A story I like to reflect on tells of a young boy—we could call him Peter—who had a real gift for mathematics. Week after week, in the various tests in class, he scored 100%. One day, however, he was just a little bit careless; he got the date of the test wrong, and was given a mark of only 99%. He burst into tears. Perfection had escaped him.
There is a story of another Peter—one to whom Jesus had promised good things, because he had “left all and followed him”—but who in the stress of Maundy Thursday evening had three times denied even knowing who Jesus was. “He went out, and wept bitterly”.
Perhaps all of us know the feeling. We try hard. Most of the time we do quite well. But we’re not perfect. Somewhere in the back of our memories is some hurtful event which we just wish we had handled differently. We have fallen below 100%, and nothing we can do from now on can change that fact. What do we do?
One answer is to ignore what has happened: to pretend that we are still perfect. That is no way to solve the problem, and it doesn’t work. The truth keeps gnawing away at us.
Another answer is to redouble our religious efforts, to try and make up with 110% the less than 100% score that is causing our despair. But Jesus said that when we have done everything, we are no more than unprofitable servants. The moving finger has written. We cannot recall it. We have fallen short of perfection.
Another answer is to set God’s standards a little bit lower. We can’t hit 100%, but won’t 90% be good enough—just nine out of the Ten Commandments? Or if we can’t do 90%, maybe 85%? It’s hard to get peace of mind that way. Nowhere does the Bible give any indication that any particular degree of goodness other than perfection will get us into heaven.
Finally, though, we might take the route of asking for forgiveness. Did not God, through the prophet Jeremiah, say that “I will forgive their transgressions, and remember their sins no more”?
Such an answer is true, but it comes with a catch. To take the route of forgiveness means abandoning the Old Covenant, of commands and punishment, and entering into the New Covenant, of forgiveness. God, who has been hurt by our disobedience and sin, is yet willing to forgive. We, who are forgiven, are obliged to give the same forgiveness to others, our enemies and those who have hurt us included.
Teaching us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is very specific. We are to ask God to forgive us our debts “as we forgive everyone who is indebted to us”. If we do not forgive others their trespasses against us, our Heavenly Father will not forgive us our trespasses. And forgiveness is a very simple thing. It is something I do regularly in my business, when I decide to ‘write off’ debts that are on the books, but are not worth the trouble of trying to collect.
The price to us for our forgiveness from God is that we quit trying to remove splinters from our neighbour’s eyes, knowing that we have a 2×4 stuck in our own. We quit trying to collect what others owe to us, knowing that God has forgiven us far more. We quit trying to get to heaven by being perfect, knowing that we are human, capable of error, and ‘cannot always stand upright’. And then we may find that we have received the promised ‘new heart’. We have shed an enormous burden that perhaps we never knew we were carrying—the burden of trying to make other people behave like the sort of people we want them to be.
That’s a task we can leave to God!