Kurt Jacobson
5 min readJan 21, 2024

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“Life Worth Living”

January 21, 2024

Mark 1:14–20 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake — for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

About ten years ago, a friend of mine was working at an Ivy League university and told me about a class entitled “Life Worth Living.” The aim of the course was to revive and strengthen critical discussion about what, for Christians, is the most important question of our lives: What is a life worth living?

The origins of the course came after the faculty observed that in higher education, consideration of great questions about the meaning of life had faded away. Students were left to ask these questions outside the classroom.

The aim of the Life Worth Living seems to echo changes in American culture at large. We have become increasingly dedicated to and adept at determining and pursuing the means to achieve our ends, but we get uncomfortable and disoriented if we are forced to ask about the ends, the pursuits of our lives — their goals and meaning.

Life Worth Living explored key figures from Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, utilitarianism, and certain philosophers. The goal was to consider the traditions as living visions of what makes life worth living.

For the session on Christianity, the Gospel of Luke was assigned to introduce the Christian vision of a life worth living. The discussion questions began with a focus on repentance and forgiveness.

For students unfamiliar with Luke’s writing, questions came forth earnestly:

*Are you really supposed to forgive someone over and over again as long as they say, “I repent” (Luke 17:3–4)?

  • Does God really forgive like that?
  • Isn’t that just license to sin and sin and repent at the last minute with no consequences?
  • What would it take for repentance to be genuine?

Near the end of the session, a student who was not Christian raised his hand. We have been talking a lot about repentance, he said. It seemed to him that he would have to take repentance seriously if the Christian vision of what makes life worth living were right. But as he thought about it, he decided that repentance would be especially difficult. It would require looking honestly at his actions and attitudes, past and present and issuing judgments of condemnation on some, probably many of them. More than that: it would require really turning away from them. What pain that would cause!

Perhaps an option to avoid repentance is to say, “I did that, but that is not so bad after all.” Hasn’t that thinking become more the rule than the exception? Shaped by cultural and social environment and to some degree, even by some expressions of the Christian Church, we choose to avoid introspection on weaknesses and mistakes and instead identify and develop strengths with eyes fixed on the future. Repentance requires a radically different approach to seeing oneself.

How often does our pride shelter us from seeing ourselves as we really are? How skilled do people become, using all kinds of self-deception to hide from themselves? However, the careful observer can catch hints of what lies beneath by the way we unconsciously betray ourselves: “Even when the mouth lies, the way it looks still tells the truth” (from “Beyond Good and Evil” by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886)

The student’s comments raise big questions for Christians today. Christians live in the same culture — one that trains us to look to ourselves and our pasts in order to identify strengths to further develop and promote while figuring out things about ourselves to correct, or excuse. An all in one — self-led exercise. Who needs repentance?

But wrestling with our failings, even recognizing and naming them not as imperfections or slip-ups but as answerable shortcomings and sin– today a repentant act is hard to imagine and even harder to practice.

If we are after a life worth living, however, repentance is unavoidable. Realizing and admitting to unworthy aspects of one’s life is unavoidable. That is why repentance is a key element of an appropriate response to God’s work in Jesus Christ.

Mark summarizes Jesus’ early preaching in the passage for today: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).

In a culture that finds repentance meaningless, impractical, or unnecessary, we are called to witness to its intelligibility, beauty, and importance. And that witness begins with our own repentance.

The student was right. Repentance is difficult. It is painful. But the extent of our willingness to take upon ourselves repentance, even with its discomfort and agony, is a measure of our determination to enter into life anew. Along the way the amazing grace of the Divine, which has been present all along, becomes clear, freeing us for wonder, love, and praise — a life worth living.

Images: 1) Bycommonconsent.com 2) Fine Art America Elizabeth Wang “By Contrition and Selfless Worship”

Prayer God of mercy,

We carry old secrets too painful to utter, too shameful to acknowledge, too burdensome to bear, of failures we cannot undo, of alienations we regret but cannot fix, of grandiose exhibits we cannot curb.

And you know them. You know them all. And so we take a deep sigh in your presence, no longer needing to pretend and cover up and deny.

We mostly do not have big sins to confess, only modest shames that do not fit our hoped-for selves. And then we find that your knowing is more powerful than our secrets.

You know and do not turn away, and our secrets that seemed too powerful are emptied of strength, secrets that seemed too burdensome are now less severe.

We marvel that when you find us out you stay with us, taking us seriously, overpowering our failure with your massive love and abiding patience. We long to be fully, honestly exposed to your gaze of gentleness.

In the moment of your knowing we are eased and lightened, and we feel the surge of joy move in our bodies, because we are not ours in cringing but yours in communion.

We are yours and find the truth before you makes us free for wonder, love, and praise — and new life.”

-Walter Brueggeman

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.