Our Risky Identity: Empowered Dependence
Psalm 86:3-5 Be merciful to me, O Lord, For I cry to You all day long. 4 Rejoice the soul of Your servant, For to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 5 For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.
Mark 10:17-22 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" 18 So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 19 "You know the commandments:`Do not commit adultery,'`Do not murder,'`Do not steal,'`Do not bear false witness,'`Do not defraud,'`Honor your father and your mother.'" 20 And he answered and said to Him, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth." 21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me." 22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Our focus throughout our Risky Gospel series is seeing how God equips us to be bold and courageous in our faith. The last message in this series looked at the parable of the talents, where we saw that God expects us to trust Him above all else and that we use our treasure of the gospel to build His kingdom. This is not always an easy task, for several reasons. Sometimes we are hindered by dangers and persecutions from outside ourselves, at other times we become our own worst enemies by self-inflicting sinful wounds on our hearts.
We take a look today at one way that we can either be further empowered by God or we can create bigger problems for ourselves. The pivot point of our text today is our identity. Is it rooted in God or in ourselves? Our lesson flows from the curious case of a rich man who approached Jesus. What we learn ends up hitting home deep in our hearts.
At first, we see several indications of correct intentions from this man. In fact, four things strike us from verse 17 alone:
· Ran up to to Jesus – sought Him out.
· Knelt before Jesus – sign of respect.
· Called Him “Good”
· Asked what he needed to do to “inherit” (receive at no cost) eternal life
Clearly, this man’s understanding of God’s Word was advanced. And, furthermore, he recognized something in Jesus that would help him in his life with God. This was far beyond the understanding of many at this time, even among Christ’s own disciples. With all these things spot on, one might expect this story to conclude as an evidence of great faith, as a lesson on true holiness. However, we all know how this story ends. With such a promising beginning how could things end up so differently? Answer: The young man’s identity was not in God.
Here we see a perplexing thought. A person can be acquainted with God’s Word yet be distant from God. A person can know the commandments of God and desire to follow them, and perhaps even do a good job outwardly at it, and yet be far removed from life in heaven. This man knew the Bible, followed the Bible, yet was in the same camp as the Pharisees and Sadducees when it came to faith. Outward signs can be misleading, and even dangerous, when it comes to a skewed identity.
As our text moves on we see the true reason why the man thought he was doing well in life. Verse 20 reveals the problem. Upon hearing a summary of God’s Law as the correct path to heaven, the man replied, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth." The man already knew the answer to his question. He was looking for something else. He didn’t want advice or instruction from Jesus. He wanted a pat on the back. He wanted to be made a stunning and noble example by Jesus. He wanted to hear, “Keep it up. Stay faithful to those Ten Rules. Live a clean life. Enjoy yourself. You’ll get there in the end.”
Have you ever been in a situation where you could recognize that a person was just doing something as a means to something greater? Perhaps you’ve been that person. Someone says they want to help you with a task, maybe trimming the bushes, mowing the law, or helping you move. Simple tasks, not a big deal, but important ways to help one another. But, in the end they get upset if you don’t react the way they want you to; if you don’t shower them with praise, or tell others of how great they were. They didn’t really want to help just to be kind. They wanted something more.
Jesus was in a similar situation here. This man didn’t want to learn. No, he had a preconceived agenda to be praised. You can almost see in your mind the expression on Jesus’ face as the text tells us that He was moved to compassion for this wayward man, that His Savior loved him even in this moment of self-absorption. And you don’t have to imagine the man’s reaction to Jesus’ final words, because the text tells us clearly. The man went away sorrowful. The words actually contain picture language that points to a cloudy appearance, like that little raincloud hanging over someone’s head in a comic.
This man was sad, not because he was confronted with his sins and was reflecting in a moment of Godly repentance. No, his sorrow was much more superficial than that. He was sad because his ulterior motive had been exposed. His pride was not stoked as he thought it would be. He didn’t want to think about having to sacrifice his great treasures of the earth. By the way, the word “great” in the last verse of our text does not speak to value, but quantity. The man had a lot of stuff, but compared to faith in Christ it was all worthless. The same could be said of the many earthly treasures we hoard day after day.
Suddenly, this text becomes real for us. This is a lesson we know well, we’ve learned it many times from this story, yet we continue to be plagued by the same problem. We look down on this man as someone who just didn’t understand such a simple thing, namely that Jesus is greater than possessions. Helping others is better than shopping for ourselves. Yet, is there a single culture in history more attached to materialism than ours? Hardly. This man’s sorrow continues to haunt us too. It’s true that the lesson is simple. But, it’s one we need day after day.
We clamor and hound for the latest technology, often destroying relationships to get it or throwing fits when we don’t have what we want. We would rather save our money to get what we want, rather than invest in church. We plan and plan for vacation time and we save for long, expensive trips but we don’t take time to help a fellow person in need or offer an encouraging word to build up church members. Too often, we are investing in the worthless things. We look dejectedly at the Lord’s Word of where our priorities should be, because we too have “great possessions.”
It all comes back to identity. It’s easy to say that we treasure the Lord above all, but have we thought lately about what that really means? Time with the Lord means less time with the treasures of the earth. That is a fearful prospect to our flesh, but only if our identity is rooted in the wrong things. If it is about possessions, we will go away sorrowful. If it is about our own cares or dreams, we will go way sorrowful. Rather, our identity should be firmly in God. We should desire to follow and obey what He tells us. To our flesh, this is intimidating, but Christ has defeated our flesh. We are a new creation in Him. That means we trust His plan and we realize it is really the most prosperous for our lives. Paul writes, 2 Corinthians 5:16-18 Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
Identity is important because it shapes the way we think about things. The reason the man thought he had kept all the commandments was because his self-identity taught him that being a good and decent person, but not perfect, would be good enough. He never thought of God’s standard that demands total perfection because he was not aligning his thoughts to God’s will.
Strachan calls this our “calculus.” When we put all the information together, what does it compute? What is the answer to the equation? You may have all the correct numbers, but if the calculus, the formula, is off, so too will be the answer. You could also think of it in terms of baking. Following a recipe is very much like solving an equation. You complete each step, in turn, at the right time, and the product is complete. But, some steps are based on the validity of those that have preceded them. If I make a mistake early on, it will change the outcome, regardless of faithfully I follow the recipe.
This is what we must understand about ourselves. The mistake of sin, early on, first in the Garden of Eden and also at the very onset of our lives, has distorted our identity, our calculus, our recipe. We have the instructions before us. The Law of God is clear and simple. But it doesn’t speak praise and honor to us. We have been changed from perfection. That is the reality of the matter and with that basis alone there is absolutely no hope. The only result that a self-based identity will lead us to is an inflated, self-absorbed, false image of our lives. It will cause us to believe that the basis of salvation resides in ourselves, even if we still believe God helps in some way. It will lead us to focus on preserving our own interests, instead of repenting and seeking God’s help to change.
Strachan calls this Narcissistic Optimistic Deism. It is a form of positive pride where we become convinced that it’s everyone else that needs to do things differently, not us. It causes us to demand things from God, rather than humbly submit to His Word. Is God the granter of all my wishes or the righteous ruler of all things? Does God exist to make me great or do I exist to glorify Him? In the end, basing our identity in ourselves, no matter how “optimistic” it sounds, saying things like: “you are fine the way you are.” “follow your dreams.” “Don’t let the anything, church or God’s Word, hold you back from your potential.” Saying all those things is really idolatry in the end. It is self-deification.
We look at the ancient rulers who deified themselves. Nebuchadnzzar, the Pharaohs, the Caesars, Japanese Emperors. We think of that as rudimentary, archaic thinking, that a mortal could actually think themselves to be a god, or be worshipped by others. But that’s really how all narcissistic spiritual thinking works. It deifies the self. We may not build a towering image of ourselves and command others to pray to it. But, if we are constantly absorbed in ourselves, if that is where our identity rests, the result is no different because our complete calculus is off.
Rather than narcissistic optimistic deism, God calls us to empowered dependence. That’s the beauty of the gospel in Christ. It establishes our identity firmly on what He has done for us. And, yes, that is empowering. The grace of Christ is able to unbind you from the shackles of self-inflicted pride. It will lead you to appreciate others more. It will cause you to look to God as the center of the universe, not yourself. There is healthy humility in the gospel and it produces the beautiful completion of God’s plan for your life, in a way that only God can accomplish.
But, God doesn’t work by patting you on the back. He doesn’t expect you to do everything and then He will take credit at the end. The grace of Christ also leads us to depend on Him. That means that we aren’t good on our own. It means that our intentions, even when they are directed in the right place, are not enough to be saved. It means that trying harder is only digging a deeper hole. God’s great promise in His Son is that the most fulfilling, liberating, and joyful life is a completely free gift, but it generates dependence on Him, not independence from Him. That’s the same difference between identity in yourself or in God.
The pain of losing your self-identity is only painful because of your old-man flesh. God says, Romans 6:4-8 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.
What amazing hope! We are free from sin, but only through Christ. Don’t get going so quickly in life that you lose that identity. Try to solve the equation any other way and you will fail. Your calculus is off. The hardship and pain of obeying God’s will as a sinner on this earth is only temporary. Is risking eternal life and complete holiness really worth a few more moments of earthly ease, which in the end will mean nothing? Where your identity resides will determine your answer to that question. Today, and every day let us boldly confess. In Christ Alone. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.