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Recently, I have realised how easily I seem to fall short of God’s best.

I don’t think I am sinning more; in fact, by God’s grace, I believe He has changed me in profound ways since the day I put my trust in Him. But I feel like I am more aware of ways that I still need to change. An unclean thought in my mind, a critical word on my lips; my conscience still stings me when these things happen.

I see my impurities more clearly and I don’t like them. Perhaps this is part of the struggle Paul described in Romans chapter 7: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being, I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom 7: 21 – 24).

Paul went on to write that the only hope he had for freedom and continual change towards Christ-likeness was Christ himself: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7: 25)

So, did Paul eventually achieve a sinless life whilst still on the planet? Sinless perfection? I don’t think so. To live a life without any wrongdoing this side of eternity feels impossible to me. Too difficult to attain.

So, when we read Jesus’ words in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount at the end of chapter 5, we can be forgiven for feeling confused, discouraged even. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Be perfect? Surely, that’s a bar too high! How can anybody achieve that?

Jesus’ challenge in this section of the sermon comes at the conclusion of comments about how we should relate to those we might call enemies. We are to love them and pray for those who wish to do us harm. This was countercultural to the Jewish mindset of the 1st century who felt that they had a God-given right to judge and hate their enemies.

But Jesus had a knack of taking the Hebraic law from words on a scroll to the conscience of the heart. For example, “You may not have physically murdered anyone, but can you honestly say you represent your Father in heaven if you harbour hate in your heart? The same goes for committing adultery compared to just thinking about it.” (my paraphrase of Jesus’ words earlier in the sermon)

In other words, to those who thought they were “righteous” before God because they obeyed the 10 Commandments, Jesus challenged their thought life. Did it match up? So in the section about being perfect, Jesus is saying, “If you hate your enemies and only love those who love you, what makes you different to the idol worshipper down the road?”

In other words, if you think you are perfect, then prove it by displaying a clean and pure heart.

Fortunately, most of us who are aware of our sins and our shortcomings are far from believing we are perfect. We know we have a way to go, and we rejoice in the grace and mercy of God.

To the self-righteous, Jesus said “You think you’re perfect?  This is what perfection looks like – your inner integrity needs to match what you believe is on the outside. Seek to be that! And when you realise you are not there, call out to the Father for His help.” To the sinner, saved by grace, he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit – those that know their need for God. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to you” (Matt 5:3)

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