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'Lovest thou me?': A look at what may be Jesus's most critical question

The September pick for LDS Living Book Club is What Seek Ye? by S. Michael Wilcox. Follow the LDS Living Book Club Instagram for more insights with the author.

Of all of Jesus’s questions in the New Testament, the one He asked Peter, after the Resurrection, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, is to me the most beautiful and wonderful. It is the only one He asked multiple times, allowing Peter to answer it multiple times. That alone sets it apart as one of the most—if not the most—critical of any of the questions Jesus asks us. As we have seen so many times already, the question is composed of only a few words—three, in this case.

Peter, feeling the new weight of responsibility and perhaps somewhat bewildered at all that had happened, returns to the one thing he knew so well: fishing. “I go a fishing,” he says, and seven of the other apostles go with him. They fish all night and catch nothing, but as they return to the shore, Jesus is waiting for them with a little fire of coals, preparing bread and fish for breakfast. They don’t recognize Him as He calls out, “Children, have ye any meat?” When they answer no, He instructs them, “Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find” (John 21:3, 5–6). The net immediately fills with 153 “great fishes” (John 21:11). This was a repeat of the miracle Jesus had performed a few years earlier, on the day He asked them to leave their nets and follow Him. They remember, and realize it is the Lord. Consistent with his character, Peter dives into the sea, swims to shore, and draws the net to land. After they have dined, Jesus takes Peter on a walk along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee and asks His three questions. I never take that walk without tears.

  • “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? . . .
  • “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. . . .
  • “Feed my lambs. . . .
  • “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? . . .
  • “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. . . .
  • “Feed my sheep. . . .
  • “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? . . .
  • “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. . . .
  • “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).

We hear a number of theories as to why Jesus asked Peter three times, “Lovest thou me?” Was it to match the three denials? Was it for emphasis—particularly on the need to feed the lambs and sheep? As in so many situations in Jesus’s life and ministry, we simply can’t know all that was in His mind. The beauty for me is that these questions give Peter the opportunity to express his love for the Lord over and over again, because that is such a tender thing to do. If we have responded to Christ’s invitation to “Come and see,” we have sought and are still seeking the peace, joy, and truth that He alone can bring. We have come and seen. If we have received the Father’s witness and declared Him in spite of the world’s contrary opinions; if we have persevered, are committed, and have not gone away even through our “hard sayings and empty tombs”; if we have listened to His many questions and tried, with open introspection and self-examination, to answer them truthfully and honestly; if, like my five-year-old granddaughter, we want to be Jesus; if we receive all He has to offer—then we will love Him. He comes to all of us with the three questions: “Lovest thou me?” And it is such a joy, such a relief, so positive, so needed, and so beautiful to reply, as did Peter, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” To say it again and again is such a gift. At times in my prayers, I have been moved by the Spirit to say only those lovely words, both to my Father and my Savior. Nothing else need be said. I feel Their love for me, and I respond in kind. We can spoil the moment of union by rushing to give reasons why we love Them or apologies for not being better. Love expressed is always love deepened.

Somewhere along the road of Christianity, fear of sin began to eclipse love of God. How sad that is! By that I mean both His love for us and ours for Him, not to mention our love for our neighbors. I feel the fear in my own life sometimes, and when that happens, I hear Him repeat a former question, “Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?” I forget sometimes that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” and that “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16–17). We quote it all the time! Do we believe it? So I reply again, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” We are assured that “there is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18).

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“We love him, because he first loved us,” John later testified (1 John 4:19). These verses remind me of another question Jesus asked about love—particularly the love we feel for and express to God and to Him. It comes from the story, related only by Luke, of the woman of sin, who comes into the Pharisee’s house to wash Jesus’s feet with her tears, wipe them with her hair, and then kiss and anoint them with perfumed ointment. Sensing the Pharisee’s silent indignation and judgment of both Him and the woman, Jesus tells him a parable about two debtors, one who owed five hundred pence and one who owed fifty. “When they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” Jesus asks. The Pharisee answers that he supposes is was the one who had been forgiven most, and Jesus say, “Thou hast rightly judged.” He then directs all attention to the woman with another simple question: “Seest thou this woman?” (Luke 7:42–44). Oh, if we could always see the woman and not the sinner—and if we could do so with ourselves also. That is another question we could spend a great deal of thought upon.

There is a lot of debate and divided opinion about this story. Jesus reminds His host of the woman’s actions toward Him, then says, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much” (Luke 7:47). So, did the forgiveness bring the love, or did her love draw the forgiveness? Master commentators, scholars, and teachers have argued both positions convincingly. Luke has left it ambiguous, and I can’t solve the debate. But to me, it doesn’t really matter. We love Him with gratitude for His forgiveness already granted, and we love Him because we know that each time we bring our tears and ointment, we will be received. In my heart, I lean to her receiving forgiveness at the moment of her tears and anointing. It is her awareness—that He will not condemn her, that she can with safety come to Him, that He will accept her, that He loves her—that draws her into the room with the condemning Pharisee. She knew something of Jesus’s heart and, applying John’s teaching, she loved him “because he first loved [her]” (1 John 4:19). Let us remember to whom the parable of the prodigal son was primarily directed. “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him” (Luke 15:1). What did they know about Him that would draw them? Surely it was the same knowledge that drew the anointing woman, and that draws us all: We will be gently and openly accepted.

Do we love Him? Words cannot say! So we return to the question directed to the Pharisee, “Which of them will love him most?” We shudder to answer that so directly. Does the five-hundred-pence sinner actually love His Savior more than the fifty-pence one? Did the prodigal son love his father more than the faithful elder son, to whom that same father said, “Son, thou art ever with me”? (Luke 15:31). Does the scarlet-crimson sinner understand more about the love of God than one who has strived all his or her life to serve and obey and follow? Was Alma the Younger’s love deeper than Nephi’s? Well, Paul said, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So there is no need to compare. We know only our own hearts. We love because, whether we are the five-hundred or the fifty-pence sinner, we can come to Him. It is love—both His and ours, two gravitational pulls—that draws us together toward mercy.

We love Him because His teachings and example have prevented us from making mistakes, and we love Him because, when we have made mistakes, He so readily forgives and forgets, and does not mention them again. We love Him for the “forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12) part of the Lord’s Prayer and also for the “suffer us not to be led into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (JST, Matthew 6:14) part of it. There is something in His mercy, in His compassion, in that divine forgetting, in that heavenly not-mentioning that holds a very, very, special corner of my heart, a corner worth tears, and ointment, and kisses.

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I am 70 years old, and in all those years, with all my flaws, mistakes, and failures, I have never once felt from my Father in Heaven or His divine Son any hint of condemnation or censure. I have enough of my own. I only feel Their encouraging love to keep trying. Yet, because I remain somewhat fearful, from time to time, in my need, the reassurance comes. I recall one such time when, in a dream, I found myself at the bottom of a very muddy, steep, and slippery hill. I was trying to reach its top, but each time I neared it, the mud and steepness overtook me and down I slid. This continued many times, until I saw an arm, clean with purity and clothed in whiteness, reach out to me, and a voice told me to catch hold and I would be pulled up. But my hand was so dirty and His so clean, I dared not reach out and soil it, and so my downward slides continued. The arm was never withdrawn, until finally, in my deep desperation, I took hold and felt His power draw me up. I return to Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of my favorite poets, who wrote about her own difficult climb upwards against the currents of her own humanity:

  • Crumbling stones and sliding sand
  • Is the road to Heaven now;
  • Icy at my straining knees
  • Drags the awful under-tow;
  • Soon but stepping stones of dust
  • Will the road to Heaven be,—
  • Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
  • Reach a hand and rescue me! . . .

God cannot but respond to such a cry, and He comes for her, His child!

  • Ah, the voice of love at last!
  • Lo, at last the face of light!
  • And the whole of his white robe
  • For a cloak against the night!1

I will walk along that north shore of the Sea of Galilee again, as I have so many, many times, and feel His presence draw near. I anticipate it, and with longing wait for Him to whisper in that special deep corner of my soul, “Michael, lovest thou me?” I will answer, as did Peter, “Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” And I will want Him to ask it again and again, because we cannot answer it enough times to fully empty our hearts.

Lead image: Shutterstock

Image titleWe often think of our relationship with God in terms of us being the questioner approaching the great Answerer. But what if He is actually the great Questioner, and we are intended to wrestle—not to receive the answers from Him, but to give them? Bestselling author S. Michael Wilcox teaches, "How we answer those questions tells our Father in Heaven much about us, as well as revealing ourselves to ourselves." Over time, Wilcox has also learned, "If I am the Answerer and God the Questioner and I can answer His questions with thought and devotion, then my own inquiries to Him are significantly diminished." As you explore these short yet profound questions, you'll learn more about the Savior and more about yourself, discovering personal answers along the way. What Seek Ye? is available now at DeseretBook.com.


1. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Blue-Flag in the Bog,” in First Fig and Other Poems (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000), 15, 16.


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