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. (Mark 10.21-22)
Remember Gone With the Wind? Scarlett O’Hara nurses a teenage crush on the blandly vanilla Ashley Wilkes through America’s bloodiest war, the fall of the South, and three marriages. Her heart’s so fixated on a dream conjured without any knowledge of life that life passes her by. She rejects the one man with enough experience and wisdom to love her and there she is, putting off any thought of what she’s lost until tomorrow. The ending isn’t really tragic. It’s sad. Why can’t she let go her naïve nonsense and open up to Rhett’s love? Tomorrow will be no different. She’ll still be unhappy and unfulfilled.
Although Mark condenses the story of the rich young man to five verses, it follows the same arc. The young man possesses every earthly comfort and sets his mind on the one thing that eludes him. When Jesus comes to town, he rushes to ask how he can gain eternal life. To the casual listener, it’s a noble question. But Jesus sees through it. The man’s obsessed with an ideal born of selfish desire. “Jesus looked at him and loved him,” Mark writes. (Emphasis added.) In his compassion, Christ recognizes the man needs more than a guarantee of eternal bliss. He has to learn how to live—to find joy in loving and giving, and, most of all, to bankrupt assets that define him so he can be loved as he truly is. “Get rid of everything,” Jesus says. “Follow Me.” Like Scarlett, the man can’t let go and open up to Christ’s love. His story ends on a similarly sorry note: “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Mark 10.22)
How many people are destined for sad endings? How many cling to immature desires that block their ability to open their hearts to Christ’s magnificent love? How many of us rely on Christ’s companionship and care while nursing fantasies and fears that blind us to the fullness of His love? Surely we’re aware we push Him aside when these feelings crop up. Do we put off dealing with them until tomorrow? Both Scarlett and the rich young man teach us until we address our harmful obsessions, we'll still be unhappy and unfulfilled.
It’s Too Late
“Love never fails,” Paul famously writes in 1 Corinthians 13.8. His confidence in its power bursts forth in Romans 8.38-39: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Notice he covers every imaginable impediment to God’s love, save one: us. We’re all that stands between God’s extravagant love and us.
Knowing God loves us is like knowing the sky is blue. It’s a phenomenon we accept at face value. Letting Him love us is another thing. That asks a lot of us—namely, dismissing our concocted reasons why He can’t love us. And rather than dig into that, we often fall back on unworthiness. “I don’t deserve such love,” we say. But Romans 5.8 debunks our pretense by conceding the point: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s too late for us to think we don’t qualify for God’s love. The work’s been done. He opened His arms of love to us because we’re unworthy. So we might as well come clean and admit why we force love to fail. What’s jamming our hearts’ doors so we can’t allow the entirety of His love in?
Christ’s Look of Love
That opens a can of too many worms to list. Still, if we examine them closely, I believe we’ll find they come from the same source: resentments for past hurts and disappointments. They summon doubts about God’s love that inspire all sorts of “ifs” “ands” and “buts.” If God loves me, why would He…? And why should I accept His love, when…? But how can I trust Him after I’ve been treated so…? Letting God love us entails serious risk on our part. That’s why so many of us hang on to vain ideals and imaginations instead of letting them go. Like the rich young man, we walk away, choosing our notions over clearing our hearts of impediments that force love’s failure. And there are just as many of us who, like Scarlett, say “yes” to One Who pledges His undying love for us, only to reject or diminish it with dreams of how much happier we’d be had things gone differently.
Until we’re rid of resentments and doubts about God’s love, they will define us like the young man’s riches defined him. The saddest part of his story emerges in his being remembered for what he lacked, not what he had. Jesus looked at him and loved him. We can’t doubt the young man saw the compassion in Christ’s eyes. (It was so obvious Mark made a point of noting it.) Yet he lacked the willpower to let everything else go and make room for God’s love. Christ’s look of love is trained on each of us. We see it. It’s impossible to miss. It pierces our transparent excuses and emotions. And as He looks at us with love so powerful that nothing or no one can keep us from it, Christ entreats us: “Get rid of everything that’s blocking my love. Then come, follow me.”
Removing resentment and doubt about God’s love is the only way we can experience its extravagance. Hanging on to them forces love to fail.