John Quincy Adams held more important offices than anyone else in the history of the United States. He served with distinction as President, Senator, Congressman, and minister to major European powers. He participated in various capacities in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and events leading to the Civil War. Yet, at age 70, with much of that behind him, he wrote, “My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success in anything that I ever undertook.” Sadly, this sentiment is felt by many people. We go through life, limping along from one task to the next. And when we reflect on our lives we often feel we have left much to be desired. It is this feeling of disappointment that drives many people away from the faith. Some go through life overwhelmed by a feeling unworthiness. Many do not believe that God will forgive them, or that they will never measure up to the standards that God has set for his people. And because of this, they don’t see a need in continuing the journey.
Then there are some, like the rich young man in Matthew 19, who are very dedicated to fulfilling the commands of God. But it seems that some of the distractions of life get in the way of fully committing to God. In Matthew 19 we read,
“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. And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (16-26).
In this story, we see how life often transitions for people. In this story, we see the process that many go through as they move from living for the moment to a deeper understanding of the commitment to which God calls his people. In this story, we see a young man who has everything going for him. He’s young. He’s rich. He’s religious. He’s got everything going for him. But Jesus has a way of cutting to the heart of our struggles, doesn’t he? I’ve wrestled with this passage throughout my years of study and ministry. On the surface, this seems like such an easy story to understand. But I think there’s more going on here than a simple cursory reading will reveal. The question I have with regard to the young man’s encounter with Jesus is “Why, after receiving an answer from Jesus to his initial question, does the young man ask, ‘What do I still lack?’” I suppose it is possible that he was hoping, or maybe expecting Jesus to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” But Jesus knows the difficulties we have in our spiritual journey. In John 2:24-25, the Bible says, “Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in man.” You see, Jesus cuts through all the smoke-screen that many people live in and gets to the heart of the matter.
James was a man who believed in action. He believed that a person confessing to be a follower of Christ should act like it. And in his letter, James emphasized the kind of behavior that exemplifies a Christian. As he begins, James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). James is urging Christians to recognize the faithfulness of God. As we experience difficulties in life, it’s challenging to hold on to our faith. We begin to ask questions like: “God, where were you when…?”, “God, how could this happen?”, “God, why would you let this happen?” But let’s be clear, it’s not a sin to ask those questions. It’s human nature to seek answers to these and other basic questions of life. But we must not let our questioning detract from the reality that God is always in control. Even when dark clouds hide the face of the sun for a moment, the sun is always there. And the same is true with God. When the storms of life hide the face of God, it’s important to remember that God is still there. Our charge is to continue walking, stepping forward with God as he leads us through our struggles.
Warren Wiersbe writes, “Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to count it all joy! If we live only for the present and forget about the future, the trials will make us bitter, not better.” Life’s going to shovel dirt on us, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a stepping stone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, by never giving up. James says, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” But it doesn’t end with perseverance. Worked into the very fiber of our being should be a desire to listen. But to whose voice are we to listen? The world would say, “Listen to the voice of society, the voice of culture.” But James says we are to listen to the word of God. He says this word has been planted in us, and it can save us. But again, it doesn’t end with listening.
James was a man who believed in action. He believed that being a follower of Christ meant more than simply sitting back as if we were spectators at the opera just waiting for the show to end so that we could give our proper applause and return to our homes again. James believed that we ought to be people of action, allowing our faith in God, love for God, and devotion to God to be evident. He says,
“Don’t merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:22-25).
A life of service is what Christ calls us to. Jesus told the disciples, and effectively us, “For I have given you an example…” (John 13:15). What a great opportunity we have been given to experience the life of Christ. And James reminds his readers that a life of service is what we are to be about. Unfortunately, many people feel as though they have been abandoned. Many feel as though they are left to fend for themselves, to accomplish this mission alone. But Jesus has not forgotten us, the struggling runners of this spiritual race. No, he has taken hold of us and is cheering us on toward the goal. And he’s waiting for us, waiting to give us the prize that he earned.
How often do we make excuses for not fully committing ourselves to this spiritual race in which we are all competing? In Luke 9, we see a couple men struggling to fully commit. One says, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” Jesus says, “Follow me.” And the man responds, “Well, first let me go bury my father.” Another man says, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go say goodbye to my family.” Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” What excuses do we make?
This story from Matthew 19 is a story of how life often transitions for people. This is a story of the process that many go through as they move from an attitude of living for the moment toward a deeper understanding of the commitment to which God calls his people. This is a story of a young man who has everything going for him. He’s young. He’s rich. He’s religious. He’s got everything going for him. But there’s something standing in his way of full commitment. I wonder, if we were to place ourselves in the story of Matthew 19, and we were to ask Jesus, “What do I still lack?” what would he say? What would Jesus ask you to let go? Do we expect too little from our God? Jesus said that “with God all things are possible.” Too often people go through life believing there’s no way that God would forgive them. They walk away from faith because they feel there is no way they can overcome the struggles they face. But the truth is, God is faithful. And he is able to raise us up. He is able to strengthen us on our journey. He promises that he will never leave us. What a blessing that is. We can’t sit idly by; but rather we are to be people of action, serving others, and serving our God. He expects the best from his people. But thanks be to God that through Jesus Christ, we are not attempting the impossible in our own strength. With God, the impossible becomes possible. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20-21). It’s his power, at work within us, that brings us to the point of expecting the impossible.