“You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Epistemologists and philosophers, if not the rest of us, understand Christ’s statement as nothing short of a bold claim and would immediately echo Pontius Pilate’s most serious query: “What is truth?” In our modern, post-enlightenment age, an age steeped in rationalism and naturalism, truth is viewed as more or less objective statements about the world around us. More specifically, religious truth is taken to be about dogmatics and theology. Christendom takes this to its illogical conclusion: to know right doctrine is to know God.
Perhaps the most potent argument that modern Christianity puts great stock in truth and the knowledge of God being about doctrine stems from the concept of heresy. Heretics are not tolerated in the church. Plain and simple. In a previous age, heretics were burned at the stake or hung or drowned or otherwise tortured and killed. Today, it is more likely that heretics will be shunned, cast out of the fold, marginalized. Ultimately, they will surely go to hell. Protecting and preserving doctrine is essential, for if the truth is lost, then all is lost, because, not only would right understanding suffer, but there can be no relationship with God without right doctrine. Thus, heretics cannot know God. We need not even mention Jews and Muslims.
What makes me suspicious about all this is something Jesus said one day to the scribes and Pharisees, those to whom Eugene Peterson refers as “religion scholars” in The Message. The implication of such a designation is that these people were very well informed about Jewish doctrine. Yet, Jesus said to them, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” How many people have been locked out of the kingdom of heaven because they do not subscribe to a particular doctrine, no matter how important that doctrine might be? Is God nothing more than the sum of all doctrines? Does relating to God require absorbing, and correctly relating to, doctrine?
The mostly enigmatic story of the rich, young ruler in Mark 10 provides insight on these questions.
Briefly, the story depicts a nameless young man of no small means who approaches Jesus to discover from him the route to eternal life. When asked if he had kept all the Law, the young man immediately affirms that he had done so from his youth. Without arguing the point, Jesus tells him that if he wants eternal life, he must sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow him. The young man finds this to be an impossible hurdle. He goes home empty-handed and grieving.
This story raises serious questions about Jesus’ capabilities as an evangelist. From an evangelical perspective, it is inexplicable that Jesus did not present the Four Spiritual Laws or the Roman Road or the Bridge illustration. The young man asked the most important question that a person can possibly pose, but there was no direct answer, no clear statement about the path to salvation. Jesus did not say, “Put your faith in me as your Messiah.” He did not say, as he had done with so many others, “Follow me,” with no disheartening caveats. It appears that Jesus utterly failed at demonstrating to his disciples, gathered ’round that day, how a person effectively communicates the message of salvation to a dying world. Surely, for the benefit of the millions upon millions who would read this story for the next two millennia, Jesus could have come up with a straightforward answer to the question for this young man.
I believe that he did.
The young man from the story wanted what we all want: just tell me what I need to do to get to heaven. The young man became instantly optimistic when Jesus asked him about his level of performance with regard to the Ten Commandments. Murder: check. Adultery: check. Theft: check. Bearing false witness: check. Defrauding: check. Honoring parents: check.
There is a question about Jesus’ next step, though. Most evangelicals that I know believe that when Jesus told the man that gaining eternal life would require selling all he owned, he was putting an impassable barrier in the young man’s way so that he would understand that only God is good and that people can always be shown to be moral failures at some point. By this means, Jesus would help this man to recognize his need for a Savior. There is considerable temptation to believe that the Law is central to the conversation. Admittedly, Jesus’ last statement was framed as yet another task to check off, if possible. The whole scenario is commonly read like a legal transaction: “If you want eternal life, here’s what you need to do. When you fail, and you will, you’ll need a Savior.” Jesus’ putative effort to point out this young man’s moral failure with regard to the Law represents the work of a judge. This conclusion is reflexive for many people because seeing God as a judge is so natural.
Understanding the story of the rich, young ruler as being about morality and moral failure strikes me as being, not just legalistic, but unbecoming of the God whom I know. It is not about a legal transaction in which one party has a contractual (covenantal) duty to a second party and, in the event of failure to fulfill the contract, the second party is prepared to forgive the accumulated debt of the first party. This is a story about God’s heart and the distance He will go to draw people to Himself. It’s a story about how our brokenness, a seriously damaged ability to see and hear, keeps us from union with God. It’s a story about a Shepherd leaving the flock behind to desperately search for His one lost sheep, a Lover longing for His beloved.
Jesus’ directive to the young man did not derive solely from a deep understanding of the doctrine of salvation, and the clarity that doctrine yields as to exactly what the young man had to do to acquire eternal life. The Scripture tells us that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Wow! God Almighty looked at a man and loved him! This is not an instance of God loving the whole world, in general. He looked at one man, and loved him. What Jesus told this man was essentially this: “I love you more than you can imagine and I want you with me, now and forever. But I can see that you value your possessions more than you value Me. It’s your choice, but you must know that I want you more than anything.” As the man walks away, I can see Jesus weeping.
In the same way, God looks at me, at me!, and loves me! And He says to me, as Christ said to Peter on the beach, “Do you love me more than these?” I do not know the honest answer to the question in some key areas in my life. But God does, and He is guiding me to the truth. You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free: do you love Me more than these? Truth is about love.
Jesus told the rich, young ruler that, if he wanted eternal life, he would have to sell all he owned. To have said anything else would have betrayed his love for the man. Jesus wanted for the young man what he, himself, had: unity with the Father. Though the young man had kept the Law from his youth and had enough faith to approach Jesus, he still lacked something crucial: a sense of how very much God wanted him. What Jesus knew is that the man’s wealth had trapped him, enslaved him. He would not be able to perceive and experience God’s love for him until he got rid of what he loved most. A simple prayer of faith would not suffice. Asking Jesus into his heart would accomplish nothing. Sell it all. Now we’re talking.
Every one of us has things in our lives that keep us away from God. “Becoming a Christian” does not solve this problem. Like the rich, young ruler, the rest of us want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want our “stuff” but we want God at the same time. In fact, in our day, there is a strong tendency to believe that if we “have God in our lives,” we will be blessed with more “stuff”: health, money, homes, cars, jobs, sex, hobbies, prestige, honor, education. Jesus knew better. He frequently used the metaphor of blindness to describe the effect of created things on our inner life. Other metaphors apply. Our “stuff” weighs us down; it entangles us. We “play the harlot” with it. In a real, non-metaphorical sense, love of our “stuff” takes away our freedom, the freedom to use created things without falling in love with them (lusting for them). As soon as we begin to love created things, love for God is diminished. Jesus put it far more bluntly: “You can’t worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you’ll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can’t worship God and Money both.” Here, Jesus refers to money, but the concept applies to any created thing.
“You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The truth in view here is not referring to an exhaustive understanding of systematic theology. Evangelicals frequently admit this concept: Knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God. Truth is about love and love presupposes freedom. God has given us freedom to love but, if sin has an essence, a kernel, it is that we love creation more than we love the Creator. What Jesus tells us through the story of the rich, young ruler is that there can be no love of God without freedom from the love of created things. That is the truth that will make you free and, as if in an iterative process, “freedom brings forth truth.”1 Freedom comes only as I learn to love God more than I love anything else. The more free I am, the better I am able to see life for what it really is and God for who He really is, and then the more free I become.
This sounds good on paper, but A.W. Tozer had a good sense for the extent of the problem: “The roots of our hearts have grown down into things, and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die.” Jesus’ instruction to the rich, young ruler sounds harsh and uncaring, but God could never be anything but good. Herein lies my sin: I do not believe God. I, for one, wish that the story of the rich, young ruler did not apply to me. Jesus’ interaction with the young man was tailored to his situation, providing a backdoor out of which we might be tempted to slip. “I’m not rich or powerful.” “I’m not Jewish.” “I asked Jesus into my life.” Before we make our escape, though, Jesus generalizes his comment to the rich, young ruler when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Communicating the depth of the issue at stake requires nothing less than the horrifying image of a crucifix. As Jesus would later experience personally, when you carry a cross, you can carry nothing else but God.
Carrying a cross is too hard. Denying myself seems an impossible goal. Forsaking my “stuff” so I can have God is heavily laced with fear. There must be a better way. The rich, young ruler thought that keeping the Law was sufficient. We Christians have a more enlightened plan: learn doctrine. Learn about God. Fill your mind with good teaching. Read books. Listen to sermons. Complete Bible study workbooks. Join a small group in your church. If you do this, make certain you know what you are doing: “Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.”1 Focusing on doctrine is the best way to keep God at arm’s length.
We all have a choice to make between having God and having the created things that we have convinced ourselves make our lives worthwhile. It is a choice between truth and freedom and having fun with our stuff and slavery. What’ll it be? We cannot have our cake and eat it, too. Do we want the truth, or don’t we?
So, what do we want? Yes, what do we want? What do we really want?
1 S. Kierkegaard, Provocations