I really wish I was perfectly good! As a kid I grew up thinking I was pretty good. I could compare myself to my friends and thought I came off favorably. I did not get in much trouble, so I took that as a sign that, all in all, I was good. But as the years go by, I have become more aware that “pretty good” does not cut it. The standard has been raised to perfectly good! “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2b). And failure to meet this standard has a terrible result: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
I don’t want separation from the living God. But the evidence that I am not actually good is mounting. Perhaps at one time I thought that becoming a pastor might make me a better person, but my experience is to the contrary. In fact, I think becoming a pastor has simply offered more opportunity for me to see that goodness is not really my strength.
One day I was in my office and received a phone call from a concerned parent. His child was in a class I was teaching, and he was concerned about something his child had written, which would eventually be read before the church. I listened dutifully and told him I’d look at it. Examining it, I concluded it was just an issue of semantics. I figured I had a pretty good grasp of what the student was writing, and that the concerned parent, who was not a Christian, didn’t understand. I determined not to make any changes.
My decision not to act didn’t make him happy, which led to a follow-up phone call. I was immediately defensive and failed to hear the genuine concern of a person who wanted to interact with his child about their worldview. I turned it into an opportunity to make this about what the parent didn’t understand. It was not a pleasant conversation, and it ended with the words, “I’m never coming to your church again!”
A couple years later, God brought this conversation back to my mind. He gently showed me that I was missing the point. My end of the conversation was all about my analysis of the parent and his child, but I had not really considered myself and how I was responding. The scenario replayed in my mind, but this time I took the time to consider the father’s words—what he was concerned about. I should not have disregarded it so easily. I had not helped their relationship, and I certainly did not help that father see Christ. I confessed my sin to God and reveled in the good news that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
I had wronged this man and knew that I would need to speak to him as well. I found his number and called him, praying desperately that God would give me favor in this. When he answered, I explained why I was calling—how I’d been praying and God had shown me that I had treated him wrongly. I then asked him to forgive me. His first response was a question, “Why are you doing this now?” I repeated that I believed God was moving me to acknowledge my wrong against him and seek his forgiveness. His answer was swift. “No, I will not forgive you.” And the call soon ended.
I was surprised. Not surprised by his response. I was prepared for that answer, even though it still stung. But as I sat down and tried to calm myself after the confrontation, what surprised me was the absence of accusation and guilt. I had clearly wronged this man. I had hurt him and deepened a divide in his relationship with his son. I had helped to harden a heart. But even with this man’s words echoing in my ears, there were words that rang louder and truer. They were words that overcame his words, and left me with an assurance that even my trembling body could not block out: “You are forgiven for the sake of Christ!” I knew it was true.
What I now felt was not guilt, but simply deep sadness. Sadness for the effects of my sin, but also a sadness over the prison this man was in. As much as I wanted this man’s forgiveness and the joy that would have brought to my heart, I was keenly aware of his condition. This is what forgiveness does. It frees us. It frees us from self-loathing and self-focus. It raises our eyes to the goodness of God and the needs of our neighbor.
Friend, if you have guilt or shame banging on the walls of your heart in unrelenting, numbing fashion—the weight of a burdened conscience, the fear of the wrath of God for what you rightly deserve—please hear that there is a place to go with it. There is a place for you to turn, or more accurately a Person to turn to. The One who has been ultimately insulted and wronged. The One whose laws we broke.
The Scripture does not simply report to you what God has done, but it declares to you what God has done for you. Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin, so that you might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). You are forgiven; you will not die for your sin.
Am I perfectly good now? Well, not in your eyes or mine! But in the eyes of my heavenly Father and for the sake of Jesus Christ who died and lives again for me, I am!
Rev. Paul Couch serves as pastor of Bethany Lutheran Brethren Church in Staten Island, New York.