“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life.”
Kate Bowler, a professor of the history of Christianity at Duke University, makes this observation in the preface of her book, No Cure for Being Human. She has seen many guides to human progress for sale in airport kiosks, including:
- Books written by spiritual guides who say, “Trust God and the path will reveal itself.”
- Writing journals full of visionary wisdom from industry leaders and management gurus.
- Guidebooks that challenge us to take wild actions, such as crossing oceans and climbing mountains and jumping out of planes. Carpe diem, they say. Seize the day!
- Business manuals that challenge us to eliminate distractions and escape the daily grind. Yes, it’s true, they say. You too can enjoy the four-hour workweek!
- Titles urging you to unleash the power within!
“These are the formulas for a meaningful life,” Bowler writes. “But the truth is somewhere inside of me: there is no formula. We live and we are loved and we are gone.”
She’s right. There is no formula. At least not one that can be found in books, writing journals, guidebooks, and business manuals. A perfect life cannot be built by your own efforts, even if you follow a perfect set of guidelines … perfectly.
Jesus knew this, which is why He included so many examples of human imperfection in His Sermon on the Mount: Committing murder, being angry with a brother, insulting a sister, committing adultery, looking at a person with lust, getting a divorce, breaking an oath, and even making an oath.
But Jesus is not down on us as human beings. Along with Kate Bowler, He knows that there is no cure for being human. He wants us to be honest with ourselves and each other, as we learn how to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and even pray for the people who persecute us.
Our progress toward perfection begins with being honest about our imperfections.
Recent research reveals that there is an upside to admitting error. Taly Reich, an associate professor at Yale School of Management, worked with Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough on a series of lab studies. Reich knew that people tend to be afraid of making and admitting mistakes. But should they?
In one experiment, reports Yale Alumni Magazine, participants were offered a choice between two headphone brands. Each participant was also shown one of two reviews. The reviews were identical except that in one of them, the reviewer noted dissatisfaction with a previous headphone purchase.
When participants saw the review that did not mention previous dissatisfaction, 79 percent of them followed the reviewer’s recommendation. But when they saw the review describing a previous mistake, the figure rose to 93 percent. Honesty about imperfection made the reviewer more trustworthy!
Three other experiments with different designs and different products – mints, florist services and speaker systems – yielded similar results. It appears that people who are honest about their mistakes are seen as being more credible.
In a surprising way, confession builds trust.
So, why is this? Professor Reich suggests that if reviewers have learned from their mistakes, they are perceived as having better judgment. “Beyond the bottom line,” she says, “we would probably have a better world if we could take the shame out of admitting and learning from our mistakes.”
Jesus would agree. After offering His warnings about anger and insults, Jesus says, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Confess your sin, admit your mistake, and then give your gift to God.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court,” says Jesus. “Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge” (v. 25). Speak honestly with people and resolve your differences, person to person. Otherwise, you may be thrown into prison, “and you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (v. 26).
For Jesus, nothing is more important than reconciliation – the resolution of disputes and repair of broken relationships. When you make a mistake, He says, admit it! Confession builds trust and brings people together. This kind of honesty with ourselves and others is the key to avoiding the other problems that Jesus lists: Committing adultery, looking at a person with lust, getting a divorce, breaking an oath, and even making an oath. Be honest and clear, says Jesus at the end of this passage: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (v. 37).
Jesus knows better than anyone else about what it takes to build a perfect life: Honesty about sin, which leads to reconciliation with the people around us. As hard as it is to admit our failures, the truth is that confession builds trust.
Think of the story in Genesis in which Jacob had an all-night wrestling match with God, before he met up with his brother Esau. He was no doubt struggling with his guilt over his cheating of Esau, so after his night of anguish he approached his brother with humility and vulnerability. The result was that Esau showed grace to Jacob, and the two were reconciled. The best human connections are made at the point of vulnerability, not strength.
This is true not only in the ancient world, but today. Reconciliation Parish in Berlin, Germany, is a congregation that was divided by the Berlin Wall, and was then reunited when the wall came down. But the removal of that enormous physical barrier did not heal the wounds and divisions that afflicted the community. To work on reconciliation, the parish hosted conversations between former members of the East German Secret Police and their victims, and pastor Manfred Fischer found that “victims are keen to forgive, and willing.” But first there needs to be an honest and open word, such as “I am sorry. I acted in a wrong way.”
Fischer knows that admitting sin is very difficult for those who did wrong. He saw this same problem with the World War II generation that did not want to discuss their history under Hitler. But there can be no reconciliation – with God or with other people – without an honest and open word. Overcoming alienation and establishing new and peaceful relationships is best done through conversation, confession and forgiveness in a safe and hospitable Christian community – one that is grounded in the reconciling work of God.
Reconciliation always begins with God. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul says that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). God reconciled us to Himself through the life and death of Jesus Christ, and then Jesus challenged us to do the work of reconciliation in our own relationships. “First go and be reconciled to your brother,” he says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:24). “Settle matters quickly with your adversary” (v. 25).
In a sermon for the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, New Testament scholar Richard Hays says that the interesting thing about the word “reconciliation” in ordinary Greek usage is that it is not typically a religious term. “Rather, it is a word drawn from the sphere of politics; it refers to dispute resolution. So, one could speak of the diplomatic reconciliation of warring nations or, in the sphere of personal relationships, the reconciliation of an estranged husband and wife.”
This work of reconciliation has been started by God in Christ, and Hays says that Christians are now challenged to make it visible in “practices that show unity, love, mercy, forgiveness, and a self-giving grace that the world could not even dream of apart from Christ.” This is a message that the highly polarized and fractured Christian community in Corinth needed to hear, that former enemies in Germany need to hear, and that we need to hear today.
Each of us is an imperfect person, but we can move toward a perfect life by speaking honestly about our mistakes, confessing our sins, and working on repairing our broken relationships. Yes, we can trust God and the path of reconciliation will reveal itself. Yes, we can seize the day, carpe diem – seize the opportunity to speak an honest word and say we are sorry. Yes, we can unleash the power within — the power we have been given by God to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.
There is no easy path to mastering everything that Jesus asks of us, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. But we move closer to Jesus and his way when we speak with honesty about our sins and our shortcomings, and when we take steps to repair relationships with the people around us.
None of us is perfect. Far from it. But we should admit our failures because confession builds trust and leads to reconciliation.