God and the Impossibility of Goodness

It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us to be good enough for God.

The story of the rich young ruler resonates with me today in the seeming impossibility of living without sin. I suspect that I am not alone in the experience of certain sinful inclinations that I just can’t seem to shake. Try as I might, I fall into the same traps of temptation over and over again. I get angry at myself. I ask for forgiveness. I renew my resolve, but I inevitably trip and fall. And sometimes I despair.

God cannot be mocked. Whatever a man sows, he will reap in return. The one who sows to please his flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; but the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life….” (Gal. 6:7-8)

I know this, but it doesn’t seem to help. My sinful flesh often overcomes the spirit within me. While the spirit is often willing, the flesh is weak; and sometimes, let’s be honest, my spirit isn’t as willing as it should be.

I think, “If I could just resist more and try harder and find just the right combination of thoughts and habits and resolve, I could lick this thing.” But, days come and go. Things change: busyness, or worry, or distraction, or boredom, or some dryness in my spiritual life, or difficulty, or disappointment or any number of things (or a combination of them) sets in, and when my guard is down, temptation comes and catches me off guard in a moment of weakness.

I truly believe it is possible to overcome the sin within me. Scripture seems to require it of me. What I reap I will sow. Yet I fail. I fully identify with Paul, who said:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:15-19)

This was the Scripture of the day for me recently as I was grieving over my sin: “With God all things are possible.” Jesus spoke those words in the context of the rich young ruler who ran up to him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)

Imagine his excitement at getting an answer directly from the source of the one people were calling an amazing teacher and a prophet, maybe even the Messiah!

In Matthew’s version of the story, the young man asked what good deed must he do to have eternal life. (Matt. 19:16). Jesus turned the question on him: “‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ Jesus replied. ‘There is only One who is good.'” (Matt. 19:17)

That’s a curious response to a question about what good thing a person must do to have eternal life. If no one is good but one (God), what’s the point? But the young man is convinced there is something he can do.

Jesus continues with a Sunday school answer: keep the commandments. Then he recites them.  (Mark 10:19) Jesus couldn’t have given a more elementary answer. Every Hebrew man, woman and child knew the Ten Commandments.

Nonplussed, and clearly not understanding, the young man responded, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20), and he pressed Jesus harder: “What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:20)

What about the statement, “there is not one good but God”, did he not understand?

The Psalmist said it: “None is righteous, no, not one!” (Psalm 14:3) Paul echoed those ancient words in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 3:10) when he concluded that all have sinned and fallen short. (Rom. 3:23)

Yet, we think we can do it. Scripture seems to insist on it. Jesus even responded to this young man by telling him to “keep the commandments”. So, he can do it, right?

Actually, no! And to prove it, Jesus focused on one area in this man’s heart that wasn’t yielded to God. He said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) This was, perhaps, the one thing he clearly couldn’t do – wasn’t willing to do to.

“Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:22)

The thing that struck me about this story as I was thinking about myself and the sin thwarts my efforts to be good is that the young man walked away. I recently wrote about King David’s secret. David wasn’t perfect, far from it! But he turned to God in every circumstance of his life, even when he sinned and fell short.

Jesus gave the wealthy you man an “impossible” task. Theoretically, it wasn’t impossible, but it proved to be too much. He walked away sad because he wasn’t willing to go that far to obtain eternal life apparently.

To emphasize the point, Jesus added, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23). The disciples were “amazed” by the statement, but apparently they didn’t “get it” either because Jesus repeated himself; only this time he said: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! ” (Mark 10:24)

Note, though, the second time Jesus repeated the statement about how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God: he left out the qualifier about those who have wealth. He changed it to a blanket statement that applies to everyone. I think this is an important point.

I have addressed the issue of riches before in Wealth, God and the Rich Young Ruler. The point of the story really isn’t so much how difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God; the point is how difficult it is for anyone to enter the kingdom of God!

To drive his point home further, Jesus added, “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.” (Mark 10:25) It is literally impossible, of course, for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle! And, that is exactly the point! It’s impossible for a man to enter the kingdom of God on his own. No one is good enough. No one is good but God.

And so, I am reminded in my failing that I can’t possibly do what is needed. Sin ultimately is stronger than me, stronger than my resolve and stronger than my ability to resist it – stronger even than my willingness (or lack thereof).

Does that mean that I should stop even trying? No! We do reap what we sow. God won’t be mocked. But listen to the rest of the story:

The disciples’ amazement at the encounter with the rich young man changed to panic and shock when Jesus told them it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a person with possessions to enter the kingdom of God. (What is translated “great astonishment” means literally to be dumbfounded or stricken with panic and shock.) (Matt. 19:25) They finally gasped, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus answered with these words: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:25-26)

The thing that is impossible for us is being good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is where salvation comes in: as Paul says, “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….”

But the story doesn’t end there, because he adds “… and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus….” (Rom. 3:23-24)

God is working in us to will and act according to His good purpose (Phil. 2:13). We need to do our part. We need to let God do His work in us, including the work of bringing us to repentance and yielding our hearts, minds and bodies to His will as He does that work in us. We need to try. We need to agree with God that sin is sin, and it should not reign over our mortal bodies. It’s a process that we will engage in the rest of our earthly lives.

If we fail, though, God is there. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Yes, we need to go and sin no more…. or at least endeavor to do that. In as much as God desires us to be conformed to His image, we should also have that desire, and we should strive to the best of our ability to be so conformed His image, allowing God to work within us.

The ultimate point of this story for me today is that we can’t walk away. At the point of impossibility, we need to turn to God. If we walk away, the story is over for us. Like David, we need to turn continually to God knowing that those things that are impossible for us are possible for God – even dealing with our own sin. 

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