I have borrowed, for the title of this entry, the chapter title from a book which will be introduced later on. Those aren’t my words, just borrowed because they’re a perfect fit for the Favor Line discussion.
Have you ever sat in a meeting or lesson where the questions start morphing into a “what do we have to do to merit x, y or z?” Where the impetus is always on what we can do to get something? Today, at the beginning of a lesson in church, the opening monologue from the teacher concluded with the following question: “What do we have to do to make it to the Celestial Kingdom?”
By the end of the lesson – a lesson on David, Uriah and Bathsheba – the general conclusion was this: “we have to try harder and work harder to avoid temptations” and “we have to try harder to do what is right” and, in order to make it to the Celestial kingdom, “we need to try harder.” Before we arrive at that conclusion, though, we were treated to a couple of statements by generic authorities on just how much we need try harder. Before any of this gets lost on us, I should point out that the name “Jesus Christ” was mentioned a total of 0 times. Not once did His name get brought up – it was all about us trying harder in order to make it over what should be called the Favor Line.
The instructor concluded his remarks by saying that, “even though some sins are unforgivable, we still must try and repent,” but bookended that comment with these two quotes. The first is from Bruce McConkie and the second from Richard Scott, both apostles for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ™.
“But under certain circumstances there are some serious sins for which the cleansing of Christ does not operate …” and “…a sin for which there is “no forgiveness” (D&C 42:79), meaning that a murderer can never gain salvation. “No murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15) He cannot join the Church by baptism; he is outside the pale of redeeming grace.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, page 92, 520).
“Do not take comfort in the fact that your transgressions are not known by others. That is like an ostrich with his head buried in the sand. He sees only darkness and feels comfortably hidden. In reality he is ridiculously conspicuous. Likewise our every act is seen by our Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son. They know everything about us. … If you have seriously transgressed, you will not find any lasting satisfaction or comfort in what you have done. Excusing transgression with a cover-up may appear to fix the problem, but it does not. The tempter is intent on making public your most embarrassing acts at the most harmful time. Lies weave a pattern that is ever more confining and becomes a trap that Satan will spring to your detriment.” (Conference Report, Apr. 1995, 103; or Ensign, May 1995, 77).
The reason I’m writing on these quotes was because, to me, the lesson was one predicated almost entirely on fear. Fear that we might fall, fear that we might not do enough or be enough. And, perhaps most importantly and as emphasized in Richard Scott’s quote, fear that God and Jesus Christ are watching our every move, our ever act and that they know everything. They are that creepy Santa Claus who knows “when we are sleeping … when we are awake … when we’ve been good or bad.” Yes, today I was taught that God and Christ are these scary taskmasters who see everything I do, who are watching my every move waiting for me to screw up and waiting for me to try even harder, only to screw up again. And, not only are they waiting for me to screw up, but so is the Tempter who is “intent on making public” everything screwy I’ve done. And, lest I forget, I was also taught that there are some things for which the Atonement has no effect, some things so “grievous” that it might put me “outside” the “redeeming grace” of Christ and His Atonement. So, now I must live in fear for everyone is out to get me. Dear me!!
So, as I was pondering on these dark and sullen ideas, I was reminded of a topic I’ve been wanting to address here for some time – the idea of the Favor Line – but was always too preoccupied or distracted or into some other topic. And so it sat on the sidelines, waiting to be posted, to be put here and to be re-read again. This “Favor Line” is the idea that if we do or be enough, then God will love us and bless us, but, if we fall short of those amorphous standards (amorphous because we’re never really told exactly what those standards are, so we’re ever trying to reach something that may not even be there), then God neither loves us nor is willing to bless us. Perhaps He does still love us, the reasoning goes, but that love is diminished by our sinfulness. So, to church I went today to be taught that, “God’s great, you’re bad, try harder.”
It is with that preface that I introduce the following words of Wayne Jacobsen, as found in his book, He Loves Me. His words are were this term “Favor Line” first came into my brain and belief system. I’d never heard it put the way he put it, and thought it might be of benefit to someone else – it certainly was of benefit for me to read it one more time this afternoon after church – a detoxification, if you will, from the partially hydrogenated lesson of fear and intimidation and of trying harder. If anyone is interested in the .pdf of this book, send me a message, I have a copy that’s free (was obtained for free) and I’d be glad to share it. The guys over at Wandering for Zion (who may or may not have just been evicted from his own parents’ house) and Discovering Zion (both hyperlinked on the right column) were my inspiration for reading and listening to Jacobsen’s stuff, and I’m glad they did point out his books.
Before we turn to the excerpt, though, I wanted to share a scripture I read while listening to this lesson on fear, or so was my interpretation of the lesson. I found it by looking for a few scriptures on the earth, though I’m not sure why that topic was of interest this morning. In one portion of the Book of Moses there is an interaction which centers on Enoch and a vision he had. At one point of the vision and conversation he hears the earth groan. Just prior to this point in the vision, though, we get a certain glimpse of Enoch that I thought worth sharing:
So, what follows is Wayne Jacobsen’s work. I take no credit for it, nor want any. I’m only posting it because it may be of benefit to someone else out there, may influence someone for the better and may help bring us out from the tyranny of the Favor Line.
A PLACE PREPARED
“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Could the invitation be any clearer? Jesus told his followers about a house, with a Father who waits for them to come and take their place in his home. Does this sound familiar?
We so easily miss the point of his words when we mistakenly relegate them to the distant future, of a second coming and mansions in heaven. Here Jesus was still talking about his first ‘going away’—his death on a cross; and his first ‘coming back’—the resurrection. These events would unfold in the next few days and Jesus wanted them to understand just how important they were.
The cross stands as the pivotal event in opening the door for us to dwell in the Father’s Love. The apostle Paul told us that when we really understand what happened there between a Father and a Son we would know for certain and forever just how deep their love is for us. Later on we’ll take a look from this vantage point at the power of the cross.
He was going to open a door, and return after the Resurrection to show them how to live in his Father’s house—the place in Father’s heart he’s prepared for each one of them.
The disciples, however, couldn’t make sense of his words. When he told them they knew the way where he was going, Thomas challenged him. “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
“You know me, Philip, and I am the way.”
He knew they were confused. He knew they didn’t understand the new relationship they would be able to have with him and his Father after the Resurrection. But he says it simply—you know me! I will get you there. Notice how he focuses here not on the process they would have to follow, but on the person they would need to know. He takes it right back to relationship again. “Stay with me; you’ll know everything you need to know.”
A FATHER YOU CAN TRUST
To have the relationship God desires with you, and for which your heart must cry out or you still wouldn’t be reading this book, you simply have to learn to trust him. I know that is far easier to talk about than it is to do. We’ve learned all our lives that trusting other people will only leave us frustrated and disappointed. Even the people who might have loved us the most probably failed us at some point. The lesson our flesh teaches us from a very young age is take care of yourself, because no one else will.
Perhaps like some of the strays who come to our house, everyone you’ve ever trusted has betrayed that trust. Maybe you even feel that God has betrayed your trust when he didn’t do things for you that you thought a loving father would do. If the truth be told many of us have been exploited by people who came to us in God’s name, claiming to know God’s will for us, who only wanted to exploit us to meet their own needs.
My heart goes out most of all to those whose earthly fathers betrayed their trust and whose past is marred by failure and brokenness. I know some of you reading this book, keep doing so because the message stirs you. But every time you read the word Father something cringes inside of you. It’s not a term of endearment to you, but one that scratches at old wounds.
For you, Father only conjures images of abuse or abandonment. It amazes me that so many who hunger to know God had fathers who were so broken they couldn’t even reflect the smallest hint of his love to their own children. Either selfishly seeking their own pleasure, or using you as a punching bag for their own pain, they left a wake of wounded children who don’t know what it is to have a father.
Betrayal by the people we most want to love us can leave deep scars. But even these are not beyond God’s ability to heal and redeem. In fact, the reason those wounds hurt so deeply is because God created us to be loved by a Father that puts even the best earthly examples to shame. Even those of us who had good fathers, can’t imagine how much greater a father he really is. Even the best fathers, as we saw in the last chapter, can’t hold a candle to the love the Eternal Father has in his heart for you.
It may take awhile, but God can help us not define his fatherhood based on the failed record of broken humanity, but let his fatherhood define what it really is to be loved by the most awesome Father in the universe.
So even if the word father doesn’t convey the most tender image to you, please don’t write yourself out of his house. Learning to trust him is the most difficult thing any of us will ever learn to do. If I can understand that for a stray puppy cowering in my front yard, how much more does the Father of heaven and earth understand our wounds and our insecurities.
With incredible patience and love, he coaxes us out of our fears to embrace him. He waits for that moment when suddenly we know we are safer in him than in any other place we could be. It may be timidly at first, but turn toward him and abandon yourselves to trust him in the smallest way you can.
He understands how afraid you are that you’ll be disappointed once again. But he’s still there patiently extending his hand to you. He will try to get closer, until you cower away in fear. Then he will back off so as not add to your pain, hoping his gentleness will one day win you over.
ONLY TRUST HIM
Trust. It is so easy to talk about, but so hard to put into practice. Nothing is more theologically certain than that God is faithful and trustworthy. But learning how to live in that trust through the twists and turns of our lives is the most difficult challenge we face.
It took God almost Abraham’s entire life to teach Abraham the joy of trusting him. But he did it. Even when he was asked to give up his only son and heir, he trusted God’s plan and God’s nature enough to set about the task. This, from the one who had risked his wife’s virtue by lying to Pharaoh that she was not his wife. This, from the one who had impregnated his wife’s maidservant when it didn’t appear God would give Sarah the child he promised.
To accomplish that, God did some extraordinary things for Abraham. Rest assured, God knows how difficult it is for you to trust him. He is not threatened by that nor angry with you.
He simply wants you to keep your eye on him and learn.
He knows that only by trusting him can you participate in relationship with him and enjoy the fullness of life in his household. He also knows that you’ll trust him only to the degree that you are certain of his love for you.
This is why he created you and why he designed such an extraordinary plan to teach you exactly how to lay aside your fears and walk into his arms. Then he can scoop you up, hold you closely to himself and fulfill what began in his heart for you since before the creation of the world.
This is the journey of a lifetime—to trust him more and more everyday for the rest of our lives. The more we trust him, the more of his life we can experience. But don’t try to do this on your own. You don’t have it in you. He can take you by the hand and teach you just how much you are loved so that you no longer have to pursue your own way and protect yourself in ways that only seem to backfire, hurting you and others around you.
NICE GOD OR MEAN GOD?
We had just completed a spirited discussion on God’s grace from Paul’s letter to the Galatians at a men’s retreat in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A young man had been waiting to talk with me for some time until enough people cleared out so we could talk privately.
“Over these two days I’ve listened to you talk about God as a loving Father. Since I became a Christian I have only served a mean God, fearful every day that I might miss his will and be rejected. I really want to believe he is the incredible Father you speak about, but I’ve decided not to.”
“Really?” I asked. “Why is that?”
“I’m just not sure you’re right. I’ve thought about this over the last day or so and I’ve made a decision. I’m going to keep serving the mean God.” He had it all worked out. “The way I figure it, if I’m right and serve the mean God, then I’ll be fine on judgment day. If I’m wrong and he is the Father you’re talking about, he will understand why I did what I did.
“But if I change now and serve this loving Father, what happens if he turns out to be the mean God I’ve always thought him to be? Then I’m in trouble.”
“Certainly, that’s your choice,” I told him. “But before you do, can I ask you a question?”
“Would the God you’re serving ever trade his life on a cross for yours?”
He looked up at me and shook his head. “No way!”
“Then how can he be the God of Bible?”
God knew it wouldn’t be easy for us to accept such an incredible offer of friendship, which is why he went to such lengths to convince us.”
I was only with him for a weekend and I don’t know how he has walked it out since, but he is like so many others I’ve met along the journey. Out of the dissonant portraits of God they have decided that it is safer to treat him as the mean God.
They don’t have any idea just how wrong they are.
And they don’t know that fearing a demanding God, will never take them into the house. They will never be able to do enough to earn what he wants to give them.
To enter the house we must trade our fear of him for a love that is far stronger.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
The Tyranny of the Favor Line
“God is good. You are bad. Try harder!”
– the observations of a fifteen-year-old summing up an evening with her youth group
Who could blame the young mother? I certainly couldn’t?
She was in her early thirties, the mother of two children. I don’t even remember the congenital disease her youngest child had, but at six years of age he was already confined to a wheelchair. Often his parents rushed him to the hospital in such critical condition that they were never sure if they would bring him home again.
Every time I was with them, I was touched not only by the depth of their need but also the sweetness with which they seemed to endure it. They had grown up in Christian homes and had sought to follow God faithfully into their adult years. I often prayed for them and their child, hoping he would someday be healed.
I had no idea, however, that the stress of his illness was also shredding their marriage until I called one morning after I had not seen them for a few weeks. I found a devastated mother on the other end of the phone. Her husband had left her two weeks before, and she now had sole responsibility for their sick boy.
Overwhelmed with pain, she told me that she was no longer sure God even existed, or if he did that he was not the God she had thought him to be. Not only had six years of praying for her son’s healing proved fruitless, but the need had also destroyed her marriage. She was alone, disillusioned and angry.
I tried to tell her that God still loved her and cared about her needs, but she rebuffed my encouragement. “Do you have any idea what it is like not to be able to ever just relax and enjoy your own child, because you are never sure that he will be there tomorrow?”
I told her honestly that I did not. I only had a brief taste of anything similar. Our first-born daughter had a severe case of jaundice, and I remember how resentful I felt having to take her for a daily blood test and watch my baby scream in pain as they drew it from her toes. That lasted only a week and her life was never in jeopardy. How do you multiply that by six years of standing at death’s door with your little boy?
I did offer to help her with whatever resources we had to get her through the days ahead, but she declined. “I just can’t keep living this way,” she sobbed. “Whatever God expects of me, I just don’t have it to give.”
Rarely in my life have I felt as inadequate as I did the moment I placed the phone back in its cradle. After nearly fifteen years of pastoral ministry, I didn’t have the answers she needed. Only later did I learn why. At the time I was caught in the same trap she was, only on the other side of it. She thought her overwhelming need pointed to her faithlessness and loss of favor with God while I thought my more pleasant circumstances were proof that I had been faithful and thus had earned his favor.
We were both living under the tyranny of the favor line. She was already paying for it; I was about to.
THE FAVOR LINE
What is the favor line? It’s that invisible line that tells us whether or not we’ve met enough of someone’s expectations to merit their approval. It’s impossible to live in this world without recognizing its impact on every area of life.
Our parents had one. We knew what made them proud of us, and what brought their displeasure or even anger. If your parents expectations were fair you could play the favor line, acting especially kind when you wanted something from them, or hiding behind their back what you knew would merit punishment. If your parents expectations were unreasonable, then maybe you grew up without any approval at all.
We found the same favor line when we went to school, though it existed there in a graduated scale. The higher expectations we met, the better grade we received and the greater approval from teachers and parents.
It didn’t take us long to discover that our friends had favor lines as well to derive the benefits of their friendship. Disappoint them however, and our so-called friends could turn on us in a heartbeat; as we would on them. We found the same line in the work world as well. Those who achieved or exceeded expectations found themselves in the bosses’ good graces, with all the perks that favor brought.
We’ve learned to survive in this world by currying favor where we needed it, so it is only natural to assume that God has a favor line as well.
As long as our circumstances are pleasant, or even bearable, we may not think much about God’s favor. But, let trouble or disappointment encroach on our quiet existence and we begin to wonder how God feels about us. Does he love me? Have I offended him? Am I doing enough for him to like me? Struggling with those questions brings us right back to the favor line as we look for some way to get back on God’s good side.
King David expressed so eloquently how the favor line superimposes itself on our pursuit of God:
“LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue…”
He continues with a list of traits that qualify people to come before the Holy God. Other lists in Scripture seem to underline his assertion—the Ten Commandments, the Great Commis-sion, the fruits of the Spirit just to name a few. It is easy to see why people who seriously pursue God end up with a favor line drawn across their lives and why they think they can assess at any moment how God feels about them by whether they are living above or below it.
Bible reading, prayer, church involvement, and helping others seem to put us above the line. Selfish motives or sinful actions push us beneath it. That would seem easy enough, except that we’re never sure how much of any of these things actually matter.
I’ve asked audiences all over the world, “How many of you think that you pray enough? Read the Bible enough? Or, witness enough?” I’ve never gotten so much as one person to raise a hand to my query.
I know what they are thinking, because I’ve thought it too. How much is enough, after all? If I pray an hour a day, couldn’t I as easily do two? If I read two chapters a day, should I be reading four? Do I need to witness once a month, once a week, to every stranger I meet?
In the same way we know in our more genuine moments that we are not entirely free of sin. We may be able to hide it well enough, but thoughts, motives and hidden deeds all expose our ongoing struggle with sin and doubt. Can we ever be sure how much of our failures God is willing to overlook as part of our maturing process?
That’s why I call it the tyranny of the favor line. Trying to live under the weight of David’s list, or anyone else’s, would disqualify everyone of us from God’s presence and his favor. If you’ve tried it you know how hard it is to do everything you think he requires. The only way to feel good about it is when you think you’re at least doing more than other believers around you. But you know intrinsically that you’ll never be good enough.
This problem is compounded whenever we encounter difficult or painful circumstances. Who doesn’t wonder at such times if we’re being punished for not being good enough? We joke about it in the most trivial things, such as getting stopped at consecutive stop lights. “Wow, you must not be living right,” someone invariably observes.
But it’s no joking matter when we suddenly lose a job or face a life-threatening disease. The tyranny of the favor line is unrelenting, never allowing us to be certain about how God feels about us. So we’re left to pick through our circumstances: He loves me! He loves me not!
A FAR BETTER PLAN
Is it any wonder then, that my young friend would sum up the ministry of her youth group by saying, “Same old thing, Dad. God is good. You are bad. Try harder!” Unfortunately too many people think that’s the essence of the gospel and yet on that basis none of us could ever stand before him.
Even David knew that in his more desperate moments. As he hid in a cave from those who sought to kill him, he cried out for God’s mercy. “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). Aware of his own weaknesses, he was not willing to stake God’s favor on his performance.
Later, as he prostrated himself over the public exposure of his adultery and the murder of the cheated husband and as he grieved the loss of the son his affair produced, he again seeks another standard. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
The truth of the matter is that the same Scriptures that give us lists of qualifications to earn God’s favor, also clearly state that there is not enough goodness in any one of us to fulfill those requirements. Only Jesus would be able to do so. No matter how much we try to earn his favor we will always fall short. The more effort we give, the more distant he will seem.
Why? Because the favor line causes us to swing between periods of self-pity and self-righteousness. When we recognize our shortcomings, we want to give up in despair. But even when we feel good about our efforts, we cannot understand why God doesn’t make himself as real for us as Scripture seems to indicate he wants to. Self-righteousness can be a far greater deterrent to the relationship God wants with us than our failures and mistakes.
When our best-intentioned efforts go unrewarded, we may become disillusioned and drift away. For great periods of time we find ourselves distracted from even thinking about our relationship with God and try to satiate our hunger with a host of other things—our work, other people, religious services or even buying new things. Though these may work for awhile, in quieter moments the hunger returns. None of these things will ever satisfy the hunger that longs to know the Living God.
That’s why trying to live to the favor line will at some point leave you stranded in hopelessness. Either like Peter, after he denied Jesus on the night he needed him most, you will be disillusioned by your own failure to do the good you know to do; or like Job you will question whether or not God even loves you or treats you fairly.
God never wanted us to end up in either place. He instead invites us not to walk the tightrope of the favor line, but discover a far better way to know him.
AN INCREDIBLE SURPRISE
At a young age he had already advanced well beyond his peers. Educated in the best schools, he was recognized as one of the most influential religious leaders in one of the best-known cities of the world. His morals were impeccable and his wisdom knew no equal.
But all was not as well on the inside as it appeared on the outside. For all his diligence and wisdom, something ate at him deep from within. He was an angry man. He rarely let it show except in acceptable moments of righteous indignation, but in times alone he knew it was there blackening his soul.
His zeal to be the best servant of God in his generation had not led him to the lap of a loving Father, but to the cruel tyranny of his own ego. He had started out with a desire to serve God, but that passion had quickly been consumed by his desire for spiritual status. He loved the looks of admiration and awe that he saw in the eyes of his friends and mentors.
Then one day, on a journey to a distant city he came face to face with the Living God. His encounter was far more dramatic than most. A bright light appeared out of nowhere, knocking him off his horse and blinding his eyes. As he lay there in the dirt, a voice rumbled over his body. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
His next words are quite revealing. “Who are you, Lord?”
He knew he had come face to face with the living God, and now he wasn’t sure who he was. But wait! Didn’t the voice say Saul had been persecuting him? Surely Saul must have wondered in those brief seconds, “Could this be Jesus?”
What if it was? Saul had killed so many of his followers and was on his way to kill many more. He regarded them as heretics and sought to crush them and their teaching before they could destroy the faith he had embraced since his youth.
Finally the voice spoke again, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
His worst fears had been realized. The people he had killed in God’s name were in fact God’s people. What would come of him now? What punishment awaited him in his blind helplessness? Like a man who closes his eyes, cringing in anticipation of being struck by a raised fist, he slowly realizes that no punch is coming. There was no anger, no vengeance.
Saul, later to become Paul the Apostle, had come face to face with the God he had actively warred against, and in that moment all he found was love. The Jesus he had persecuted loved him. He had not come to punish him, but to open his spiritual eyes to see God not as he imagined him to be, but God as he really was.
In that moment Saul discovered God’s favor when he had done absolutely nothing to earn it. Instead of being punished, he received an invitation to come into the family he had tried so hard to destroy. Instead of the death he’d brought to others, he was offered life that he never knew existed.
Saul was left with one inescapable fact. He had done nothing to propel himself above the favor line, but found himself there nonetheless. He found that Jesus had loved him even when he had no idea who he was. For Jesus had shattered the favor line to free Saul from its tyranny. It changed him more than all he’d learned about God previously.
This is where relationship with God begins. It may sound impossible especially if you’ve hoped for this in the past and, like the young mother who began this chapter, you have only been disappointed by how remote he seemed when you needed him the most. All you knew to do was try even harder to be good enough to win his affection.
But such thinking will never lead you closer to him. Instead of teaching you to love him, it only cements your fear of him even firmer. He wants to break this cycle the only way he can—by making his favor a gift instead of something you could earn.
I have long since lost touch with that mother. If I could speak to her today I’d want her to know that finding favor with God has nothing to do with what we do for him, but what he has already done for us.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
The Businessman and the Beggar
When we accept ownership of our powerlessness and helplessness, when we acknowledge that we are paupers at the door of God’s mercy, then God can make something beautiful out of us.
– Brennan Manning in The Ragamuffin Gospel
It turned out to be a tale of two men. These are the only two encounters Mark thought significant to record from Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem and his impending death. One was at the beginning of the journey, near his home base of Galilee. The other came on the trip’s last leg, in the city of Jericho before he would ascend to Jerusalem.
Two men, each in dire need, approached Jesus for help. Clearly, Jesus extends his favor to both of them, but as we shall see only one received it. The other went away from his moment with Jesus, his countenance shattered, grieved because he had misunderstood the offer Jesus made to him.
Watch each of them carefully. Why does one receive and the other does not? If you’re like me, you’ll see yourself in both of them at various times in your life. But now you’ll know which example will show you how you respond to God, and which will take your best intentions and turn them against you.
The answer may surprise you because it is the opposite of everything most of us have been trained to think about God and how he works in us.
CAUGHT IN THE DOING
Jesus had no more begun his journey to Jerusalem, when a man ran up to him, stopped him and knelt before him in the dirt. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Both his pace and his posture testify to the desperation in his request. He knew Jesus had something he lacked and wanted to find out his secret before he left town.
The question certainly sounds genuine enough, even humble. Jesus answers by referring him to the commandments.
The businessman’s answer tells us a lot about him. “I have kept all of these from my youth up.”
Really? Of course we know now and Jesus knew at the time that this answer wasn’t possible. Paul told us that no one has ever kept all of God’s law and that if even one person could have earned eternal life by the law, then Christ would have died in vain. If this man had been genuine, he would have known that. The Father had only given the law so that we might come to the end of ourselves and know that we needed someone to rescue us. Any genuine pursuit of the law would have led this man to the same conclusion.
Does that mean he was lying? Not necessarily. Though he had not kept the law, what was most critical in this exchange was that he genuinely thought he had. Since he was a little child he had worked hard to keep the law, in hopes of earning his place in God’s kingdom.
For him to think he had kept the law, however, he had to recreate it in his own image. In other words he would have created loopholes in his mind to justify those portions he had not kept, perhaps only focusing on major parts of the law such as murder and adultery and excusing his own hate, lust, or selfishness.
By his own desperation we know he had missed the point. The fact that he was still seeking eternal life made it clear that he hadn’t found it yet, nor was he confident that his current course would produce it. He wanted something more to do.
This man was steeped in his own works. That was evident by the question he had asked at the outset. The “I” and the “do” gave him away—“What must I do…?” He was focused on himself, his ability and resources; trying so hard to earn what Jesus wanted to give him.
How Jesus wanted him to understand that! Mark specifically mentions that Jesus looked on him with deep affection. What did he see? Did he see a little boy trying to be perfect as the only way to earn his father’s affirmation? Did he see the years of fruitless labor this man had endured? Could he see the twisted motives he used to justify himself and maintain his illusion of righteousness? Did he see the gnawing in the young man’s stomach, born of his obsessive drive to perfection that was destroying him from within?
Probably he saw all that and more, and Jesus wanted him to see it too. His next response seems on the surface to be one of Jesus’ most insensitive comments: “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” On hearing the words, the businessman’s countenance fell. Unable to do that, he walked away in grief.
How often I’ve taught this parable, and with unwitting arrogance, railed at the rich man’s inability to do what Jesus asked of him. He was too greedy to follow Jesus, I had said. He loved his money more than God and now he would pay for it.
But, honestly, was that the point? Who would have come to this kingdom if those were the terms? When I first went forward at a Billy Graham crusade all I was asked to do was repent and believe in him. If he’d asked me to sell everything I owned and give it to the poor, I doubt I would have gone forward. I doubt anyone else would have either. In fact I’ve never met one person who ever came to Christ on those terms nor many who would stay if he required it of them today!
To condemn the man for not doing so is not only arrogant of us, but misses Jesus’ point entirely. He was not offering the man the opportunity to buy his salvation. He only wanted him to discover what his attempts to keep the law already should have—that he didn’t have enough in himself to meet any standard of qualification for God’s life.
RAISING THE BAR
Coaches don’t train young high jumpers by putting the bar at world-record height and challenging them to try and jump it. They put it at a height their charges can successfully achieve and then, over the course of time, slowly raise the bar allowing refined technique, practice and conditioning to help them jump higher.
But Jesus doesn’t do that here. Responding to the rich man’s request, Jesus puts the bar forty feet in the air. Jump that! And the rich businessman did exactly what any athlete would do, he went away discouraged, knowing the task was impossible.
The man understood the lesson, but missed the point. Jesus wasn’t trying to be mean to him. He raised the bar beyond the man’s ability to get over it precisely because Jesus wanted him to stop trying. The gift he offered the man was to be free of the incredible burden of having to earn God’s love by his own efforts. He was caught in his own doing and Jesus was trying to free him.
He was hoping the young man would look him in the eye and say, “I can’t do that!” To which Jesus might have answered, “Good, then stop doing all the other silly things you’re trying to do to earn God’s favor. Stop striving, stop pretending, stop trying to earn that which you can never earn!”
Jesus didn’t want him living any longer under the tyranny of the favor line, but he knew how difficult it is for people of great resource to find their way into his kingdom. Such people always feel like they can earn it or pay for it. They are too focused on their own efforts and resources to simply receive God’s gift.
His dependence on his own resources was robbing him of the life he sought. No matter how much he could do, such efforts would never cover the empty place in their heart that seeks God’s approval. For it’s only in that realization that we can discover what it really means to be approved as God’s child and find security in his love for us.
That’s not to say that as we love him he won’t bring us greater freedom from our possessions and show us the joy of generosity, for he will. But that will rise not out of our attempts to earn his favor, but as grateful responses to the favor he already offers us.
Even when Peter started to boast that he and the others had left everything to follow him, Jesus reminds him that none of them had left anything that he wasn’t replacing with far more and far better. The fact is they had left their stuff not to earn eternal life, but because of a relationship with Jesus that had captured their hearts.
Sadly, we don’t get to see the end for this young businessman. My hope is that Jesus’ words finally worked through his heart. But whether they did or didn’t, Jesus still offered him an incredible gift—the secret to God’s favor.
“LORD, HAVE MERCY!”
As Jesus was departing Jericho a few days later for his final walk up the barren heights to the city of Jerusalem, another man wanted his help. This man was a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road. He heard a great commotion around him, he wanted to know what it was. Someone told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing through on his way to Jerusalem for the feast.
Bartimaeus had already heard enough about this teacher from Galilee to know that he had the power to help him. He began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
People nearby were embarrassed by his shouts and sternly told him to keep quiet. He was only a beggar after all, why would Jesus care about him? But that only made Bartimaeus cry even louder and above all the other noise Jesus heard him. He had Bartimaeus brought to him and he made his request. “I want to regain my sight.”
Notice that he did not ask what he needed to do to see again. He did not barter based on any qualification he might have to make him worthy. He simply put all of his confidence in the mercy of the man from God.
And that was enough.
Jesus didn’t ask him to sell all he had. Jesus healed him and noted that Bartimaeus’ simple focus was all that was needed. “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Not only did he receive healing, but salvation as well.
Jesus did not love the beggar more than the businessman, nor did he give to one and not the other. For he graciously gave to both of them. It’s just that one recognized it and one did not and the difference between the two contains all we need to know to find life in God.
Jesus didn’t want the disciples to miss that point. Even before he had left on this journey he had told them a parable that these encounters had illustrated perfectly. He told of a Pharisee and a tax collector entering the temple. The Pharisee delighted in his righteousness—how he was more committed than anyone else he knew. He even puffed himself up at the expense of the tax collector praying nearby, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people… even like this tax collector.”
That’s what living by our own works produces. Since we’ll never be good enough on our own we will seek to justify ourselves by being better than most other believers around us. To create that façade we have to focus on their weaknesses and hold them in contempt. Any time we set ourselves above others, we only demonstrate how little we understand God’s mercy.
The tax-collector on the other hand was not even willing to look up to heaven, but beat his chest praying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Then Jesus asked which one went home justified? The answer was obvious, as obvious as Jesus’ encounter with the businessman and the beggar.
When you are tempted to stake your relationship with God on your own goodness or your sacrifice, don’t even try. Picture the bar so high that you’ll never find a way to clear it. Approach God on the basis of your own efforts and you will always go away disappointed and disillusioned. But that is not bad news.
What it means is that God has fulfilled in himself everything he would ever require of us. Abandoning our own attempts to establish our own worthiness is central to the power of the gospel. Learn that and a door stands before you that will lead you to the very heart of a loving Father. This is the way to know that he delights over you with joy, and is able to transform you into the fullness of his glory.
He absolutely, completely loves you. Discovering how much will revolutionize your relationship to him and your life in this world.
But go and learn what this means:
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.