When I first returned to God and faith after a long time-out, I expected everything about me to be radically transformed as a result of my conversion. Once I claimed my faith, I assumed I would become A Topnotch Christian.
I was quickly disabused of that notion.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that although I’d proclaimed my faith in God, I was still the same flawed, fallible person I’d always been: prone to judge, glass half-empty, quick-tempered, impatient (I could go on).
For a while my solution to this dilemma was simply to work harder. I strove to pray more often; to worship more authentically; to love even the most irritating people; to be positive and grateful; to follow all the rules.
You can probably guess how that worked out.
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16, my italics) the rich man asked Jesus. I believe the rich man’s intentions were mostly good when he asked Jesus this question. I believe he truly wanted to prove his faith and thought he needed to do something to make that happen.
Exasperated by the rich man’s badgering, Jesus set him straight. “If you want to be perfect,” he said, “sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come back and follow me.” (19:21)
Of course this wasn’t what the rich man wanted to hear, and so he slunk away, unwilling to release his tight-fisted grip on his worldly possessions.
On one level, this story is clearly about the fact that the rich man valued his money over a true relationship with God. Yet I also think Jesus has a deeper message for us in this story, specifically in these six words: “If you want to be perfect…” (19:21)
Jesus knew he was asking the impossible of the rich man, not only because the man was unwilling to part with his possessions, but also because achieving perfection via our own merit is simply impossible.
The truth is, no matter how diligently we follow the rules, no matter how ambitiously we strive to live like Jesus, we will always fail. No matter how hard we work to earn our eternal salvation, we will always fall short.
Perfection is impossible.
It sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? That was certainly the disciples’ reaction when they heard the conversation between Jesus and the rich man. “Who in the world can be saved then?” (19:25) they asked Jesus.
Jesus’ answer to his dismayed disciples is the deeper lesson in this story: “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (19:26, italics mine)
The answer, in a word, to the question of how in the world we can be saved, is grace.
This story about Jesus and the rich man is, at its core, a lesson about grace.
Humanly speaking, it’s impossible for us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven on our own merit. But with God, the possibilities are endless. God’s grace makes us pure and unblemished in his eyes.
Grace is the exception to the rule. Grace is the exception to the impossible.