It's the season of Lent, that time in the church calendar when we prepare our hearts and minds to dwell on the sacrifice of Jesus, and celebrate His ascension.
Today, as part of your daily or weekly devotions, I want to invite you to meditate on the story of the Rich Young Ruler, recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is how the story goes in the Gospel of Matthew (19:16-22):
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Oftentimes, this story is taught as a way to warn against dependence on and attachment to material possessions. But today, in the context of Lent, I want to challenge us to go a little deeper. This is a story, at its core, that is about where our devotion lies--what has captured our hearts.
You see, the rich young ruler was mostly concerned with doing all the right things. He wanted to live a good life before God, and he was succeeding! He tried to obey the commandments, love God, and love others. In many ways, this rich young ruler was probably a lot like the average church-goer today. He had good intentions, he wanted to learn, and he believed he was mostly on the right track.
Yet there is something about Jesus that pokes holes in our self-understanding. He has a way of piercing to the deepest parts of our souls and exposing what we have never seen in ourselves, or have tried to avoid seeing. This is what he does to the rich young man with one command: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
The rich young man, for once, has nothing to say in response. He walks away, astounded and saddened. Why?
The rich young man excelled at checking off what he had to do for God, but lacked the love that would make him willing to give up anything! Jesus saw that this man was in danger of turning even love for God into something to do, rather than a state of the heart. It wasn't until Jesus suggested something that would radically shake up his life--to sell all his possessions, leave, and follow Jesus--that the true nature of his devotion was exposed.
You see, walking with God is not just about keeping commandments; it's about what has captured our hearts, where our devotion truly lies. And sometimes, we can't accurately pinpoint what we are devoted to until we are asked to give something up for Him. The rich young ruler's heart was challenged when he was asked to give up all his possessions. Sacrifice is the most powerful litmus test for our love for God and our love for others.
That's what Lent is all about. In many Christian traditions, people decide to give up something for the duration of Lent that typically may distract them or cause them to live a life less focused on Jesus-- ranging from sweets to fried food to social media. This is a great practice because, like the Rich Young Ruler, we confront our heart's unwillingness to give up something simply for the sake of relationship with God.
As life goes on we become entangled in our daily rhythms to the point that we can no longer see their power over us. We are so accustomed to the daily comforts of running water and hot showers, good food and great restaurants, smartphones and social media. We are accustomed to the point that these things, all our material indulgences, feel like necessities. It is only when we are confronted by the possibility of giving them up--and our hearts become defensive, resistant, scared or saddened--that we truly see how much clutter we have in our spirits.
I don't believe that God is asking us to give up all modern ways of living and become strange hermits. I am saying that we are called as Christians to hold everything in our lives with loose hands, even the things that seem indispensable, knowing that they are only lent to us for the short duration of our life. The harder we hold on to the things in our lives, the more tightly clenched our hands, the less room we give God in our hearts.
It's sombering that Jesus reminded us it's not just possessions that can get in the way of loving God radically, with our whole hearts. In one of the more unsettling verses to read, he said, "If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26, NLT). Yikes! Jesus is not saying we should actually hate our families. But He IS saying that in comparisonwith how much we love God, our love for even the most important people in our life should look like hate!
As a daily heart practice, someone once challenged me to ask,
"Could I give this up for the sake of Jesus? If God asked me to, would I lay down this possession, career, relationship etc. for Him?"
The amazing thing is that when we are most surrendered, when we are most willing to give it all for God, is often when God will bless us the most. In other words, when our finances are most surrendered to God, when we are faithfully tithing and trusting, we often experience the greatest peace and abundance. When our marriages are most surrendered to God, we give up feeling like we have to control the other person, and we experience a greater measure of love in return.
It is one of the greatest secrets of the Kingdom of God that the more we unclench the fists of our hearts and hold all that we have with loose hands, the more freed up we are to receive from Him! We can never receive with closed hands.
Take some time to pray and think about your daily habits.
-What do you turn to first thing in the morning? When you're having a bad day?
-Is there any possession, habit, or activity you can identify that makes you defensive, afraid, or anxious to give up?
Take some time to confess these things to God and ask Him to reveal more areas in your heart or life that may be hindering your unfiltered devotion to Him.
I challenge you to join me and take some time and space to "clear out the clutter" in our hearts this Lenten season by returning to this confession together!