At the start of 2021 I posted a piece called “Sell your cloak and buy a sword” about our capacity as Christians to “fight for God” while misunderstanding the battle.
Two days later, many Christians joined a riot that stormed the U.S. Capitol building, leading to violence, destruction, and the death.
Some of these Christians were later quoted, in video and online, claiming they were doing God’s will, and that God was not done. All of this occurred while the name of Jesus was raised in the midst of the shouts and teargas.
It can be easy to vilify and distance ourselves from such people, though I would imagine those people also vilified and distanced themselves from others they perceived as wrong. You don’t have to look further than how we distance ourselves from the Pharisees when we read Scripture, when in reality we too often reflect them more than we reflect Jesus.
What causes us to so often believe we are honoring God, while we actually dishonor Him?
I’ve often come back to the idea that we can genuinely desire to seek God and miss the mark (Isaiah 58), and how this happens when we don’t make God all, but instead operate with a “Jesus and ____” mentality. In a time of prayer, I was hit with an unexpected passage that I saw in a new way after the events of January 6th; I think it gives us an opportunity to confront what’s broken within us so that we can actually follow Jesus.
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”Matthew 19:16-22
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.
Most of us have heard this passage often, and most of us treat it as a passage on wealth; we take it as a call against greed, and an invitation to give to the poor. What if this is not what Jesus was saying?
When this passage came to mind during the prayer time, it was followed by a question:
At what point does Jesus stop asking us to give things up?
Consider the rich young ruler; the passage seems to imply that he was an overall good guy. He had kept all the commandments, was actively seeking Jesus, and desired the good goal of eternal life. A short conversation later he walked away sorrowful.
The pivotal moment is when Jesus said, “sell what you possess and give to the poor… and come, follow me.” Why was this enough to lead the man to seemingly give up on his life-long pursuit of eternal life? Was he simply too greedy to choose Jesus over wealth?
What if Jesus was not asking for his money, but his very purpose and identity?
As a generally good, God-seeking person, this man likely found ways to practically honor God. As a wealthy man, we could assume that this may have been through generosity. In other words, he derived great value and purpose from being able to give to those in need, and likely intended to throughout his life. Perhaps generosity is how he “loved God and loved others.” To be a generous, wealthy man could have become his purpose and identity.
What happens, then, when his money is gone? Instead of being a generous man, he would be a poor man with nothing to offer. Jesus wasn’t just calling him to one last hurrah of radical generosity: he was calling him to die to self, to impact, to value.
It was as though he were saying, “Give it all up… who you think you are, what makes you important, what makes you loved, what makes you respected, your plans, your dreams, even your ways of loving God and loving others… give it all up, and when there is nothing left, follow me.“
What Jesus knew is that as long as the man held onto any level of purpose and identity that was tied to his wealth, his capacity to follow would be limited and tied to that wealth. He would not trust Jesus to work through him in other ways, and may insist Jesus do it his way.
Jesus knows the same about us: as long as we hold onto any level of purpose and identity outside of Christ, our capacity to follow him will be limited. Not his will, but ours be done.
This is what I witnessed on January 6th. Hundreds of people — some of whom may have genuinely desired to seek God — tied their purpose and identity to something that led them to desecrate an institution they prior revered. And countless others — because of a similar tie of purpose and identity — grew silent or defensive about the attack, when in any other context they would have been patriotically livid.
This reality plays out across all political and belief spectrums, by the way. While the attack of the Capitol is mentioned here because of it’s relevance to my post just days prior, we are all prone to tie our purpose and identity to things outside of Christ, and as a result we fail to follow him.
Let’s be clear: the problem here isn’t differing politics and beliefs. In fact, the problem also isn’t just that we are tying our purpose and identity to something outside of Christ. There is actually a much viler problem at play.
Look back at the news screenshot above: who is identified?
Not only do we tie our own purpose and identity to things, we redefine God’s purpose and identity as well.
Exodus 20:7 does not take this lightly:
“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.“
When we define God’s purpose and identity in our way, we misuse His name, and then wield this misuse to justify our own will. This is precisely how the Pharisees convinced themselves murdering Jesus was a godly act. This is precisely how preachers claimed slavery was what God intended. This is precisely how men can stand in the Senate chambers and praise God for helping them break in.
This is also present in our personal lives, today. Each of us is prone to redefine the purpose and identity of both God and ourselves, and we are proficient at convincing ourselves otherwise. We are most fooled by the things we believe show love to God and others, that may be “good” on every level except the only one that really matters: utter submission to God.
“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”
Whether our wandering is small or large does not matter, because the invitation is the same:
Jesus is saying to us: “Give it all up… who you think you are, what makes you important, what makes you loved, what makes you respected, your plans, your dreams, even your ways of loving God and loving others… give it all up, and when there is nothing left, follow me.”
We can accept the invitation, losing all and gaining abundantly more, or walk away sorrowful, clutching things that will fade away. We can’t do both.