Free to Forgive
It struck me recently that while Jesus is a great example—a perfect example really—for how we ought to live, there is one thing necessary in our lives that Jesus taught but never had to model.
To be clear, Jesus is not primarily our example in how to live. Jesus is our Savior. His primary purpose in coming was to offer us a path to salvation and in so doing to usher in the Kingdom of God; he is not merely our moral touchstone. However, he lived a perfect life, and examining his life can give us an uncorrupted view of how we were made to live in this world before sin entered.
Growing up I had no doubt Jesus was my Savior, but I also had a strong commitment to live with him as an example. While I never wore a WWJD bracelet, answering that question, “What would Jesus do?” was a helpful way to navigate choices and relationships. It’s a question that serves me well to this day. Yet there’s a gap in that question, and if we don’t recognize it we miss out on one of the most necessary and freeing elements of how we ought to live.
Jesus never had to say, “I’m sorry.” He never had to repent. There was nothing to repent of.
We, on the other hand, have done much that requires forgiveness and repentance. We are broken people living in a broken world. We’ve done wrong by others, and we’ve done wrong by God. For us, repentance and the ability to receive the freedom that comes with forgiveness is a must. We cannot be who God made us to be if we cannot embrace our need to repent and recognize we’ve been forgiven by God and can be forgiven by others as well.
How easy is it for you to admit when you are wrong? How often do you struggle with the pain of failure and the need to say, “I’m sorry”? I have to admit that struggle runs deep in my own life, and that being a husband and a father has highlighted the need for repentance and the healing that comes in receiving forgiveness.
I recently told a group of men at Family Camp that my life-verse growing up was Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Imagine the pressure I piled on myself in trying to live by that verse, with Jesus as my example, and imagine the difficulty I faced in acknowledging my many failures. Every failure felt like a double-failure and living in the freedom of forgiveness was, and still is, a struggle. It wasn’t until a friend of mine, in his typical direct way, mocked my misunderstanding of that verse, that I began to release my grip on perfection and learn to repent freely and receive forgiveness not as a concession but as a necessary gift of grace. I realized that in reminding us of how high the bar is set (perfection, with our heavenly Father as the example) Jesus was letting us all know we will, at some point in life, need grace. If we cannot see that need, then our bumbling efforts at perfection amount only to a weak attempt at self-salvation.
Jesus taught repentance because he knows we need it: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15) By looking at Jesus’ interactions with others, we see that he had the most difficult words for those who failed to see their need for forgiveness. He came to offer us healing through the forgiveness of our sins: “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17) He taught us about our need for repentance, though never had cause to model it.
Further, in his instruction on prayer in Matthew 6, he calls us to seek forgiveness in the same breath that we acknowledge our need to forgive others—”forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”. In that prayer, he pulls us into a place where we can recognize our collective need to be forgiven, to be forgiving, and to repent for the ways we fall short.
Forgiving others involves a recognition of the pain they’ve caused us; likewise our repentance forces us to confront the pain and the mess that we’ve contributed to another’s life. And it’s that combination of forgiveness and repentance that ultimately leads us to a place of recognizing our need for grace.