while incredibly improbable, are focused on other people rather than the person believing them. They may be far-fetched and cultish, but they are not, strictly, delusional.
So here we are in a well-known scene which has been immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. During the course of the meal, Jesus says to the team: “You will all become deserters because of me this night.”
That’s a buzz kill right there. The gospel provides no mention of what the disciples said, or of what they were thinking. Likely, the room was dead quiet.
But then Peter breaks the silence with an astonishing prediction: “Even if all fall away, I will not.”
This comment probably broke the silence. Although the text says that Jesus replied to him, it doesn’t say when, and it leaves room for the strong possibility that the others expressed their resentment in no uncertain terms, and their disapproval of Peter’s insinuation that of the group gathered around in the upper room, only he would remain loyal, come what may.
They must have all smiled smugly when Jesus, after the furor subsided, gave Peter his comeuppance, saying, “Truly I tell you, today – yes, tonight – before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”
You can hear the laughter. Or not. Perhaps it was too solemn an occasion. Certainly, you can imagine the satisfaction; Jesus had put him in his place.
Yet Peter continues to be delusional. You’d think he’d shut up and let it go.
But he doesn’t. He is unfazed by Jesus’ prediction.
So he retorts, Mark says emphatically: “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”
And having heard that, Peter’s colleagues realized that they could not let Peter be the only one to profess allegiance to Jesus their Lord. So they all chimed in. Mark records: “And all the others said the same.”
Amazing! They were all delusional.
They didn’t know themselves.
They didn’t know what the future held.
How in God’s name could they make such a profession?
They did not know the depth of their own weakness or of the nature of humanity.
We know the rest of the story – the story of Peter’s utter humiliation and weakness. Not only was he not threatened with death, he was not even arrested. He simply wilted when a young maiden asked him a question. It was over within seconds. No, no and no. Three times. Game over. The rooster crows, and Peter bitterly realizes the enormity of what he’s done.
Jesus knew He was going to the cross alone. On the cross He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). He knew that His little band of followers would disperse like chaff in the wind.
But He also knew that this same group would regroup for a post-resurrection commissioning.
All it would take to make this happen was a little resurrection.
The disciples didn’t know this.
So, what lessons do we draw from this story? First, always acknowledge the necessity of God’s help in everything we do. Peter thought it was always about him. He vainly believed that he had within himself the resources to combat whatever foe lay ahead of him. His sword was in the scabbard. He even drew it once and sliced off the ear of a soldier.
Big mistake. We’re delusional if we think we can pull off anything of eternal importance without the help of God and without being in the will of God.
Second, betraying Jesus was not and is not an unforgivable sin. Remember, all of the disciples fled after telling Jesus to his face that they wouldn’t. Not just Peter. All of them. Yet all of them, except Judas of course, were reunited, commissioned and sent forth into the world to fulfill the mission Jesus gave them. This time, they suffered no delusions. They knew the world would hate them. Some of them would lose their lives, paying the ultimate price.
So it is okay to betray Jesus? No, that’s not what’s being said here. Very few of us will be called upon to make the choice Peter had to make that night, more than 2,000 years ago this evening – the night before Jesus died.
The point is that we must not believe that we’ve failed God or failed Jesus to such an awful degree that redemption is no longer possible. It is. And making redemption possible is, in fact, why Jesus went to the cross.
Third, consider the possibility that our image and self-perception may be skewed. Paul warns the Romans: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3). (Notice how Paul qualifies his statement by referring to the help or grace of God.)
Since it is notoriously difficult to accurately assess oneself, the best option is to downplay one’s gifts and achievements and refer everything to the glory of God. But there are some other strategies to employ if you’re serious about knowing yourself, as Socrates famously suggested.
Some people take a battery of tests. Some of these are not much more than pop psychology. But there are others that have a good rep, and which can do a lot to help a person understand their strengths and weaknesses.
If you really want honesty, then find someone you trust – truly trust to give you honest feedback. Simply invite them to coffee or to a safe space where you ask for more accountability. Simple questions like, “Is there something I’m missing? I have been studying Peter and see how he deluded himself and I don’t want to be like that. Can you help me with those places in my life where I might be deluding myself?”
When you are praised for your achievements, downplay them, and give the glory to God.
Fourth, the disciples could not see the whole picture. They apparently were on a need-to-know basis. They deserted Jesus, not knowing that, post-resurrection, everything would change again.
The truth is, we don’t see as God sees. We don’t think as God thinks. God’s ways are not our ways. We cannot pretend to know outcomes. All we can do is try, with God’s help, to be faithful.
Finally, although betrayal is a terrible thing, and although we might think a personal failure renders us forever unserviceable in the kingdom of God, we are never beyond God’s ability to use us for the glory of God. Nor does any seeking and repentant child of God ever wander beyond the warmth of God’s love.
We are going to face obstacles. As someone has observed, “Being challenged in life is inevitable; being defeated is optional.”
Peter is an example of someone who moved from being delusional and defeated to being a powerhouse of energy and passion.
But the second time around, it wasn’t about Peter; it was all about the glory of God.