The Smell of Charcoal

Have you ever been going about your daily life, when suddenly you smell something familiar? It takes you back to this vivid memory associated with that smell. According to science, smell and memory are very closely linked. It’s called olfactory memory, and can have a bigger emotional impact than just recalling a memory. When you smell something specific, you have a higher chance of remembering not only the smell, but the memories associated with it.

This happened to me a few years ago. I was walking through a store when I smelled something. Immediately, I was maybe 10 years old, and in my aunt’s house. This smell was exactly what her front hallway smelled like. I honestly started to tear up, because they have moved and I haven’t smelled that since. I tried to find the source of the scent, but I couldn’t. It went away, but for that second, I was back there.

A few years later I learned that the scent I smelled was mothballs. Now most people I know dislike the smell of mothballs, but every time I smell them, I remember my aunt’s house. I remember climbing up to the tree house that we never finished, rocking my baby cousin to sleep while singing to him, and my other cousin almost setting the couch on fire one Christmas. Now, memories flood in whenever I smell mothballs. This one simple scent holds so many powerful memories that I love and cherish.

This also happened to someone in the Bible. John 18:18 says,

“Because it was cold, the household servants and the guards had made a charcoal fire. They stood around it, warming themselves, and Peter stood with them, warming himself.”

When Peter was in the courtyard, warming himself by the fire, he denied Jesus. He was accused of being a disciple. Three times he was accused, and three times he denied knowing Jesus, just as Jesus told Peter he would. This was the worst moment of Peter’s life. The man he loved, followed, and knew to be King; he just denounced three times because he was scared. After Peter realized what he did, he wept, bitterly. He could not believe that he did exactly as Jesus said.

The second part of this story is found in John 21, verse 9.

“When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread.”

After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and some other disciples were fishing in the sea. They had not caught anything all night, when a man on the shore told them to cast their nets to the other side. They listened, and the net was so full of fish they could not bring it into the boat. Peter, knowing it was Jesus, got out of the boat and swam to the shore, When he arrived, Jesus was cooking breakfast on a charcoal fire.

Did you see the similarity? Both of these moments in Peter’s life shared something so simple, so common, but this critical item is the link between these stories. It’s the charcoal fire. An interesting takeaway, these two scriptures are the only two mentions in the Bible of a charcoal fire, or a heap of burning coals. In the Greek, the word is ἀνθρακιά, pronounced anthrakia.

Peter has to smell this charcoal, and immediately he can recall the same scent of charcoal when he denies Jesus. This was his biggest regret, he has mourned and wept over this, and now, he is reminded of this while in front of Jesus. The tension had to have been perceived by Jesus, because he does something amazing. Jesus asked Peter if he loves him. Peter answers yes, of course he does. A little while later, Jesus asked Peter again if he loves him, and Peter says yes. A third time Jesus looks at Peter, and asks if he loves him. Peter declares a third time that he loves Jesus. Jesus looks at Peter, and tells gives him one simple task, “Follow me.”

The regret of denying Christ weighed heavily on Peter. But, Jesus, loving and gracious, takes the time to redeem Peter by asking him the same question three times. Just as he denied Christ three times, he has now declared his love. But it didn’t stop there. Jesus also gave Peter a call, an action. He was told to Follow Jesus. Peter was not left without guidance. He was redeemed and called, given a purpose and mission to live out.

Sometimes, our biggest regrets can be turned around and used for the betterment of our lives. Those moments when we know we messed up, and feel like we can’t go on, those are the times to dig in and go to God. Jesus will not turn us away, but He will redeem us, in fact He already has! Those memories and mistakes of the past do not need to hold any power or authority over our lives. We have to go to God and allow Him to carry our burdens. And, when that happens, we have to be like Peter and Follow Jesus. Peter was given a simple task, and we are too. To love and follow Jesus.

Today, if you remember something you once did, and feel regret and shame, bring it to God. Tell him what you did, and ask forgiveness. Then, accept that you have been forgiven. God has called you for a purpose, and all you need to do is follow Him. It may take time, and you might do repeat these steps more than once. But dive into God’s grace, because it is endless, and no matter what, He still loves us.