Jesus picks up on this theme of our inability to get it all right by telling his followers to “be perfect.” Um….what? Is this a command to do the impossible? Rather, Jesus is trying to provoke us into the reality that we cannot be perfect based through our own resources or the mere exertion of our will power. He is setting up a game with a clear endpoint in mind: our turning to God and saying, “No, but only in and through You!,” which is a move we must make and which he cannot force. Then, in seeing God’s grace and mercy, the paradox continues: we can walk in His perfection, but through a grace that flows not from us but to us.
One of the greatest failures of my life was also one of its great turning points. In grad school, frustrated with my failures and how I couldn’t get life to work how I wanted, how I felt, too, so full of contradictions and self-doubt and the inability to be who I wanted to be, and how I didn’t feel confident about God’s nearness and goodness, I prayed (in the shower, where all great prayers are prayed): “Okay, I’m done. I’m going to try things my own way now. I’m taking things into my own hands.” By taking things into my own hands, I meant that I was going to do basically whatever I wanted to do. It was brazen, but at least it was honest.
I ended up trying all sorts of things I had never done. I slept with and courted someone whose emotions I would ultimately trounce, and I returned to grad school for a further degree, even though my heart wasn’t in it. Such was the depth of my confusion, all around. I ended up with thousands of dollars in school loans for a program I had dropped out of, and all the shame, guilt, and sadness of deeply wounding another human being. I failed, on most fronts.
I still feel the sadness of what I did, and so I don’t write what follows lightly or tritely: the magnificence of my failure finally opened me to God in an entirely new way. Indeed, in some ways, I think I became open to God for the first time. I was no longer the person, in my own mind anyway, who “didn’t do this or that.” I could no longer hang my coat on how hard I tried or how faithful (again, in my own mind) I had been. I had gone from being the older, moralistic brother to the younger, hedonistic brother. It was the first time where I finally accounted that I couldn’t get everything right. And that is what finally caused the clouds of my long depression to part. I actually needed God—or rather, I finally confessed my need for God. “I was powerless to save myself,” as they say in the 12 Steps, and I finally acknowledged it.
The oft missing piece in confession and repentance is exactly this: finally coming to accept our weakness, our limitations, and our inability to transforms ourselves, rather than resisting, hating, and judging it. This is a true experience of “losing our life,” surrendering our self-reliance. It’s why Paul can write that we should “rejoice in weakness.” When we accept precisely this reality—that we don’t come to God by our strength, but by our weakness, we finally become open to God. It’s becoming open to God, and not just through our will-power, that we are transformed. The paradox and the both-and is that we should and we must engage our will-power! It’s just that while our will-power is necessary, still it won’t be sufficient to transform us. Paul writes about this eloquently in Romans 7, saying that the cycle of the war between spirit and sinful impulses are finally transformed by turning to Jesus. “Thank God!” he says. “The answer is in Christ Jesus.” It’s this turn away from our own efforts and into the mercy of God (and again, away from and into is the biblical picture of repentance) that postures us to receive the grace of God which transforms us.
Let us remember that Jesus never talked about arriving, he talked about abiding. The focus is on the transformative power of being near him, not of us forever doing away with our human, selfish impulses. The more time you spend judging yourself for the parts of your heart and mind you hold in contempt, the more time you keep yourself chained apart from the freedom that God desires for you. God is trying to bring us out of judgment, even self-judgment, which can seem to our self-deceived minds so right. You cannot experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit when you are in anger or judgment.
None of this means we have license to forgo will power or the need to make wise choices. Rather, it means walking the middle path between religious rigidity and self-consumed hedonism. In other words, it requires us to walk in maturity, at the leading of the Spirit. This will be challenging and it means holding tension because, remember, many of us--and certainly the ego part within all of us!--would prefer a rule book to maturity.
Bottom line, if confession and repentance is really just a commitment to will-power ourselves forward and to “not mess up again,” as noble as that desire is, our life will just be a religious game of living within our own strength and ability, untouched by the waters of God’s empowering grace. But when we understand the context of confession and repentance as revealed in Scripture, we can instead walk a path into freedom and transformation.
 Matthew 5:48
 Luke 15:11-32
 Cf. Matthew 10:39
 2 Corinthians 12:10
 All of Romans 7 and especially verses 14-25
 See John 15:5
 Cf. Paul’s argument in Romans 6, especially v 1.