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Sometimes Jesus Lets People Walk Away

Many of our problems in living for Jesus stem from the root problem that we think we can do it. We assume we have the power. So we set about trying to push the camel through the eye of a needle.

But understanding the impossibility is the first step to obedience.

This is the true freedom of what it means to be a Christian: honestly facing up to the impossibility of my own obedience, which leads me not to despair but to the God who is able to do all things.

Man Who Thinks He Can

Mark doesn’t tell us much about the individual in Mark 10:17; he simply introduces us to “a man”:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The man gets a couple of things right.

He wants to know what he needs to do to be part of God’s great kingdom. It’s good that he’s bothered about God’s kingdom—he can see that it really matters. God is bringing all things in this world together under his appointed King, Jesus. That is God’s plan for the world, and this anonymous man wants to know how to get in on it.

And it’s good that he comes to Jesus. Clearly he’s understood that there’s something about Jesus that’s significant.

Many of our problems in living for Jesus stem from the root problem that we think we can do it. We assume we have the power.

The man cares about the right thing. He even comes to the right place.

But he’s got one thing wrong. He wants to know what he has to do. He has a high view of his own ability, a lot of confidence in his power to obey.

So that is where Jesus starts:

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” (Mark 10:18–19)

Jesus points the man to God as the ultimate standard of good and then begins to list the commandments. The man is completely unperturbed:

Teacher . . . all these I have kept since I was a boy. (Mark 10:20)

He has worked hard; he has kept the rules; he has tried his best. It all looks good.

But Jesus sees things differently.

Love

The next sentence is key: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This is the only man in the whole of Mark’s Gospel whom we are explicitly told Jesus loved. And that’s striking given what the love of Jesus looks like in this story.

This is the only man in Mark’s Gospel whom we are explicitly told Jesus loved.

Jesus loves this man too much to allow him to continue in his self-deluded little world of sweat, hard work, and determination. He’s not willing to stroke the man’s ego and tell him how wonderful he is. Instead, Jesus issues a command.

It’s not hard to understand what Jesus is saying. He’s not being vague and unspecific. But this one command undermines the whole foundation on which the man has built his life. Here’s the command:

“One thing you lack,” [Jesus] said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

No room for negotiation, no room for confusion. Here’s what Jesus requires of this man: He must sell everything.

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:22)

The man slowly turns around and starts to walk away. Only at this point in the story does Mark tell us the critical piece of information about this man—he had great wealth.

Jesus demands it all. That is the command, and there is no budging. It’s not just a hard command. It’s impossible, and it was supposed to be.

It’s a poignant moment. Jesus loves the man—and he lets him walk away. Does that surprise you? Jesus doesn’t chase after the man and lower the bar. He doesn’t negotiate and settle on a figure that the man would be willing to give.

Jesus demands it all. That is the command, and there is no budging.

It’s not just a hard command. It’s impossible, and it was supposed to be.

Bar Too High

Why would Jesus set the bar so impossibly high? Why would he demand something that can’t be done? Not because he’s cruel and harsh, but precisely because he is love.

The man had reduced God’s commands to something he could achieve. He had a view of God’s Word that assumed its commands were within his power. Yes, I can do that.

The right response to Christ’s command would’ve been to fall on his knees and, with a quivering voice, say, “I can’t do it.” Only then—with his self-confidence in tatters and his heart exposed—would he be ready to receive the kingdom of God like a little kid (Mark 10:15).

‘I Can’t Do It’

They can be hard words to say, can’t they? But they’re essential to learn.

Jesus loves us far too much to stroke our egos and tell us how fabulous we are. Instead, he issues commands far beyond our ability to obey in order to drive us to him.

Jesus loves us far too much to stroke our egos and tell us how fabulous we are. Instead, he issues commands that are far beyond our ability to obey in order to drive us to him.

Think back to what Jesus said to the rich young man. When we hear, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” we can quickly react: Of course he doesn’t mean I should do that. That would be ridiculous and impractical. He was only talking to that man. He just means I should be more generous. Yes, I think I can manage to be a bit more generous. I will try and give a bit more money this week. Great—well done me.

And that’s precisely the problem. We think we can do it. We find a solution to the problem of obeying the commands—but we aren’t obeying him at all.

Instead, stop and feel the weight of the commands Jesus gives. Feel the way money holds power over your heart. Let Jesus’s challenge expose you. Every command found in the pages of Scripture will have that effect if you stop and listen. No, it doesn’t feel comfortable; no, it doesn’t give you warm fuzzies about how great you are. But it is there, in that place of weakness, that you will truly learn to whisper those two little words: I can’t.

And that admission honors God more than you will ever know. It’s the first step on the road to joyful, deep, and satisfying obedience.

Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from Jonty Allcock’s new book, Impossible Commands: How to Obey God When It Seems That You Can’t (The Good Book Co., 2019).

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