One of the most frustrating experiences is knowing that someone wants something from you but you don’t know what it is. Expectations without clarity can create tremendous anxiety.
I was once hired as an associate pastor at a church and was told that my job was to make sure that the senior pastor didn’t burnout. But what did that mean? What did they want me to do? How would I know if I was being successful? I was there a year before I could finally negotiate some sort of general job description and list of duties. It was a less than enjoyable time of ministry.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a parent of two children with autism is the communication barriers. Children with autism, like all people, have things that they want or need. However, for some it can be difficult to express what those needs are. Many of the meltdowns that they had were not because they were cranky children but were based on the frustration they experienced of wanting something and not being able to explain that need to us. We felt terrible knowing that they wanted something but we had no idea of what it was.
What does God want from us? Have you ever wondered about that? What if God had certain expectations of us? It would be a problem if we didn’t know exactly what that was. My story includes a period of moving from being an atheist to being a theist, but not yet being a Christian. I was convinced that God existed but I had no idea what he wanted from me. I knew that he wanted something and I was pretty sure I was not what he wanted but I didn’t know what that was. It was a terrible time in my life. I felt frustration about this disconnect between myself and God. If only there was a way to know what God wanted.
I would suggest that the Bible is our way to know what God wants. Of course the Bible is a long book and I’m not suggesting that you have to read every verse from Genesis to Revelation to know what God wants for us. It is in the ministry of Jesus, the one who is both God and human that we find the clearest description for what God wants for us. And we are going to focus on one particular story that nicely presents what God wants. But we might not like the answer.
Rich Young Ruler
Jesus was known for attracting the poor and the rejected of society. But that was not all that were interested in Jesus. People in every area of life, rich or poor, influential or marginal, have very real needs and are looking for answers. That is why the man, whom we have come to know as the rich young ruler. This is actually a combination of descriptions from the different accounts. Only Matthew’s version says that he was young, only Luke’s version says he was a ruler but Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that he was rich. Notice that this description epitomizes what we value in a person: wealth, youth and influence. If ever there was a person who was coming from a position of strength, it was this man.
This man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. In other words, he wanted to know what God expected of him. Whatever criticism we may have of the rich young ruler, we have to acknowledge that he asked the right question. This is an important question that people have wrestled with for centuries and he was asking the right person. If anyone knew the answer to this question, it would be the Son of God.
We may or may not be surprised at Jesus’ answer. Jesus points toward the Ten Commandments, although he only names five of them. This could suggest that we can find eternal life simply be keeping the Ten Commandments, or at least half of them. However, if we look carefully at Jesus’ conversations with people, he rarely gives straightforward answers. Often Jesus answers a question with a question. So when Jesus mentions these commandments, we should suspect that he has more in mind than simple rule keeping.
The man was not just successful in his public life, he was someone who was successful in his religious life. He was familiar with the commandments and he was diligent in keeping them. But if he thought that was enough, he would never have asked the question of Jesus.
That’s when Jesus drops the big bomb. What this man really needs to do is to sell all he has, give it to the poor and then come and follow Jesus. This was something the man couldn’t do.
We have to ask why Jesus said this to this man. Is it because one cannot be a Christian and have personal possessions? That doesn’t seem to be the case and there are plenty of examples of people who are devoted followers of Jesus who don’t do this. We will soon look at the example of Zacchaeus who offers to give away half of his possessions and is not corrected by Jesus. It seems that this was the specific weakness of this man. Luke doesn’t tell us that the man was rich until we see his reaction to Jesus’ demand. It was wealth that had a hold on his heart and he couldn’t follow Jesus until he let go of his first love. We will look deeper at this within our own context.
God’s Expectations For Us
First of all, we need to ask the same question as the rich young ruler. We need to go to Jesus and ask what we must do to inherit eternal life, we must ask Jesus what God really wants from us. We will want to immediately jump in, even before Jesus responds, and say that we already know what God wants and that is faith. If we only believe, we have everything we need. However, the biblical concept of faith is far richer than simple beliefs about God. The New Testament tells us that even the demons believe in God, but that doesn’t help them. So let’s stop and let Jesus answer for himself.
What if Jesus gives us the same answer as he gave the rich young ruler? Does that mean that we have to sell all our possessions? Perhaps, but not necessarily. What was it that Jesus really said to the man? It came down to giving up what was most valued by him and then follow Jesus. So we need to ask what it is that really has a hold of our hearts? It may be money but it may be something else. I read the story of a young man who was raised as a Muslim but came to be convinced of the truth of Christianity. His fear was not that physical harm would come if he converted but the disappointment his parents would experience if he became a follower of Jesus. He eventually accepted Jesus, but to do that he had to let go of his parents’ approval as the thing that had his heart. It could be absolutely anything that stands in the way of becoming a follower of Jesus. In my early twenties I found my identity as a partier and a heavy drinker. When I gave that up, I had to deal with a lot of teasing by my drinking buddies because my decision just didn’t make sense to them.
Why is this so important? Think back to a time before you were married. You get engaged to a special someone but they inform you that they want keep their previous boyfriend or girlfriend even after getting married. That probably wouldn’t go over that well.
If we are going to make Jesus our Lord, then he is our Lord. We can’t have two lords. What God wants for us is not for us to tag a little Jesus onto the rest of our life. God wants us to become radical followers of Jesus, going in with our whole heart.
This may sound like we are just talking about how one becomes a Christian but it goes farther than that. Competitors to Jesus keep trying to sneak in. A number of years ago I became quite sick and was convinced that I was dying. Suddenly things in my life that I thought were so important were seen for what they were. I was forced into a position where all I had was my faith. Even my family, which is one of the most important things to me, was in danger of being lost to me. All I had was Jesus. I got my family back and my health. But that experience changed me.
The rich young ruler asked and important question but received an answer that didn’t make him happy. He had riches and his wealth was something that was very valuable to him, it had a hold of his heart. Jesus was not prepared to share his heart with wealth and so it had to go. The rich young ruler was not prepared to pay that price.
What does God want from us? We might not like the answer. It’s more than a little religion. God wants us to be complete followers of Jesus. This means, that whatever else has a hold on our hearts has to be let go. This does not mean we can’t have families and homes and bank accounts. But it does mean that we give full devotion to Jesus and all of those other things, as valuable as they might be, have to be submitted to Jesus. Can we pay that price?