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Looking for a Pat on the Back?
Thomas R. Fletcher
Creatures of habit, once our schedule is set, we tend to merely go through the motions. We don't give much thought to our actions. All of life can become routine, which can be detrimental to one's spiritual health. We may reach the point that we read our Bibles without any real expectation of confrontation, without the expectation of a changed life.
The amazing transformation that takes place at conversion is fascinating. We who were dead in our sins and trespasses have become alive in Christ, new creations in Christ Jesus. The problem is, time wears away the fascination. We no longer look for a changed life--as though conversion change were the only change. Ideally, the entire Christian life should be one of continual growth and change. God's desire is to daily conform us to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. The greatest tool used in the process is our study and application of his word, the Bible, to our lives.
Study and application brings growth. We have schedules to keep and if we are not careful, the Bible study time simply becomes just another part of the schedule. We may loyally read our Bibles, but the simple routine of reading can bring about complacency in study and application of what we read. Mere reading is not enough. We must read with an eye to see the changes that we need to make in our lives. While it is important to buttress the truths we know, it is also important to be challenged and stretched in our beliefs through scriptural insight. It is our loss each time we open our Bibles with closed minds. Closed-mindedness is an age-old problem. In fact we a description of one such situation in Scripture.
Three of the Gospel accounts record Jesus' encounter with a young man, commonly referred to as "the rich young ruler." The event is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I will use Luke's account as an example, found in Luke 18:18-27. He was a young man that was religious, but had a closed mind. This young man went to Jesus and asked, "Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (NIV). I find the key to understanding the situation not so much in the question of eternal life, but in the young man referring to Jesus and "good teacher."
I don't think he actually expected Jesus to give him a formula or requirement for eternal life. He was looking for affirmation, not confrontation. He felt he was well on his way to heaven. He merely wanted Jesus to confirm it before all the hearers. At that time, Rabbis (Jewish religious leaders) were never referred to as "good," at least not directly. Jesus immediately questioned the young man on that point, saying, "Why do you call me good?" Some find in this a statement on Christ's divinity. However, I don't think that is the main point. Jesus is calling attention to the young man's flattery. He knew flattery when he heard it.
You know the way it works. You speak well of me--in turn, I speak well of you. I believe the young man was thinking along those lines. In calling Jesus "good teacher," he was expecting to elicit a like response from Christ, something along the lines of, "You are a fine fellow. You have wealth and position. God has obviously blessed you. You are well on your way to eternal life." (In Jewish thought of the time, wealth was thought to signify God's approval and blessing.)
Instead, Jesus responded, "You know the commandments." He then went on to list five, but all ten are implied. Without hesitation, the young man replied, "All these I have kept since I was a boy." Jesus was attempting to show him he needed a Savior, but the young man thought he could work his way to heaven. Jesus listed the commandments which deal with human relationships because it is in our relationships with others that we most readily see our failure. We may talk much about our love of God (whom we have not seen), but what about those disparaging remarks made of someone who cuts us off in traffic (whom we have seen)?
The young man missed Jesus point because he wanted a pat on the back. He wanted justification without change. He wanted glorification without cost. He was working his way to heaven and he wanted Jesus' stamp of approval.
Jesus didn't argue with the young man's response, though he could have given him a list of dates, times, and commandments broken. Jesus wasn't looking for a religious debate, he was seeking to draw the young man to himself. "You still lack one thing," Jesus said.
I can see the young man rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I've kept all the commandments, anything else will be a piece of cake." Then he heard the rest of the response, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me." When he heard Jesus' challenge, "he became very sad." Jesus wasn't laying out a formula for heavenly reward, he was once again attempting to have this young see he had indeed broken God's commandments. The young man had broken the first commandment in putting wealth before God. Obviously he didn't love his neighbor as himself or he would have shared his wealth with the less fortunate. His response indicates a problem with coveting as well. He came to Jesus spouting flattery and expecting a pat on the back. What he received was a frank confrontation about his condition and need for change.
Like that young man, we can go to the Bible only seeking the answers we want to hear. As we read the Scripture, we need to expect confrontation, in fact we should desire it. We all have areas in our lives where we need growth and change. If we ask God to speak to us through his word, he will do so. If we choose not to obey, like that young man, we go away sad--sad at not knowing the joy of living an obedient Christian life.
Our Bible study should be more than an attempt to increase knowledge or merely hear what we want to hear. Ideally Bible study should be undertaken with an eye toward change, an eye toward having our lives transformed through obedience. God's word, if properly studied will make demands upon our lives. Let me ask you: When you study the Bible, are you looking for real change, or a pat on the back?