Asking the Impossible

"God will never ask you to do something you can't do." It's a cliche that has been passed around for years. I've heard it, you probably have too. When I have, it has always been meant as a an encouragement. A way, sort of, of saying, "Hey, you can do this 'Christian thing'."

But it's not really true, is it? Can we, with our own strength and wisdom, really accomplish all God has called us to? all Jesus said? I haven't. I can't. Can you?

A lawyer, well versed in all the "right things" and "right ways" and all the expectations of God and man, thought he could. Listening to the new teacher on the block, he wondered how the man's teachings would differ from his own understanding of the great expectations. He knew quite well that he was well on his way to heaven, but was always open to having another rabbi confirm it, too. It made him feel warm and fuzzy…and chest-swollen. His hand went up, as it always did in these conversations, and he asked this young teacher, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

If you were standing next to him, you'd likely think, "Hmm. Good question."

All eyes back to the Teacher, he answered, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" Don't you love it when the teacher answers a question with a question? I do. Makes you think. Lawyers like to think (at least the good ones), and this one in particular was ready with an answer. I've found while teaching there are those who will not ask questions unless they're sure they have the answer already…it's a pride thing. I think this guy just might have been one of those guys (or at least it was one of those moments).

Quick on his feet, the lawyer answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." I always find it interesting that he added "your mind", as that is not in the Law. I don't know if it reflects rabbinic tradition or ideas at the time of the difference between "heart" and "mind" or what. Jesus doesn't correct him. Instead, Jesus issues a challenge.

"You have answered correctly;…" and the chest swelled, "…do this and live."

"Do this and live."

"Do this and live."

Let it sink in a second.

"Do this and live."

Love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.

"Do this and live."

Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

"Do this and live."

I can't read hearts. But I think you and I may be in trouble.

"Do this and live."

Have you ever really loved a neighbor–any neighbor–as much as yourself? Are you sure you even have the capacity?

Have you ever really harbored a love for God so deep and unwavering that the very core of your being was itself God-love?

"Do this and live."

Yep, I think we–you and me–are in trouble.

He's asked the impossible. I mean, we try. We want with an unquenchable wantness (yeah, I made it up, so what?) to love that deeply, that fully. But. But…but we–you and I–are just so doggone selfish…so self-centered…so human.

"Do this and live."

It wasn't an affirmation of his intellect. It wasn't an "attaboy" for a right answer, or an exemplary "righteousness." It was a baseball bat to a crystal forehead. And we–the lawyer, and you, and me–needed it.

Later in His ministry, the Teacher would be asked this question again. Next time it would an aristocrat of sorts, also quite well versed in the nuances of working out one's eternal destiny. This man, in fact, seems to have put his life where his words were, so much so, that the Teacher doesn't object when he claims to have lived up to the great expectations all his life.

To this man, the Teacher said, "One thing you still lack…" which might have been nice to hear. Wouldn't you like to think you were only one task short of heaven? Wouldn't you be glad that was all you lacked?

"One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me."

Hearing this broke his heart. He liked his wealth and the life it bought him. And he didn't want to leave home. And the poor might just squander what we'd worked so hard for. And…and…and…

And…we're in trouble again, ain't we?

The Teacher, the history says, looked at him with sorrow. It is hard to watch those you love simply turn and walk away. Yet another had missed the point. That's easy to do when we are looking at things through self-centered blinders. The Teacher didn't intend him to leave. He'd asked him to come.

As far as the aristocrat and the crowd were concerned, the Teacher was being a bit unreasonable. No one can just up and leave. No one can keep all those rules. No one. They thought.

And they were right. The Teacher said this, "What is impossible with men, is possible with God."

"Do this and live."

He meant for us to find it impossible. We must. As long as we are striving to do it all, of our own strength, of our own will, to suit our own pride it is all impossible. We can't love fully and hold onto all the egocentric prizes we treasure. And why should we hold onto them? They've been heavy and demanded so much…and for what? A sad walk away from the Teacher…from Life?

Let them go. Let them all…just…go.

Then hear these further words of the Teacher…

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

"Do this and live."

Breathe deeply.

"…and come, follow me," says Jesus.

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5 Responses to Asking the Impossible

  1. James,

    Your thoughts on this matter are intersting, and at first I thought I disagreed with you, but now I think we just might be looking at it differently.

    It seems (or seemed) to me that for God to ask us to do something that we are absolutely incapable of doing is not fair or just. It would be like you asking Emma to drive a car. What’s the point of having a purpose in life if we are incapable of fulfilling it?

    Also, don’t you think it cheapens grace if we fail at something we can’t do? Would you be mad at Emma if she were unable to drive a car at the age of 2? Of course not. If we CANNOT fulfill the commandment, how can we be under God’s wrath if He didn’t make us good enough? And how can grace be a big deal?

    It seems to me that we CAN obey, but we CHOOSE not to. We are sinners because we sin; we don’t sin because we’re sinners. And the amazing thing about God’s grace is that, He has forgiven us of things we should have done but didn’t.

    I of course agree that God guides us as strengthens us and enables us to do things we were never able to do. I’m not sure I’m disagreeing – just looking at it differently.

  2. James says:

    If you can achieve righteousness on your own, if you can “be holy as [He] is holy” on your own, if you can do all things through your own strength, if you can “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”…what’s your need of Jesus?

    Your very ability to believe, your very ability to obey comes not from a strength that is of your own, but is itself from God.

    As to “unfair” or “unjust”…read Romans 9:14-16:
    14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (ESV)

    Fairness, quite frankly, is the wrong question. Whether or not we’ve come to grips with the totality of our inadequacy and the necessity of our dependency on Jesus Christ is.

    And He has called us to obey, and He knows we can do it…but only by the strength and power of the resurrected Christ.

    Which was, after all, the whole point.

  3. James,

    Like I said, I don’t think I disagree with you. In fact, I know with every fiber in my being that we can do NOTHING without Christ, and everything with Him. I think we might be talking about two different things.

    Maybe it’s a more complicated issue that it appears. Even with Christ’s help in our lives and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are still not “holy as He is holy.” We still sin. We will only be perfect in Heaven. Of course, the word perfect should be translated as “complete.”

    Fairness may not have been the right word. Let me put it differently: If we are absolutely unable to obey God’s law, then we could not possibly be guilty of sin. You would never get mad at Emma if you told her to drive a car and realized she was unable to do so. You don’t expect a child to believe in Jesus because they are not able to mentally. We CAN obey God’s law; we CHOOSE not to, however. Let me ammend that: We CAN obey God’s law with God’s help! Are we agreed now? But when it is said, “God does not ask the impossible from us” I believe this is a true statement. We were given the ability to be morally upright. When we fail, God picks us up with His grace. When we ask Him, He helps us with His Spirit.

  4. James says:

    Even with Christ’s help in our lives and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are still not “holy as He is holy.” We still sin. We will only be perfect in Heaven. Of course, the word perfect should be translated as “complete.”

    Consider Hebrews 10:12-23 (NIV):
    12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.
    13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool,
    14 because by one sacrifice
    he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
    15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
    16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”
    17 Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”
    18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
    19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus,
    20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body,
    21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
    22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
    23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”

    You would never get mad at Emma if you told her to drive a car and realized she was unable to do so. You don’t expect a child to believe in Jesus because they are not able to mentally.
    Your parents or teachers never challenged you beyond your abilities to help you learn your boundaries? Never? God can’t do that, too? Why?

  5. Bill says:

    Whew!~~~~

    I am glad that I am not so educated! It is somewhat easier for me to deal with this issue. Simple minds latch on to simple explanations. 🙂

    The Bible has of examples of people that tried to solve problems on their own without God, but with God they were able to do great things. ( I don’t think anyone is saying anything differnet than this, so )

    Just because we might be incapable of doing something in its ‘fullness’, or its ‘perfection’ doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t be trying to do that thing to the best of our ability. I don’t know about Emma and the car as a two year old. I do know that I asked things of my son when I knew very well that he couldn’t do them. Now maybe it is impossible for Emma to learn how to drive, but wouldn’t we need to wait for fullness of time to determine that? Just because she can’t right now doesn’t mean that it is impossible! It may even be possible to believe that Emma may never be a perfect driver. She many continue to drive for many years trying to get better at it all the time. Still, I as a parent have encouraged my son to learn to drive. The journey of knowledge is good for him. 🙂
    > Is God asking us to do things that are impossible? Yes, He does. I may never ‘Love my neighbor as myself’ as Jesus instructed.
    1 Pet 2:21-23
    21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,22 who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth;23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but
    (NAS)

    This one is even harder! “Follow in His steps, who committed no sin” Whew, again!
    But I find comfort in knowing that God knew we could NEVER “follow in His steps”, “commit no sin”. Instead..
    1 Pet 2:24-25
    24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (NAS)

    I have no trouble believing that God asked us to do things that we will never be able to do to the fullness of perfection for I have faith that God forgives our sins (inability to do some tasks) through the sacrife of Jesus on the cross and that through Baptism and my continued, flawed attempts to ‘follow in His steps’ I will some day be in heaven, in the fullness of God’s glory.

    On the other hand maybe, in my simple understanding, we are all saying the same thing…:-)

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