Christianity’s message of a holy lifestyle and forgiveness makes sense for “real” sinners – murderers, thieves, jerks, etc. But what about the “good people”? Why must they bother with religion?
I never really knew what to say in response. I could appeal to “sins of the heart” – pride, lust, anger, selfishness – but I could already hear the objections in my head: Are those really that bad? Doesn’t everyone commit those sins?
Yesterday, however, I realized that Jesus addressed this mindset when he spoke to the rich young ruler:
“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?’
‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”‘
‘Teacher,’ he declared, all these I have kept since I was a boy.’
Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow me.
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around him and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!'” (Mark 10:17-23; cf. Mathew 19:16-24, Luke 18:18-25)
If we take the rich young ruler at his word, we cannot help but agree that he was a good person – law-abiding, honest, and respectful. He did not abuse his position of power; he was fair; he was, in short, a model citizen.
Yet one thing he lacked; he needed to sell all of his possessions. We are not told exactly why. Perhaps he was greedy and overly ambitious. Perhaps he was excessively indulgent. Or perhaps he was like most of us wealthy people today: perhaps he was simply complacent.
But Jesus, why get hung up on the one thing he lacked? Why not look at all the good things he didn’t lack? Isn’t that unreasonable? Aren’t you taking this too far?
It is, I suppose, a possibility that Jesus did not handle the rich young ruler’s situation fairly. But I find it far more likely that Jesus told him exactly what he needed to hear.
True, the rich young ruler was honest and law-abiding. But why not be, when he already had food, shelter, and more? To his credit, he had been respectful to his parents – but they, in all likelihood, had pampered him as a child. He may not have been a “real” sinner – but he also had no “real” reason to sin.
What about me, Joseph Porter, the author of this post? Why am I a sinner? I’ve never smoked or done drugs. I’ve drunk alcohol a few times, but legally and in moderation. I do well in school. I don’t have a rap sheet. What’s the big fuss?
Yet it is hardly to my credit that I don’t do drugs, when I scarcely have the desire to do anything of the sort. I cannot claim that I avoided stealing because of my impressive moral fortitude. Rather, I never needed to steal; it was never a serious temptation. (Of course, I have succumbed to most of the sins that are tempting.)
What if I had grown up in different circumstances? What would I have been like then – a thief or a drug addict? What if I had grown up in Nazi Germany? Would I have been one of the very, very few who took a stand against Hitler? Or would I have just gone with the flow?
Perhaps Christianity wouldn’t change your life that much. Congratulations! (Seriously.) Thank your parents for raising you well and providing for you. You well may be a pretty good person. Thank God! You might only lack one thing.
But that one thing you lack? It’s probably the one thing that is hardest for you to give up. For me, it’s pride. My pride is horrible and repugnant and disgusting (though I’m excellent at rationalizing it away.) I need to give it up. Who cares if I haven’t murdered or stolen? I have everything I need! It’d be stupid to murder or steal.
Unfortunately, I don’t just lack one thing, but many. I have a lot to work on. And if you’re honest with yourself, I think you’ll realize that you’re probably in the same boat – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
How would your life change if you became a Christian? If you already love your enemies (cf. Matthew 5:43-48), turn the other cheek (cf. Matthew 5:38-42), avoid lust (cf. Matthew 5:27-30), never lie (cf. Matthew 5:33-37), care for the sick and feed the hungry (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), humble yourself (cf. James 4:10), and lay down your life for your brothers (cf. 1 John 3:16), then maybe Christianity wouldn’t change your life that much. But if you’re like me and the rest of humanity, I imagine that Jesus would tell you what he told the rich young ruler: “One thing you lack.”